When the Wright family gathered at their cabin in Wisconsin, they often went out for barbecue at the original Famous Dave’s restaurant in Hayward.
That was Mike Wright’s introduction to the tangy ribs upon which he ultimately built a business. In the mid-1990s, when founder Dave Anderson wanted to get his sauces and seasonings into grocery stores, he hired Wright, who had experience in food distribution.
Wright rose to the challenge. “Mike was one of the most driven entrepreneurial guys I ever met,” Anderson said. At that time, the only barbecue sauces in stores were those produced by large conglomerates with big marketing budgets and sales teams. Today, thanks to Wright, Famous Dave’s products are in every major grocery store, he said.
“One man — through sheer hard work, unwavering passion and pounding the streets — put family-restaurant barbecue sauces all across America,” said Anderson. “It’s part of American barbecue history, what he accomplished.”
After Famous Dave’s went public, Wright bought the licensing rights to all its products, including pickles and cornbread muffin mix, and continued to build the business, Famous Products Inc. He also owned several restaurants, including four Famous Dave’s franchises. “He always wanted to be his own boss and have control,” said his brother Adam Wright.
Mike Wright was born in Minneapolis and graduated from St. Thomas Academy and Creighton University.
Diagnosed with kidney cancer 14 years ago, he lost his battle with the disease on Aug. 11, dying at age 55.
“He didn’t let cancer define him,” said Adam. “He fought very hard for a long, long time,” while continuing to enjoy life through live music, the outdoors and his three children. “He was a great father, and his cancer fight was driven by his desire to spend time with them.”
In 2013, Mike co-founded a nonprofit, Team8 Climb 4 Kidney Cancer, to support research. Co-founder Dr. Chris Weight, a urologic oncologist at the University of Minnesota, admired Wright’s commitment. “He was adamant that donations wouldn’t fund the nonprofit but would fund research and advocacy, to really help the patients.”
Research supported by Team8 includes a global initiative for early diagnosis of cancers using computers. Its annual fundraiser, Break the Bank, will be held Sept. 7 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Mike was a risk-taker. Just a few years ago, he traveled with a team to climb Devils Tower in Wyoming to raise funds for cancer research. “He had a passion to try things, to go out on a limb,” Weight said.
He was “just a very genuine guy. He was always himself — no pretense,” said friend Nathan Honson. “He was a very successful entrepreneur, but not interested in material things much. He was proud of his car, a 2000 Acura with an ungodly number of miles on it.”
And he had a wry sense of humor. Weight remembers visiting Wright in the hospital, with fluid in his lungs and a tube in his chest — yet still trying to make the nurses laugh.
At his funeral, attendees were given jars of barbecue sauce with Mike’s photo and “DTSG” on the label. That acronym, which appears below the bar code on Famous Dave’s labels, was an inside joke — a reference to an off-color compliment that Anderson’s ribs once received at an outdoor rib fest. Putting it on the label was Mike’s idea, Anderson said. “He had barbecue sauce in his veins.”
In addition to his brother, Mike is survived by his children, Samantha, Michael S. and Camden; parents Susan and Michael W. Wright; stepmother Judy; sisters Jennifer Wright, Molly Reppenhagen and Julie Card; and step-siblings Kevin O’Shea and Kelly Harrington.