Personal Story

Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Tasting Success
How College Changed My Life


Matthew Hessburg is the chief sauce officer at Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ. Hessburg, who has Down syndrome, attended the University Participant program at Western Carolina University. He lives in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. He told his story to his mother TJ Hessburg.

A young man wearing glasses and purple hat and t-shirt holds two bottles of barbeque sauce.

The author sporting his WCU attire, holding two of his company’s sauces. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University.

I would like to tell the story of how college changed my life.

I am the youngest brother of four boys in my family. Every time they got to high school and started to look at colleges, I started to dream, too. When I got to be a junior in high school, we went to to learn about programs, and then my mom and I did a college tour. I am from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and there weren’t any programs close to home. We had fun traveling and visiting colleges in South Carolina and North Carolina, but none of them seemed just right. I wanted someplace where I could choose classes, live in my own dorm room, and join clubs. It was important for my family that I have the support I need for it to be safe and not overwhelmed. Finally, we found the University Participant program at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. It was awesome.

Life during college was great and I learned a lot of life lessons. I learned how to be independent but not having to do everything independently. Everyone needs help sometimes, and instead of doing something that I wasn’t sure about, I should ask for help. There was a learning curve, though, and I had to be accountable for my mistakes and learn from them. One of the best parts of college was the support system and how the supports became good friends. The supports helped me to learn time management and scheduling. We had a weekly meeting called About Life, and talked about relationships. We had lots of fun with cooking, which is my hobby and now my profession. We did activities to stay healthy, like hiking, playing games, and working out at the rec center. I also joined the swim club, but then one day I decided to hang up my goggles because I wanted to join ballroom dance.

Another part of the program was setting goals and working towards goals. We had person-centered planning meetings every month so

I could stay on track. One of the goals was living independently after college and another main goal was to own my own restaurant someday. So, I took classes in entrepreneurship, restaurant management, hospitality, and marketing. I had to work at classes, but I also had to work at a job. My first job was at Aramark foods in the cafeteria, then I worked at a coffee shop on campus and then the UP program helped me to get my dream job at the Haywood Smokehouse. I always knew I wanted to own a restaurant but now I knew I wanted to own a smokehouse and do BBQ.

During my last semester at WCU, I got to do more and more at the smokehouse. My boss was helping me and my family to figure out how to bring North Carolina barbeque to Detroit. Since I was already making a lot of their sauces, it was his idea that maybe I start my business by creating my own sauces and selling them. When I make enough money with my sauces, then I can start a restaurant. I like to get creative in the kitchen so I liked this idea. He said that when I’m ready to start a restaurant, he will come to Detroit to help me.

I graduated in May 2018 and launched Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ in 2019. I started with two sauces and a rub. We had a big launch party and Dr. Kelley, the UP Program director, and her husband and a bunch of friends came from WCU. I had fun showing them my new business, and Detroit and my new house that I was living in.

For my business we have an online store for people to order sauces. We also go to markets and events for face-to-face sales. We couldn’t do those when COVID-19 was so bad, but now we are starting to do them again. I did get some stores to carry my sauces. Before the pandemic we were just starting to work with a restaurant to have foods using my sauces. I hope we can get back to that again soon, too. I am not sure when I will actually start my own restaurant, but I am always, always planning.

Everything I learned and everyone I met at WCU helped me make the wonderful life

I have today. I like being an advocate for going to college, so I tell my story and give presentations.I donate a portion of all my business proceeds to Ruby's Rainbow scholarships and to the UP Program at WCU. Thank you for reading my story.

Food. Fire. Friends. | This video features Matthew Hessburg, who participated in the University Participant Program at Western Carolina University, before starting a barbeque sauce company.