I (Ali) sat down with James to hear from him how Sauce Shop started out, grew, where it is now, and where it's going...
“Best start from the top... How did Sauce Shop first start out?”
My wife Pam and I had the idea to start Sauce Shop in January 2014. We’d already gotten hooked into the big trend of interesting sauces that were coming into the market with punchy and often spicy flavours, but the mainstream sauces from the supermarkets always felt pretty underwhelming.
It seemed a waste to put them on food that we’d spent time and effort preparing. Looking at the ingredient lists for those sauces was more like reading a science experiment than a list of food ingredients.
I knew I could do better so I started to play around making my own sauces using cookery books and the internet for inspiration.
A random encounter with a local chilli jam producer at Christmas got me thinking about us making and selling our own sauces as a business.
I worked on a range of flavours and Pam worked on the name and the branding. The logo started out with her using an old DYMO labeller on each bottle, she mocked up a version of that on the computer and it’s stuck ever since apart from the odd tweak!
Our jobs at the time were in food manufacturing so we knew the basics of what we needed to do to bring a food product to market and sell it to the public. By June 2014 Sauce Shop was born and ready to be offered for sale.
We went to our local farmers market on a freezing cold Saturday morning with such a basic set up, you couldn't even really read our labels properly – we didn’t want to spend any money as we were just a couple of months off getting married! Our sauces sold pretty well and the feedback great right from the start.
“But this was just in your kitchen at home to start with yeah?”
In those first few months we were making sauces in 5kg batches on the hob at home in a stockpot and filling them by hand with a funnel into the bottles. We shrink banded bottles with a hairdryer which blew up as a result...
It was so basic but it was a real thrill to create something and then see a demand for it.
“How did you get from cold mornings on the farmers market to being stocked in shops?”
Our first farmers market I think we sold about 30 bottles of sauce and we only took 6 of each flavour so were pretty happy with the result. We kept going back and selling the sauces and in a short time we had interest from local food shops wanting to stock our range.
We attended the East Midlands Chilli Festival in the summer just after our wedding and our flimsy 2x2m garden gazebo almost folded in the wind, the festival was great though.
Christmas 2014 was relatively crazy for us, we had just been featured in the Nottingham Cookbook which included our bottle on the front cover along with an illustration of Sat Bains’ head, this was our biggest achievement to date!
We received a huge order from the Cheese Shop in Nottingham, something like 40 cases of 6 and we worked crazily to get all of the stock made. We were still working full time so this was done after work in the evening as we were attending events at the weekends.
“Why did you and Pam actually wind up starting a food business together in the first place?”
Pam and I met in our graduate jobs in 2007, we’d both graduated with food related degrees, Pam studied Food Science and Nutrition and I studied Food Science.
Our first jobs were at a sandwich manufacturer in Northampton who produce sandwiches for M&S and we both worked in New Product Development (NPD). Between then and 2015 when we quit our full time careers we each worked for multiple manufacturers covering products such as sandwiches, wraps, on the move salads, ready meals, soups and cooking sauces.
Pam’s career developed from NPD to Project Management and Innovation – coming up with new category ideas and new brands while I progressed to NPD Management and then into Account Management – sales and numbers etc.
“And this experience was obviously useful for your own plans…”
Yeah, this set us in good stead for starting a food business, but it also taught us a lot of what we didn’t like in the food manufacturing world. You learn a lot about food additives and how they can be used to cut corners and make things easier, quicker and cheaper to manufacture. They’re deemed safe overall, but they aren’t necessary.
Sauce manufacturers in particular seem fond of additives that you won’t find in many other products. Tesco ready meals for example won’t allow xanthan gum or modified starch but you’ll find them in most sauces. You have to question how safe they are if supermarket own label doesn’t allow it.
We knew with Sauce Shop we had to do away with all that rubbish that the other brands were using.
“So was that your main principle at the start, no rubbish?”
We had a pretty strong ethos from the start, we weren’t going to use thickeners like most brands do, such as cornflour, modified starch and gums like xanthan and guar. Because we didn’t use thickeners, we didn’t have added water either and so our main ingredients were vegetables. Real sauces made with real ingredients, which lead to our #realsauce hashtag.
As time has passed we’ve been able to summarise what we do as ‘craft sauce’. Craft breweries are making excellent small batch beers with interesting ingredients and challenging the status quo which has long been dominated by huge global corporations. I see a huge parallel between them and us, they have AB Inbev, and we have Kraft Heinz.
