Hobby, Passion, Business

Russ Armbruster

A little maple syrup and some habeneros make a sauce worth selling

His business card says Grill Master, he goes by the name Krusty, and he has worked in the railroad industry since the tender age of 18. After three decades of doing the same thing, most people wouldn’t think to make any drastic changes in their lives. But Russell Armbruster did, and his life has never been the same. “If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Russell grew up in Cottage Grove, Minn., a community that has been closely tied to the railroad industry since its settlement in the 1840s. It is now home to the Canadian Pacific Railway with 15,000 employees. One of which is Russell.

Russ ArmbrusterHis career with the railroad industry goes back to a summer he returned from cutting pulp wood in northern Wisconsin. His neighbor knew Russell was looking for his next job, so he was introduced to the supervisors, sat through a 15 minute interview, and was hired on the spot. “That how they did it back then,” he said. “It was a new adventure.”

Even though the hiring process was brief, his career has been lengthy. “It just went from there. They offered many different jobs and areas, along with a variety of positions that I could get into,” Russell said. He soon found himself to be a supervisor, but little did he know he had a lot to learn about management.

Russ Armbruster hard at work 'queing

Grillmaster Russ Armbruster hard at work

Russell wasn’t afraid of personal growth, though. He dabbled in sales deals here and there, trying out entrepreneurship with how-to-sell vitamins, nutritional products, and the like. “None of it really panned out because I didn’t have the passion behind it.” What did he have a passion for? Cooking and barbequing, but he knew he needed business expertise to take move that passion forward.

That’s when he turned to DCTC. “I never had the opportunity to go to college, so I decided one day it was time to get that education,” he said. “You know when your kids grow up and you’re looking for something to do? I had a desire to start a business.”

He discovered the Supervisory Management program, something that could not only get his business off the ground, but also something he could tie into his job with the railroad. “It was a win, win situation for both me and the railroad.”

His three-year adventure began in 2008, but was one that he describes as the best thing that could ever happen to him. Sitting in the meeting with Scott Gunderson, supervisory management instructor at DCTC, Russell explains that his wife had some influence on the programs he took. “I’ll never forget when the multicultural program was mentioned, she turned, looked right at me and said, ‘That would be good for you.’ That tells you about my narrow-mindedness.”

The multicultural leadership and supervisory courses did more than open his eyes to diversity and understanding other’s perspectives. “It also opened my eyes to how I was, how I raised my children, and how I was with my family,” he said. “It opened my eyes to the perspectives I was handing down to them.”

He dove into the classes, but it wasn’t easy. Russell remembers doing homework until 2 or 3 in the morning. “When I make a commitment to do something, I do it to the best of my capabilities. But believe me, a lot of my capabilities were very weak.” Not long into his programs Russell’s wife, Cheryl, purchased something that kept his inspiration going, even to this day. A long, narrow plaque with a special quote that she placed above the front door. As Russell left his house on his way to school, he read the quote: Become the change you wish to see in the world! “Thank you Cheryl, I love you!”

People saw a change grow in Russell. His supervisor saw a change. He learned how to look at situations, and how to develop a process to find the root cause of issues. “I’ve learned that empowering people is very important,” he explained. “Let them make decisions, it makes them feel better and more involved.”

His employees saw a change. He learned to listen to them and understand where they’re coming from. “Like my mom always said, ‘Put yourself in their shoes.’ Over the years, I lost focus on that.” He built trust with his employees, they started talking to him about problems and he found satisfaction in his newfound challenges.

This led him to a higher management position and he has his eyes set on continuing to move up to a production manager. As his career grew, so did his business plans.

Russell recalls the turning point in Bob Voss’s class, Entrepreneurship and Small Business. It guided him, so he knew what to do and where to go with his business plans. He was giving his business plan presentation to the class. “I haven’t given very many presentations in my life. I volunteered to go first to get it over with! I made a lot of mistakes and at the end of it, I remember seeing Bob sitting right there and looking at me. He said, ‘Talk to me after class.’ I thought I bombed this one and all these thoughts were going through my head.”

Krusty's Railroad Barbeque SauceHe met with Bob right after class and was asked one simple question. Do you have anything you can market? “I said, ‘I make a damn good barbeque sauce.” And it took off from there.

His secret recipe started between his younger sister and him. It was passed down from their parents, with some tweaks along the way. Russell tried some and, turning it into a sibling competition said, “I can make better sauce than this.”

He dug in, grabbed every bbq and cookbook that he had, took a little here and a little there. Six to seven years later, he had a recipe he wanted to share with the world.

“I started bringing it to work, letting the guys try it, telling me how to tweak it here and there,” he said. That’s how he got the name Railroad BBQ sauce. And the name Krusty? He actually goes by Rusty, but his niece would always call him Krusty Rusty.

Over the next few years, he developed his website, caricature, product ID, and the great taste of his sauce started spreading by word of mouth. “It’s like everything just kind of fell in place, which is kind of spooky at times,” he said.

Competitions became a regular event. The first one Russell entered in was at Farmington Dew Days and to his surprise, he won 1st place. “That’s what told me, hey, maybe I can do something with this.” He went onto competition after competition, winning 5th place at the Minnesota State Fair, top 20 in a national competition, and took a stab at a grilled peach dessert, winning 1st place in Albert Lea (find the recipe online).

Collecting a trophy after a BBQ competition

Russell now has five different sauce flavors and about 100 customers. “Every once in a while, someone will contact me out of the blue,” he said. For now, he will keep dabbling in his business, stay working at the Railroad, and has mentioned continuing with his education to possibly start up a commercial kitchen. “My first day of retirement, which will be on June 1, 2016, will be the official launching of Krustyz Cookery, featuring Krustyz Railroad BBQ sauce.”

Russell has maintained a friendship with his DCTC instructors, Scott Gunderson and Harold Torrence. They get together for BBQs once in a while and Russell volunteers his time to be a mentor for other students. “It’s kind of my way to give back and say thank you,” he said.

It all started at a meeting with his wife, a DCTC instructor, and a lot of passion to turn his hobby into a successful business. “DCTC has a great program. If it weren’t for the program, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today,” he said. “I’d still be plugging away in my own narrow-mindedness.”

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