All it takes is a trip to the local supermarket to remind us of just how many products are competing for our attention. From a consumer perspective, it can be overwhelming to stand, say, in front of the hot sauce section and try to discern between dozens of flavors, price points, and brands.
It can also be overwhelming for the seller—how exactly does a small startup break into this crowded marketplace? Of course, it helps if your product tastes good, but that’s just the beginning.
Here, we touch base with Gary and Devin Fleenor, founders of Howling Sun Foods, a nascent pop-and-son hot sauce operation that has gained surprising and impressive traction in its first year of full-time operation. In fact, they are now grappling with the good, but still worrisome, problem of how to match supply to demand.
Here’s more from Gary and Devin:
What was the spark that inspired the birth of Howling Sun?
In the Northwest, particularly Oregon, the public has a love and fascination with the wolf. Several years ago we started following the story of an adventurous young wolf, OR-7 – he garnered a huge following. And apparently there’s been another new wolf sighting near Mount Hood.
The wolf was our brand inspiration. So when you see our products on some local shelf, it will likely be on our wolf tracking page.
[The best thing about being an entrepreneur is] not just finding a niche, but creating one.” (Tweet this.)
So why hot sauce?
Gary: I was in the networking world – I’ve been self-employed for a long time. Prior to that, I was in the automobile business doing fleet operations.
The recession hit me hard – what I used to do for a lot of money, 20-somethings can do for 10-15 dollars an hour and a bag of Cheetos. I basically got evolved out of that industry. I was the old guy sent to die off in the wilderness.
Before starting the business, I got some property with a whole bunch of heirloom tomatoes in the backyard. I was trying to figure out what to do with them. Then I was looking at the BBQ & grilling sauce section in the local grocery store, and I started thinking about hot sauce. I realized that hot sauce goes well on just about anything, any meal of the day, from scrambled eggs in the morning, to hot dogs in the afternoon, to meatloaf in the evening.
Devin: I was living in Eugene working as a bus boy and at a carwash, when this guy said he wanted to start a business, I decided to come up here.
Gary: We took a couple weeks and we played around with recipes. Once we got it, we knew it. The taste was perfect. I said to Devin, you’re starting out and I’m starting over – let’s try to do this.
There are a lot of other hot sauces out there. What makes yours unique?
There is an ever-increasing demand for healthier and flavorful food choices, preferably local. Having a cleaner product knocks a lot of other products off the shelf. There’s really a growing market awareness of wanting cleaner foods/brands.
Plus, there are no other wolfs out there. We have a local product that really represents the Oregonian spirit. We have the wolf, with sunglasses and a hat, and Mount Hood on our label. A lot of people can identify with that brand.
And the sauces we have right now, they’re a hottish condiment – that niche of a warm sauce, we really haven’t found anything else like it. We’re actually starting to wonder if there’s some kind of addictive effect to our blend of peppers – people are getting addicted to it. Friends keep begging for more. They go through 3-4 bottles in a month’s time.
What progress have you made in your first year, and where are you looking to go?
We ended the first year with 36 grocery stores. We got picked up by a couple of majors and put into a national distribution company. It’s a whole different game now. We were selling our sauce by the case from grocery store to grocery store – what’s known as self-distribution. We picked up Whole Foods last June and Fred Meyer in the fall and then the distributor – these people don’t buy by the case, they buy by the pallet.
We’re looking at expansion through the two majors and picking up more. We hope to increase our store count by 10-fold by the end of 2014 – over 300 stores. We’d love to become national.
What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?
How different the grocery business changes once you get to larger-scale distribution. We started out like everyone else, we created a brand and product. Then it was working to get our products into grocery stores, one at a time. Then we got picked up by a couple of majors and a large distributor. That tipped us into the larger picture and was quite surprising.
What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
Not just finding a niche, but creating one.
What keeps you up at night?
Have you ever heard the expression, “Nervous is a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs?” That’s how we feel. We’ve bootstrapped it this far. It’s not difficult to maintain the existence of the business, but now we need production funding to expand. Our job is to create demand, but what happens if we do our job too well?
What really catches the consumer’s imagination is branding. A great product will keep them coming back.” (Tweet this.)
What is the best entrepreneurial advice you have received?
Brand, brand, great product…oh, and branding. I’ve had that advice from several directions.
What is your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur?
Brand, brand, and oh yeah… branding. There are many great food products out there, but what really catches the consumer’s imagination is branding. A great product will keep them coming back.
There truly is a difference between ‘brand’ and ‘branding.’ ‘Brand’ is like a logo — it’s static but necessary. ‘Branding’ is telling a story, and everyone likes storytellers. Walt Disney drew a mouse on the back of a paper dinner napkin back in the ’20s. That was the ‘brand.’ Everything since was ‘branding.’
What’s on the horizon for the wolf?
We’re doing two things with our label. One, we’re going to tell the story of the wolf’s travels. If down in California, he’ll have the Golden Gate Bridge behind him, which will coincide with the tracking page.
The second thing is that as we release products, the label will evolve. For example, when we do a teriyaki sauce, that wolf is going to have Mt. Fuji behind him. Our next sauce is a really hot sauce, we’re going to call it Wolf Fire. We’re going to buff up that wolf a bit, give him more muscular shoulders. Our fans will be able to watch us expand out our habitat, and watch the wolf pack grow like a family.
What song best describes your entrepreneurial journey?
“Hungry like the Wolf” – Duran Duran
Do you think Oregon is a good place to start a business? How has it helped you, and what challenges has it posed?
Portland is the best city in America to open a food/beverage business. Oregon has the right environment for this kind of business, there’s a lot of demand for local/green products. What also helps us is the public’s fascination with Wolf adventurers.
Are you glad you started Howling Sun Foods?
We’re both absolutely having the time of our lives. We’re not making any money yet, but as the saying goes, it ain’t work when you love what you’re doing.