Earlier this year, we profiled the son-and-pop hot sauce operation, Howling Sun. When we last spoke with Gary and Devin Fleenor, they had just closed out a successful first year, with distribution in 36 grocery stores.
The company’s growth has continued in 2014, and as we all know, with growth comes new challenges. Here, we check back in with these hot sauce masterminds to learn what they’ve been up to in 2014 and where they hope to go next.
Describe 2014 in a nutshell: Our second year didn’t kill us, it made us stronger. It almost killed us, though. We did a lot of hopping around on one leg with our hands tied behind our back.
Major challenges in the last year: Probably the biggest hurdle was trying to find the right kind of manufacturing funding. It took us forever to find the right kind of funding. Eventually we realized we needed a lender that offers factoring—essentially, funding on our invoices. That means if we get a big order, we can deliver on it. About a month and a half ago, we finally secured that from Premier Trade Solutions. Now we can scale up to about a quarter of a million dollars in manufacturing funding. It’s a huge weight off our shoulders!
Most notable successes: We were able to grow a little bit – we’re now in the whole Northwest region of Whole Foods. We were picked up by New Seasons in June. We started laying some real serious bricks, looking at expanding to Northern California, Southern California and the Rocky Mountains. We also got picked up by second distributor (Unified Grocers) and are working on a third one (UNFI).
Goals for 2015 and beyond: We’re getting ready to rocket-launch for 2015. It will be all about expansion. One things we’re working on is getting into the local bar scene around town, but first we need to work on producing half-gallon size jugs of the sauce. We also have a number of new products in the works—ketchup, ranch, pomegranate ginger, teriyaki, and cocktail sauce. Last but not least, we want to expand west of the Mississippi.
Lessons learned in 2014: Don’t be a newbie. When we were seeking funding, we bobbled around for six months not knowing precisely what we were asking for. We knew what we needed, but there was a disconnect when we were describing it to lenders. The buzzword was factoring, and we didn’t know that.
If you’re going to grow, you’ve got to be able to think big even when you’re small. You need to have the manufacturing piece secure. If you pitch at a big chain, when you say yes and shake hands on a deal, you need to be able to deliver on it. If you don’t you’re dead. You don’t get a second chance.
Beginners think a lot about their product, but it takes a while to learn how the mechanism of the grocery supply chain works. They should talk to people who have done it for 2, 3, 4 years. Beginners work a lot on their product and their label, but they don’t necessarily know anything about the backside of food distribution system.
We also learned some lessons about product placement. It’s not enough just to get into a grocery store—you have to make sure you’re in the right aisle. One major chain put our hot sauce in the natural foods aisle, and while our sauces are all-natural, it’s not the aisle where shoppers go looking for hot sauce.
Any other news? OR – 7, the wolf who was our brand inspiration, is now a dad! We hope that’s a sign of many more wolf sightings—in the wild and on supermarket shelves.
Learn more in this recent profile in The Oregonian.