Hugh Fleming never named the wildly popular sauce he created out of necessity in the early 1980s for his Chick-fil-A store in what now is the Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg.
Back then, customers called it everything from “that special sauce” to “Mr. Fleming’s sauce,” and were known to get cranky if the tangy honey–mustard concoction with a smoky hint of barbecue flavor wasn’t available.
Today, they ask for it by its official title: Chick-fil-A Sauce.
“We’re very proud and grateful for Chick-fil-A for naming the sauce after his concoction,” said Todd Fleming, Hugh’s son and owner of the Chick-fil-A in nearby Central Park.
Hugh Fleming gave the recipe to the Atlanta-based company to show his appreciation when he retired 11 years ago. It was a thank-you for all the help it had given him and his family since he opened his first franchise nearly 40 years ago in the mall.
“I could never have developed it without being under the Chick-fil-A roof,” Fleming said in 2008. “It was, as far as I was concerned, a shared credit, as far as making it successful. It was my way of paying the company back.”
Chick-fil-A had its eye on Fleming’s sauce for years, largely because local customers would ask for it at the company’s other restaurants and be disappointed because it wasn’t available.
But its first stab at commercializing Fleming’s handmade sauce in 2004 didn’t turn out like the original. Called Honey Roasted BBQ Sauce, it was tweaked and made thicker so it would stay on the chain’s char-grilled chicken sandwiches.
“We knew immediately that it wasn’t close enough for people to be happy about it,” said Todd Fleming. “It’s not a bad substitute, but it’s not the same thing.”
The original golden yellow sauce, which Chick-fil-A now faithfully reproduces, is thinner, more like a dipping sauce. Longtime area customers dunk nuggets and fries in it, and even drizzle it on salads.
Years later, the reaction still amazed Hugh Fleming, especially since the crowning touch to the recipe was a complete accident.
He created the first batch of sauce in 1983 because customers were clamoring for a dipping sauce for Chick-fil-A’s popular nuggets. Back then, the restaurant sold chicken nuggets plain. Fleming concocted a sauce by tweaking a honey mustard-salad dressing recipe that a fellow entrepreneur from Atlanta shared with him.
At least one ingredient was unintentional. An employee eating nuggets accidentally mixed in barbecue sauce with the special sauce. He raved about the taste so much that barbecue sauce became a staple ingredient.
Soon, customers were clamoring for the sauce. To keep up with demand, Fleming streamlined the recipe by using Chick-fil-A’s coleslaw dressing as one of the ingredients, and staff would use a giant commercial mixer to make it in 5-gallon batches at least three times a day.
Customers would pump it from a plastic container into serving-size cups, and some filled soda cups they’d rinsed out in the restroom. At one point, Fleming sold the sauce by the jar during the Christmas season.
Today, Chick-fil-A Sauce is the most popular of the company’s eight condiments. In 2017 alone, representatives for the chain said, its locations ordered more than 500 million packets of the sauce Fleming created in Spotsylvania.
Todd Fleming said that when he tells people that it originated here, “they’re actually kind of proud, and make that part of their Fredericksburg claim to fame.”