The origins of mumbo sauce are in dispute. Some say the tangy-sweet condiment originated at Wings ’N Things in DC; others claim it’s from Chicago. The same is true for the recipe, adapted from one District kitchen to the next as it gained popularity in the 1980s and ’90s. One thing is clear to Petworth native Arsha Jones, who founded Capital City Mambo Sauce with her late husband, Charles, in 2011: “New York has pizza, Philly has cheesesteaks. Washington has mumbo sauce.” (Mambo is an alternate spelling.)
Jones remembers saving up a few dollars as a kid to buy wings and mumbo sauce at a carryout on Georgia Avenue. Decades later, while pregnant with her fourth son, she experimented with recipes in her Annapolis kitchen to avoid traveling to DC to get it. Soon Arsha, then a web designer, and Charles, an Army veteran, were selling mumbo sauce online to homesick DC natives. From there, they began supplying “mild” and “spicy sweet” bottles to stalls at Eastern Market and mom-and-pop shops in DC. Capital City Mambo Sauce is now a $2-million company, and its product is available at more than 1,000 retailers including Walmart and Safeway.
But while it may be the most successful mumbo-sauce company, it isn’t the only one. Five years ago, the Joneses settled a court battle—and forfeited the right to call their product “mumbo sauce”—with Chicago’s Select Brands, which trademarked the name in 1958.
“We moved forward and said we won’t worry about m-u-m-b-o,” she says, “because at the end of the day, people love what’s in the bottle.”
Charles suffered a heart attack in October and passed away at age 46. Arsha says she plans to keep the company going strong and further spread the taste of her hometown: “It’s what Charles would have wanted.”
This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Washingtonian.