I am Connie Caulfield and I own Caulfield Provision Company which offers a variety of flavorful hot sauces. Brian reached out to me a few months ago to see if I might share my story of how I got into this wonderful and crazy world of making and selling hot sauces.
Growing up in the 1970’s, in the Washington DC area, I do not remember seeing hot sauce in our family pantry or in the DC suburban restaurants or grocery stores that we frequented. This doesn’t mean it was not out there. Washington DC is known for it Mumbo Sauce! But hot sauces and spicy foods were not as commonplace as they have become. Hot sauces and spicy foods have dramatically increased in our food culture and I believe they did not become more mainstream until the 1980’s.
I can distinctly remember the first time I tried hot sauce. I was at the local mall ’s eatery with a group of friends and a boy in our group offered me some Tabasco sauce. It was really more like a challenge...to see if I would freak out. But I remember enjoying the heat (much to his dismay I think!). And thus began my love affair with hot sauce and spicy foods.
As I got older, the food scene really started embracing spicy foods. I am dating myself, but looking back, I think the 1980’s was when things like Cajun-style food and sushi started to become part of the American food trend. People like Paul Prudhomme, Justin Wilson and Emeril Lagasse started sharing cajun influenced recipes (back when public television was where you found chefs sharing recipes on tv) that often had a spicy element to them. If I recall correctly, Blackened Redfish was put on the map single handedly by Paul Prudhomme! A funny side story on that note: before we were married, my husband literally set his kitchen on fire attempting to make blackened steak for me! (And he continues to be a good sport when I share that story).
This is the same era when Sushi became more mainstream as well. I discovered the powers of wasabi (and the importance of not using too much wasabi no matter how much you love it). And by the late 80’s I believe my husband and I had started collecting hot sauces. Often procuring sauces when we traveled. I do not recall there being too many choices in the grocery store, other than Louisiana Hot Sauce, Tabasco and Franks Hot Sauce. And with no Amazon or internet, you had to buy sauces when you saw them! We were always on the hunt for something new and exciting.
My husband always wanted to make his own hot sauce and he talked about it for years. I saw this as an opportunity to have a hobby that we could enjoy together. So one day in the spring of 2016, I emailed him at work and suggested we take a stab at this. At this point, we simply envisioned making a simple hot sauce and sharing it with friends and family as a gift during the holidays. We really had fun visiting various markets and collecting a variety of peppers.
We are fortunate to have several great Asian grocery store chains here that have an unlimited variety of peppers along with beautiful fresh produce. I researched a few recipes online and we played around with different pepper sauces. We started with a basic sauce of peppers, onions, garlic, vinegar and water. We wanted to get a feel for how each pepper tasted in a sauce. Then we figured we would add other ingredients to make it unique.
At this point I had been a stay at home mom of our four kids for about 25 years. Cooking has always been my passion and creative outlet. Having a creative right-brain approach to cooking, I rarely measured ingredients or wrote anything down that I made. My husband felt this made it impossible for me to create the hot sauce recipes despite my promise to use a scale, measuring tools etc. He therefore decreed that he would be the recipe creator, despite having no knowledge of cooking. Remember he set the kitchen on fire?? Anyways, I let him go ahead and he kept copious notes and continued to create one recipe after another. He literally got up to 55 recipes (with two variations of each of those!). But none of these recipes had any flavor. He simply added different hot spices like ghost pepper powder, cayenne pepper, or Old Bay. They were pure liquid fire and merely scorched and then numbed the taste buds. I suggested that maybe he let me try my hand at a few recipes. He finally agreed after slathering one of his habanero based sauces on a perfectly cooked steak, which resulted in rendering that steak inedible.
While he had been making his sauces, I had some ideas swirling around in my brain. I was thinking of ways to make sauces hot, yet flavorful. Sauces that would compliment your food and not overpower it. He came home from work one day and I presented him with about fifteen different sauces. He tasted each sauce and laughed out loud and officially resigned from being the resident hot sauce creator. You will note that all of our sauces have a number next to the recipes. #56 Smokey Red Pepper Chipotle Sauce is the first recipe I created. We “retired” the recipes #55 and below.
As we experimented with recipes, we began talking about making this more than a hobby. I began reading a few books on hot sauces, hot peppers and hand crafted food businesses. We happened to wander into our local Mexican restaurant. They had their own line of hot sauces and the owner just happened to be tending bar that night.
