How a father and son are covering the West in buttermilk pancake syrup
Bob Smith and his son, Jared, handcrafted Uncle Bob’s Butter Country syrup that can be found at a supermarket near you
It all started innocently enough. In 1983, Bob and Kristine Smith were at a pancake breakfast at their LDS meetinghouse in California when Kristine nudged Bob and said, “You gotta try this syrup.”
Next thing Kristine knew, he’d cleaned off her plate.
He was on a syrup high. Whatever this was, he wanted more. Kristine learned that it was homemade; a woman in the ward had made it in her kitchen. She called and got the recipe, which turned out to be basic generic ingredients for buttermilk syrup.
After that, the Smith house, with just one notable exception, was never without it. They made their own. Or, rather, Bob made it. A lawyer by day and inveterate tinkerer by night, he concocted his own signature brew, as it were, a new version of a relatively little known food treat that dates back to pioneer days — and you couldn’t buy in the store.
That one notable exception was a few years later when the Smith family, which grew to include eight children, sat down to pancakes one weekend morning only to discover they were out of Dad’s homemade syrup. Instead, traditional store-bought maple syrup was on the table.
Ryan, the oldest kid, took one bite, looked up at his dad and said, “You expect us to eat this?”
That’s when Bob understood he wasn’t the only one hooked.
More proof came when they started giving bottles to friends and family at Christmastime.
By February, the recipients invariably wanted more, including Bob’s many nieces and nephews, who kept asking for “Uncle Bob’s syrup.”
Uncle Bob was convinced the world needed this. They should start a company.
But he was busy being a lawyer, so mostly he just said this to his kids.
Who never forgot.
Especially his fifth child, Jared, who was just starting college in 2012 when he led a family crusade to “finally do this thing.”
Kristine said OK, on one condition. Bob could only afford to give one hour a week, so everyone else in the family needed to be involved.
Ryan, Jessica, Janine, Dallin, Jared, Andrew, Taleah and Jonathan all agreed and the next thing you know, the Smiths had permits to cook the syrup at home and sell it to the public. They arrived at the farmers market at the 2012 Strawberry Days celebration in Pleasant Grove armed with 250 bottles of Uncle Bob’s Butter Country Syrup.
They sold like hot cakes.
Jared was determined to see how far they could take the fledgling enterprise. After a two-year Latter-day Saint mission to Poland, he got serious, juggling the syrup business with his college studies at BYU.
“He called me one day from school,” remembers Bob, “and said, ‘Dad, we’ve only got two problems with this business. One is making the syrup, the other one is getting rid of it.’”
Bit by bit, they solved both problems. Hundreds of hours tinkering with the cooking process yielded a product that didn’t separate (the butter didn’t rise to the top after settling), a crucial step that made it “shelf-stable” for grocery stores (there’s a patent pending on the process). Then they found a facility to produce the product in bulk and a distributor to dispense it.
The first store that agreed to give Uncle Bob’s a try was Harmons in 2016. Over time, that led to placement in all Associated Food stores, which led to Costco’s warehouses in Utah and Idaho, which led to Walmarts in the Intermountain West, which led, as of two months ago, to Smith’s.
That’s more than 350 stores. It’s now hard to find a grocery store in Utah that doesn’t have it. To keep up, every month Uncle Bob’s produces 25,000 bottles of syrup, or 100 times more than that first farmers market in Pleasant Grove. Flavors range from the original buttermilk to cinnamon bun to coconut cream to harvest spice to creamy maple to white raspberry.
Bob is quick to praise Jared, who graduated from BYU with an MBA in 2022 and turned down a lucrative job offer from a multinational company to manage Uncle Bob’s full time, for taking the family ball and running with it. “We’re so proud of him,” he says. “He’s in charge, he’s the president, I’m just a consultant.”
“His title is ‘Uncle,’” says Jared.
“Here’s the thing,” says Bob. “There hasn’t been a change in syrup in really our lifetime. You can have maple, or you can have artificial maple, and a little bit of the raspberry flavors. But essentially the syrup market has been the same thing forever and this is different.”
He compares it to the breakthrough ignited when Hidden Valley came up with its buttermilk version of ranch dressing.
“Now (buttermilk ranch dressing) is an American staple, and people don’t just put it on salads,” says Jared. “Our thinking is that this is kind of like that in the pancake syrup category. It’s buttermilk based and goes really well on not just pancakes, but fruit, cereal, yogurt, granola, ice cream, whatever.”
“I always knew, I was always a believer,” says Bob, remembering back to that day in California, 39 years ago, when he took his first bite of a syrup that now bears his name. “It has cream, it has butter, it has sugar. What’s not to like? One taste and you won’t want anything else.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Jared Smith got his MBA in 2020. He earned the MBA in 2022.