Drs. Heilbronner (left) and Wilhelmsen check the progress on a batch of sauce.

AAOS Now

Published 10/1/2010
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Peter Pollack

A bottle of Bone Doctors

Two surgeons turn their love of barbeque into a brisk business

“I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember,” says David M. Heilbronner, MD. “My dad was always the fancy cook in the family. My mother was the everyday cook, and I would help both. My main source of relaxation has always been cooking.”

When they aren’t working in their orthopaedic practices, Dr. Heilbronner and his partner, Bruce D. Wilhelmsen, MD, create and sell Bone Doctors barbeque sauce—a project that began as a simple fund-raiser for Dr. Heilbronner’s daughter’s soccer team. The team was trying to raise money to cover expenses for a planned trip to Italy, but wasn’t making much progress.

“The usual bake sales and car washes weren’t accomplishing too much,” he explains. “One day, I cooked up a batch of barbeque, took it out to the soccer park, and sold sandwiches. It was a hit, so for the rest of that season, I smoked meat every weekend and we raised several thousand dollars.”

A learning process
Dr. Wilhelmsen had been friends with Dr. Heilbronner since meeting at the University of Virginia in 1983. The pair has been swapping barbeque recipes for years. They had even discussed opening a small “weekend” restaurant as a hobby, but nothing ever came of it, in part because of their being in two different, albeit adjoining, states (North Carolina and Virginia).

“Running a restaurant is probably harder work than being a physician,” laughs Dr. Wilhelmsen.

The two surgeons continued to trade sauce ideas and joke about going into the food business.

“Whenever work would get frustrating, David would call me and say, ‘we ought to just sell barbeque sauce…it would be a lot of fun,’” says Dr. Wilhelmsen. “And after a while I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ I don’t think he thought I was serious at first.”

“We spent probably a year or year-and-a-half playing in our kitchens,” says Dr. Heilbronner. “Bruce would try some ideas and send them to me, I would try them, and we’d tweak them back and forth until we reached the point where we had something that was good.”

At that point, Dr. Heilbronner and Dr. Wilhelmsen were producing their sauces on an informal basis, purchasing bulk bottles on closeout, cooking the sauces in their kitchens, and packaging them with labels printed on an inkjet printer. But making the move to commercial distribution meant facing a steep learning curve and dealing with factors such as bottle shape, label design, bar codes, and retail shelf space. In addition, it meant handing over their production to a third-party.

“It was actually quite interesting for us,” says Dr. Wilhelmsen. “We found that some of these challenges—taking the product from concept to market—sort of fit in with our personalities. Medicine is nothing if not an exercise in delayed gratification, so we saw this as an opportunity to learn something new. We just plowed our way through and had fun every step of the way.”

“It was a real learning process,” Dr. Heilbronner agrees, “We tried to keep the undercurrent of the medical theme, from our tagline, ‘the cure for the common barbeque,’ to the shape of the bottles, which is a flask reminiscent of a patent medicine bottle, and the photos on the labels. The label on the Original sauce bears a photo of William Hammond, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army during the Civil War.”

From hospital to kitchen
One of the biggest challenges the physicians faced was finding a contract packing company that could properly reproduce their recipes in larger quantities.

“We were in serious discussions with one company,” says Dr. Heilbronner. “They actually produced a trial batch for us and it was horrible. I suspect they deviated from our specifications and substituted more generic ingredients.”

Since Bone Doctors produced its first commercial batch of sauces in November 2009, both surgeons have spent weekends visiting smaller retailers in the regions around their homes, asking them to give their products a try. According to Dr. Wilhelmsen, the task is made easier by the fact that they are doctors.

“It’s a novelty to some of the store owners…seeing an orthopaedic surgeon come calling,” he laughs. “It seems so peculiar to them that they usually listen to what we have to say.”

Dr. Wilhelmsen’s orthopaedic career unintentionally overlapped with the barbeque business when a drag car driver overturned his vehicle and was brought in to the emergency department.

“The driver had a distal humeral fracture that I cared for,” he says. “He drove back and forth to my office from his home in Maryland, instead of transferring to someone closer. It turned out that he had a store and wanted to carry our product. I think he’s the only patient I have that did that, but it expanded us into a third state.”

Are there any other overlaps between orthopaedics and barbeque?

“In barbeque contests, there’s a portion of the pork shoulder that they call the money muscle, because when it’s cut and prepared the right way, it adds a whole different look to the plate that can make the difference between winning and losing,” Dr. Heilbronner says. “So there’s at least comparative anatomy involved with barbeque cooking.

“In medicine in general and in surgical areas in particular, there’s a certain precision…a certain attention to detail that we’ve sort of followed with every step, not only with the recipe preparation, but in looking for a bottler and working with an advertising company,” he continues. “And the other part of it is just general stamina. We find that we can spend hours doing this, just as we spend hours managing patients or working in the operating room.”

Bone Doctors is available online at http://www.bonedoctorsbbq.com

Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at ppollack@aaos.org