Written by Habgoblin Hot Sauce Owner Joel Hasse
"Keep Portland Weird"
It all really started when I’d become interested in gardening...
Portland has an eccentric charm that normalizes sights that are definitely odd. Free roaming chickens in tight downtown neighborhoods, casually walking in the rain without an umbrella, and shared sprawling backyard urban gardens to name a few. The latter of which happened to be in my own backyard.
A vacant raised bed on the south side of the house was getting too much sun for most vegetables, so I seized the opportunity to finally plant some peppers - jalapenos, habaneros and ghost peppers, 2 of each, for the spring/summer months. After a few months of growth, they were producing so much and so fast, I couldn’t keep up! In a desperate attempt to keep them from going to waste I started making a basic mash to preserve my crop.
With shelves of mason jars full of pepper mash to play with I began tweaking sauce recipes with influences from the vegan cooking techniques I’d observed from my future mother in-law. Inspired by the way vegan cuisine was able to adapt unique ingredients and flavors, my resulting habanero recipe turned out to be just as unorthodox.
I started bringing in my Habanero sauce to work to add to my lunches, which got the attention of my supervisor who clued me in to his own spicy tastes. I gave him a bottle to take home and within days he approached me again with an empty bottle. After a few refills he insisted I couldn’t keep giving him sauce for free and threw me a $5 bill. My first sale.
My work was sponsoring a ‘Craft Fair’ before the Christmas season and with my supervisor's encouragement, we determined it would be a great way to test the waters of a business and gauge interest in my product. I bottled two more recipes I had been playing with and gave them all quick-fix temporary names for the event. With a stock of 60 bottles, I sampled my sauces and sold out in 20 minutes - It was an incredible success! I took the profit and used it as an opportunity to rebrand and expand away from a label in my namesake, adopting the punny name I gave my habanero sauce. “Habgoblin Hot Sauce” was born.
The following year was spent fine-tuning recipes and taking baby steps learning proper business practices. I found myself with extra stock and gave some away to a long time friend who’d owned a restaurant in Eugene, OR. It wasn’t long before he took an interest in what I was doing, and we began talking partnership. Shortly after, we came to an agreement and moved the headquarters of the company away from Portland, OR. to continue its growth with him in Eugene.
Habgoblin’s Roots in the P.N.W.
Eugene is a college town (Go Ducks!) and most sauces in the area were non-marketed restaurant craft sauces, so Eugene didn’t really have much of a local sauce culture of it’s own. Famous Portland classics like Secret Aardvark and the sweeping craze around Sriracha and Cholula dominated the sauce selections so we felt like it was a safe place to put down some roots and grow.
I have gotten to travel around a lot with the nature of my day-job in animation (and a spirit for adventure) and have become emboldened by the realization that Pacific Northwest Cuisine isn’t just good, it’s really good. Gaining notoriety within foodie publications as a food destination, good. If the people here liked what we were doing, then we knew people all over would love it just as much. It was now just a matter of introducing our brand to the world.
Full Steam Ahead
That is still easier said than done. We’re a tiny business even now, and we’ve definitely had some growing pains into just this stage of development. Every step we took required what seemed to be an entire encyclopedia of ‘legalese’ to digest. It was enough to make your head spin. I started from square zero with questions like, “What’s overhead? - margin vs mark-up? -‘cost of goods sold?’ - how do you know if you can buy wholesale?” things like that. Thehotpepper.com was a fantastic resource of successful sauce veterans talking shop with home sauce makers, and I would find a lot of my questions already answered there which was a huge help.
When we finally had the know-how, stock, and planning in place to make our first appearance at our local (PDX) Hot Sauce Expo, we were pretty stoked. A lot of effort was put into meeting the requirements just to be there, and there was a lot on the line. This wasn’t just friends, colleagues and family anymore, this was the real public! It felt like a sink or swim moment, and while we were confident in our product, nothing really prepares you for the rush of thousands of people judging your sauce.
Like a broken record we gave our introductions and served sauce to the masses without a moment to spare for rest. Countless faces of curious spice fanatics came by one after the other to be guided through our sauce selection. By the end of the weekend we had sold out of our sauces save a few bottles of mild, and toasted to another successful showing! New fans, smiling faces, and great memories.
That first Expo was when we finally felt like this was real, and I still get a sense of pride looking over the pictures. That was a big moment for us - we had entered into a bigger stage and people liked what we had, We couldn’t have been happier!
Every year since has given us new opportunities with more retail, restaurant, and novelty distributors which are the lifeblood of our growth. People are just now starting to recognize the brand, 4 years after it’s inception, and business is picking up at an exciting pace. It’s been an incredible journey and it’s only just begun! As any budding entrepreneur, we’re looking forward to what’s yet to come.
Getting Started at Home
Looking back at what we’ve been through always reminds me that transitioning a hobby business into a full-fledged business is ...hard. Stumbling into it is the fun and easy part, but behind the scenes tucked in between these great moments there were years of dedicated time spent trying to figure out how to get where we are now.
If you’re just starting out you’ll quickly realize that there is so much to learn. Try to take it one step at a time and you’ll avoid getting overwhelmed. If you have something you really feel is worth the frustration and the gamble, you’ll need your love for it to get you through the ups and downs that all businesses have. It’s going to take time to ‘get off the ground’, and perseverance is the key to getting there.
Learn to delegate with some trusted contractors and take good care choosing a partner (if you’re going that direction), and you’ll avoid burn-out and become a better communicator and business leader in the process.
Take some time to reach out to your favorite sauce entrepreneurs with an invitation for an interview through email or by phone to get a raw take on what it’s like with your personal questions. Read the message boards, watch some “How it’s Made” on YouTube and take detailed notes! I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn that the craft hot sauce community isn’t quite as cut-throat as I initially expected, and there’s a shared respect and understanding that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Thanks for reading.
- Joel Hasse | Founder