“We don’t mind staying up to date with the beer world… So anyway it was scaling up pretty quickly with those first few shop orders you said about. What was the next step for getting the products out there more once you had the brand nailed down?”
Yeah, call it research!
We invested some of our earnings into better equipment so that we could produce more sauce per batch, first a bigger pan on the hob which could cook 15kg at a time, then two of those. Finally I bought a brewers pot which could cook a 50kg batch which produced almost 200 bottles at a time.
We worked on getting out to as many events as possible to sell our sauces and this helped grow our community with the aid of social media and this in turn helped us grow our number of stockists.
The business had been taking more and more of our time and we decided that we would try and make a full time earning from it. Pam left her job around Easter and by mid-summer I joined her. We had a small pot of savings to live off but the pressure was on to make enough money from the business to cover our living expenses. By the end of 2015 we had around 40 stockists, a steady online business and a busy market and festival calendar.
“At this point you must have been struggling in your kitchen at home?”
By this point we no longer had a house, we lived in a sauce factory and it was tough. We had 3 bays of warehouse racking in the dining room, our spare bedroom was a packaging storage and every couple of weeks we’d get a pallet of bottles dropped off on the drive. To add to that the downstairs permanently smelled of onions, vinegar and garlic… so not ideal!
We found premises in a business centre near Nottingham City Centre in one of the old Victorian lace factories. Once we whitewashed the whole thing it was pretty perfect and we moved in officially in April 2016. Pam was happy – she had the house back, although it took months to air out!
Over the next few months we gained some amazing listings, including Wholefoods, Harvey Nichols, Daylesford and Fenwick along with a load of excellent farm shops, delis and specialist food shops.
“I remember the smell very well, and Pam hating it! Somewhere in all that you hired me after uni, so thanks! We set to work on the marketing side of things when I joined and I know crowdfunding through Tesco Backit was a really useful part of that. How did that come about?”
Haha yeah, keeping it in the family!
The crowdfunding was a cool way of getting our name out there more that’s right. At the end of 2016 we needed to raise extra money to launch a new product range we’d had an idea for. We wanted to launch mayonnaise and give it the Sauce Shop treatment. Real ingredients and punchy flavours, without any added rubbish.
The campaign was successful, raising £5,000 over a couple of months, and we launched 3 mayonnaises as part of the ‘Big 3’ launches coinciding with our 3rd birthday. This also got us on the radar of Tesco and we have had a couple of meetings with them.
“It’s definitely been crazy busy since around then that’s for sure, but what sort of stuff have we got going on at the moment?”
Well I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a prototype or special edition range that would allow us to launch one off flavours and see how they’re received. As a small brand we’re able to move a lot quicker than the big corporation brands and we needed to capitalise on that.
We launched our first ‘white label’ (inspired by the white label records of my younger days that were limited releases you had to grab while they were available) at the start of May. It’s a blisteringly hot Habanero Ketchup, a ketchup because it’s thick, sweet and sharp, and 60% of what goes in is Habanero. We’ll be launching more in the white label range every couple of months or so and once they’re gone, they’re gone!
“So excited to see what you come up with for the next one! This is a big week for us, what’s special about it?”
This week is actually our birthday week and coincides with national BBQ week and our 3rd big launch is an extension to our core range, which replaces our Salted Caramel. We’ll officially only make savoury sauces after this week.
To coincide with the new sauce which is BBQ themed and with it being national BBQ week and just because our sauces products go hand in hand with that kind of food in general I’m going to be taking over the blog for a few posts to give tips, tricks and recipes all about BBQ over the next few weeks and months.
(This product was Korean BBQ and has now launched)
“Yes, big announcement tomorrow! What does the future hold for Sauce Shop?”
We’re aiming to recruit more and more people to our community of real sauce lovers both here in the UK and overseas. We’re in talks with multiple overseas distributors and we’ve just gained a listing with one of the most prestigious food shops in the world.
In the UK we need to make the jump from only being sold in independent and specialist food shops to being available in at least one of the supermarkets too. 95% of people shop in the supermarkets and for us to really make a big impact we need that availability that a supermarket listing brings. I want to make Sauce Shop a household name, a brand that people know and trust to use great ingredients and produce great tasting products.
From a product point of view we’ll use white label to bring out continual innovative products for our fans to enjoy and we’ll keep tweaking our core range as we discover new flavours and trends.
“Thanks James! A final word from you...”
We talk about the fight for craft sauce and I feel we need to be more vocal about this so I’ll be taking over the blog every now and again to talk about our products and ingredients, the sauce category in the UK and the big companies that dominate it currently and anything I see value in sharing.