“You give them something to eat.” – Mark 6: 37-44
Emblazoned on the wall at both the Adel and West Des Moines locations of Big Al’s BBQ is a passage from the Bible. Mark 6: 37-44 relates the well-known story of Jesus and his disciples feeding five thousand starving men with five loaves of bread and two fish. The verse is a favorite of “Big Al” Laudencia.
Now, with his barbecue sauce soon to be available at HyVee and other area stores —representing the culmination of a goal that’s very close to his heart—the passage takes on special meaning. “Taking an idea and making it bigger than myself, that’s just been my mantra,” he explained. “It’s made me realize my purpose in life.”
Laudencia now calls Adel home with his wife and three daughters, but his story begins in his hometown of Atlantic, Iowa, roughly an hour west of the Des Moines metro area. Raised in a Filipino family, Laudencia learned to cook at a young age from his mother, Emma.
“The relationship I had with my mom was very nurturing, but very strict,” he said. “Her attitude was, ‘I’m not always gonna be around, so you need to know how to cook for yourself.’”
When Laudencia was a child, his family received devastating news. His mother had felt a lump in her breast, and during a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, doctors confirmed that it was cancer. Doctors performed a double mastectomy, and “she was fine, but they hinted there could be complications down the road,” said Laudencia.
By 1986, Emma Laudencia was back at Mayo Clinic. Treatments for leukemia that had developed as a complication of her breast cancer were unsuccessful. Laudencia recalls a few pivotal moments with his mother in the hour before she passed away.
“I remember being in that room, holding my mom’s hand, right before she passed,” he said. “I remember telling her, ‘I love you, I’m sorry this is happening, I promise I will help find a cure.’ That was my promise.”
At the time, Laudencia was a student at Iowa State. Motivated by his vow to his mom, he aspired to become a doctor. However, “I figured out that I’m not all that scholastically smart,” said Laudencia, who flunked out of college not long after.
But he still knew how to cook. He spent the next few years in the restaurant industry, eventually finding his calling in Southern style barbecue.
“When I was in St. Louis, working in a restaurant, my grill cook wanted to bring me some barbecue,” he said. His friend presented him with a St. Louis barbecue standard: a snoot sandwich, made with pig snout. “And I loved it,” said Laudencia.
It might sound unorthodox, but that’s part of what drew him to barbecue. “The biggest allure for me was how barbecue came about out of necessity,” he explained, referring to the cuisine’s origins among slaves in the South, who were given inferior cuts of meat, like pork butt. “They figured, ‘Hey, this is what’s for dinner, we’ve got to do something with it.’” They found that by using smoke at a low temperature, “you can make that piece of meat just sing.”
That love of barbecue followed Laudencia back to Iowa, where he and his father-in-law, Hal Chase, eventually decided to go all-in and make a career of their fondness for the cuisine. Hal ‘n’ Al’s Q & Catering was born in Laudencia’s garage in 2012.
They haven’t looked back since. Within a few years, the first Big Al’s BBQ & Catering opened on the south side of Des Moines. A location in Adel opened in 2019, and a West Des Moines location followed in February of this year. This past June, Laudencia was even featured on “Live’s Hometown Chefs Summer Cooking,” an annual cooking series from the popular daytime TV talk show “Live with Kelly and Ryan.”
Through it all, Laudencia said he was still focused on the promise he’d made to his mother all those years ago. “In the back of my mind, I was still trying to figure out how I was going to find the cure for breast cancer,” he said. But now, Laudencia had knowledge and resources he didn’t have as a 20-year-old college student. “I now knew how to make money, and I knew I could sell things,” he explained. “I knew I could give time and money for the research to find a cure.”
He returned to an idea from years before. When Laudencia opened his restaurant on the south side of Des Moines, a manager at a nearby HyVee had asked whether he’d be willing to sell his barbecue sauce in the store. Financial constraints prevented moving forward on the idea at the time, so the project was shelved.
When Laudencia opened his West Des Moines location, he was approached again by HyVee with the same request. This time, there were no constraints, and Laudencia had an idea for how to make sales go even further. “If Susan G. Komen would let me use them to share my story,” Laudencia said, “maybe I could sell the barbecue sauce and give a portion of the proceeds to them to find the cure for breast cancer.”
Laudencia reached out to the well-known breast cancer nonprofit with an offer: Let me use your logo, and I’ll give a portion of proceeds from the sale of my barbecue sauce to your organization. “They said, ‘How long are you looking to do this offer?’” he remembers. His response was unequivocal. “What I’m trying to do is put you out of a job,” he told them.
“If you’re out of a job, that means we found the cure. If it takes three hours, three weeks, three decades—whatever it takes, I will keep giving until there’s a cure.”
Unsurprisingly, Susan G. Komen took Laudencia up on his proposal, and starting this September, customers can find Big Al’s BBQ Sauce on shelves at HyVee. “The barbecue sauce is delicious. It’s what we use at the restaurant,” said Laudencia.
Both the producer of the sauce and the company that makes the labels on the jars are based in Des Moines. Best of all, fifty cents from every bottle sold goes to Susan G. Komen. Ultimately, however, “we’re not selling sauce,” said Laudencia. “We’re selling the cure to breast cancer, by way of Susan G. Komen. We’re selling hope, we’re selling the dream, we’re selling the fulfillment of my promise for the cure. That’s what we’re selling.”
That promise has carried Laudencia through challenging times. “Fifteen years ago, I used to be homeless,” he said. “I couldn’t rub two nickels together. I was down and out, addicted to alcohol. My life was in shambles.”
He credits his faith and the people in his life for helping him turn things around. “I can’t take credit for it,” he said. “It’s all the help and all the blessings I’ve been given. With God, all things are possible.”
Laudencia hopes his story inspires others who may be in similar situations. “There’s hope for you,” he said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Most of all, he aims to honor his mother’s memory with his work. “I hope by doing this, that she would be proud,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to do, was make her proud of me.”