We started to ask him all sorts of questions, including where and how he made his sauces. After all, he had a commercial kitchen that most people do not have access to. He mentioned that he made some sauces in his kitchen but that he also used a co-packer. I had just learned what a co-packer was from one of the books I was reading. He mentioned where they were located and the next day we looked them up on the internet. My husband was on the phone with them a few days later and we had an appointment set up to meet them shortly after!
Once we decided to use a co packer, it just made sense for this to evolve from a hobby to a business. Our youngest child was entering high school and I had the time to dedicate to the day to day operations. Our two sons have assisted in various ways since we started. They both have full time jobs now and help on the weekends when needed.
Our co-packer, Mama Vida, has been amazing. They have treated us like family and held our hand along the way since day one. We would not have known how to proceed through all the legal process of FDA and nutrition panels etc etc... The decision to use a co-packer was the right one for us. Not everyone wants to be dependent on a co-packer or is able to afford using a co-packer. Everyone’s situation is unique. I have tremendous respect for those individuals manufacturing their own product, whether in their own kitchen or renting a commercial kitchen. I have met people that are renting commercial kitchens and producing their product after working 40 plus hours at a full-time job.
There are many lessons learned along the way! Looking back, we have had our share of what we would tell our kids are “teachable moments” or decisions that I would have done differently. Every person who has ever ventured to start a business does. The three that stick out in my mind are:
And it is not a sign of failure to retire a flavor!
Lots of great memories from this grand adventure. I think some of the best memories have been all the amazing people that my husband, our kids and I have met along the way. For instance, our oldest son and I did our first show about 5 months after we launched our website. This show was in another state and we had a grand road trip, which included staying in a hotel that had a suspicious burned area on the carpet. We had no idea what we were doing (like bringing a truck full of about 800 bottles of hot sauce LOL). But we learned that a majority of fellow hot sauce folks are some of the most colorful, friendliest, kindest people you can meet. We met a few other vendors and they were so great at sharing their experiences and knowledge about shows, farmers markets and selling in general. Our first customer came up to our booth wearing a bandolier filled with pretzel sticks for sampling! I can still picture this guy in my head today!
I love creating these sauces because I believe they provide people with a fast, easy way to create healthy, flavorful meals using them. They are more than just hot sauce. They can be used as a marinade, a BBQ sauce or as part of your own unique recipe. Or they can just be used right out of the bottle as a condiment. They are intended to complement your food, not overpower it. We are all leading very busy lives with chaotic schedules. I like to think these sauces help people create flavorful, healthy meals without much effort. And that makes me happy!
Try to connect and network with as many people as you can. Ask lots of questions! There is never a dumb question. You will find that most people are delighted to take the time to share their experiences and knowledge.
And it doesn’t have to be just hot sauce people. I have found a great network of people creating everything from salad dressings, jams, coffee, baked goods and olive oils to name a few. We all have information and experiences to share in starting and operating a business.
There are newsletters (like Craft Hot Sauce as well as Chili Pepper Madness, to name a few) and podcasts (Craft Hot Sauce has an awesome podcast!) that cover a variety of topics. There may also be non-profit groups or associations in your area that support local small businesses. I was fortunate enough to have someone connect me with a non for profit group in named MoCo Food Council (Montgomery County Food Council) in our area. They have networking opportunities, vendor events, and promotional events that I would never have had access to had I not joined this group.
I would also suggest considering signing up for events outside the hot sauce world. It can be beneficial to attend events where you will be the only hot sauce or specialty food vendor. I have had great success with sales, networking and finding repeat customers at the local holiday gift shows or food festivals. Early on we had a person who sells spice rubs that he will sign up for shows that might have nothing to do with food. Most of the holiday gift shows that I do are held at local high schools where my products stand out amongst the sea of jewelry, handbags, handcrafted home decor and women’s accessories. I am not knocking attending the hot sauce shows, but do not restrict yourself to just hot sauce events. Festivals focused on supporting local businesses, food, beer, wine festivals as well as holiday gift shows are a great way to gain new customers.
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Cottage Lane Kitchen was founded by me in 2010, and it isn't only my business name, but also refers to a secret lane in Chapel Hill, NC where our family homestead was built in the 1950s. Four generations of my family have cooked and preserved spicy peppers out of love and tradition in that kitchen.
The last homemade batch of my family's spicy pepper relish was made by my Grandfather in the early 1990s. He grew chilies around the outside of the house and harvested and pickled them during my summer visits. I remember him watering the empty tin cans he buried beside each pepper plant.
Normally the Craft Hot Sauce Podcast interviews hot sauce makers all over the world. This episode is more of a riff from Brian the host about some of the things his hot sauce company Craic Sauce got up this summer.