Left Lane Pepper Company Story written by Bernie Domingo and John Stech
Left Lane Pepper Company is co-owned by Bernadette “Bernie” Domingo and John Stech and is based in New York City. It’s a car- and driving-themed brand parked at the intersection of hot sauce lovers and car enthusiasts.
Bernie has a full-time career in real estate project management and John operates an international automotive consulting firm. Both make time to have fun with Left Lane Pepper Company!
Bernie and John cook the sauces in a commercial kitchen in upstate New York. At launch, initial distribution started with e-commerce but is evolving to hot sauce specialty shops as well. Currently we offer four flavors and an assortment of cool merchandise on our website.
Why Left Lane Pepper Co started
For several years we loved visiting a nearby 4-top family-owned Mexican taquería where the daughters waited tables and the parents prepared the meals. We asked for a spicy salsa and they prepared a special arbol blend. We could see the waitress hovering behind the counter to see whether we could handle the heat. Indeed, we did! We loved it and even asked to take some home with us.
The first sauce we made was based on that arbol sauce but with added flavors, such as cumin. It took time to develop it to perfection on flavor, color, heat, and consistency. The earliest batches were pale and, in retrospect, looked quite unappetizing. After many attempts, we felt it was significantly better than the original restaurant version.
John’s job had him traveling across Latin America at the time. He collected dozens of hot sauces from across South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. All of these flavors influenced the direction of our sauces.
When our favorite taquería closed for several months during the initial covid lockdowns, we made our arbol sauce on a regular basis. We attended a socially distanced cookout, brought along several bottles of our sauce, and were surprised by the acclaim it received. This motivated us to continue developing it along with additional flavors.
Bernie’s favorite memory during the development phase was while experimenting with ingredients. She was working on a fruity hot sauce recipe containing habaneros and raspberries. There was a massive imbalance of peppers versus fruit. It was so spicy, no fruit flavor, and basically inedible! The peppers simply drowned out any flavor. Rather than tossing out the failed concoction, she continued to add other ingredients to balance out the habaneros. Some other fruits, some additional ingredients, and suddenly there was a delicious fruity hot sauce that could easily be paired with desserts. We still have some tuning to do but you can expect that one to be released this year.
Pairing the automative industry with hot sauce
John had transitioned out of an automotive corporate job and was starting an international consultancy in early 2021. This allowed flexibility in his schedule, so we decided to form a hot sauce company in parallel. Bernie works full-time as a real estate construction project manager so time is more limited. After a lot of research into the food business, we finally registered Left Lane Pepper Company LLC in New York State in April 2021.
We decided to use John’s 20+ years in the international auto industry as the foundation of the brand and the business structure. Bernie contributed a lot on the development of sauces (flavor, colors, consistency), branding elements, and the website and social media thanks to her interior design and project management skills.
The company name, Left Lane Pepper Company, sprung from John’s need to drive fast. He spends most of the time in the left lane passing somebody else. Both John and Bernie grumble slowpokes in ALL lanes.
John’s favorite memory is the development of the Left Lane Pepper Company logo! Bernie was the one that created our logo in her sleep (literally!). She woke up in the morning, grasped for a pad of paper, and sketched a few variations of what she had dreamt. Representing a road, our logo is bisected by yellow lines, solid and dashed. The words LEFT LANE are on the passing side of the solid line and the words PEPPER COMPANY are being passed.
Brand is everything! Knowing that there are many small batch hot sauce companies out there, we had to really differentiate our brand. We settled on an automotive-theme, parking the brand at the intersection of hot sauce lovers and car enthusiasts. Everything is automotive, from the names of the sauces, to the tire tread on each label, to the gear shifter heat scale.
Constructing a scalable hot sauce business
Being optimists, we designed the company for scale from the beginning. We formed an LLC, partnered with a scalable fulfillment company, purchased GTIN barcodes for future export, created branded shipping boxes, and selected a co-packer (which would later change). We worked on our recipes with a process authority, purchased business insurance, and registered our Left Lane Pepper Company logo with the US Patent & Trademark office! A lot of work, not to mention investments!
The supply chain and labor shortages of 2021 created a huge challenge in autumn 2021 as we launched production. Whereas they were usually plentiful, suddenly bottles, lids, certain peppers, and even cardboard stock, were hard to find. We had to ship thousands of 5 oz woozy bottles from California to New York just because we found some on the West Coast! And we changed from a co-packer to a commercial kitchen just weeks before production because labor shortages at the co-packer pushed our production date into early December, effectively causing us to miss the holiday selling season.
While this experience has been rewarding, exciting, and fulfilling, it has been a lot of work. We set out to build a serious company with future growth potential so we invested extra time and effort into the many parts we mentioned. It is not for the faint of heart if you want to do it right. It requires a lot of research and understanding on costs and upfront investment. Did we spend more than we expected? Absolutely! And so will everyone else that gives it a go. Be ready for it.
Our recommendation? Do your homework first! Between food safety requirements, cooking at scale, purchasing, business insurance, deciding between fulfillment support vs self-shipping, co-packer vs commercial kitchen, e-commerce platforms, there are a lot of decisions to take. And there is a potential for a lot of cost and investment. And just because you have a website doesn’t mean you’ll sell. It takes a lot of work in digital marketing and fresh content to keep people interested. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Although we didn’t do it, we now recommend speaking with someone who has gone through the process.
Outside influences as we began our hot sauce company
We haven’t really interacted with too many other hot sauce companies. We wanted to be ourselves and not be influenced by the branding or approaches of others. We read a lot of information about the food business, including the podcasts and maker stories at Craft Hot Sauce.
We did love the experience with our commercial kitchen team. They really educated us on scaling up from home kitchen to full production, from a 4-quart pot to a 100-gallon kettle! There were so many practical, real-world pointers that we learned working with an experienced team. It helped us to understand that what is simple in the home kitchen, such as grinding up dried chipotle pepper pods, can be a surprising challenge using production-sized equipment.
Left Lane Pepper Company Ambitions
When we set out to make sauces it was to make what we liked. We cook because we love to try different flavors and styles of pepper sauces. We’ve settled on sauces that are heavier on the fruits and vegetables and very light on the vinegar. Now we have four robust flavors: Range Anxiety Arbol Pepper, Learner’s Permit Easy Jalapeño, Burning Rubber Chunky Chipotle, and Hazard Lights Mango Ginger Habanero sauces. There are some additional flavors in the works.
Add to that the automotive theme and we’re able to express our full creativity. Ultimately, we’d love to see this evolve into a community of hot sauce lovers and driving enthusiasts. What has surprised us is how many UK hot sauce companies and international fans follow us on our social media. There is a real hot sauce following over across the pond. We can’t wait to export!
Fun Facts about the Left Lane Pepper Company Founders
John: born in Germany and emigrated to the USA at a young age. He’s now a US citizen that has traveled the world during a 28 year automotive career. He’s worked with Mercedes-Benz, Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler, Fiat, and Volvo. Along the way he’s even lived in Russia and Egypt.
Bernie: born in the Philippines, raised in Australia and moved to the USA during her teens. Bernie studied engineering, interior design, and now works as a project manager on construction projects for a major real estate management company.
Earliest hot sauce memories
John: My earliest hot sauce memories include my dad eating Tabasco sauce and me being too scared to try it as a kid. Fast forward to 2015 when I held a job that included a lot of travel around Latin America and, ultimately, a fridgeful of hot sauce bottles from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean!
Bernie: My mum would make a vinegar sauce that we would drench our filipino spring rolls in. It consisted of vinegar, hot peppers and maybe a little sweetener in an old jar.