Battling the Big Name Hot Sauces

Uncle Brutha’s complex and layered hot sauces have won countless awards, but the Washington, D.C. man who created them still has to pound the pavement to sell them.

Uncle Brutha's hot sauces on sale at a weekend farmer's market on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
July 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

This pro­file is part of a weeklong Next Amer­ica series on the ex­per­i­ences of minor­ity small-busi­ness own­ers in the United States.

Call it a “hot sauce bi­as.” Bren­nan Proc­tor, the cre­at­or of Uncle Brutha’s gour­met hot sauces can tell you all about it. His product is too richly com­plex to be a ba­sic con­di­ment. Yet it is pre­cisely the del­ic­ate bal­ance of heat and fla­vor that can chal­lenge the egos of res­taur­ant chefs. Will put­ting this loc­al, re­l­at­ively un­known hot sauce on the table de­tract from the food that comes out of the kit­chen?

“I’ve ap­proached celebrity chefs,” Proc­tor says. “They say, ‘We don’t need any sauce like that. We make our own.’ Then I look over and I see Ta­basco or Texas Pete on the tables.”

It’s this bi­as to­ward the known, big-name brands that Proc­tor must hurdle every time he walks in­to a res­taur­ant or store and asks the man­agers to stock his product. It’s not that his hot sauce isn’t good. (It’s amaz­ing.) But it’s also not something that cus­tom­ers de­mand, and that makes it too easy for an over­worked vendor to say no.

Proc­tor’s ex­per­i­ence try­ing to turn Uncle Brutha’s in­to a prof­it­able en­ter­prise of­fers a stark view of the bar­ri­ers faced by small busi­nesses every­where. They op­er­ate on the fringes of the mar­ket. No mat­ter how good their product or ser­vice is, they have so little mar­gin for er­ror that a wrong de­cision or an un­ex­pec­ted turn of events can be ru­in­ous. Big­ger and more es­tab­lished com­pan­ies don’t have those same vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies, which means their man­agers are al­lowed to be hu­man—say, by mak­ing a bad sales call.

Proc­tor doesn’t have those lux­ur­ies. He is a one-man op­er­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton D.C. He man­ages the bot­tling, dis­tri­bu­tion, mar­ket­ing, and ac­count­ing of his com­pany. He makes his de­liv­er­ies in per­son. Every time a vendor says no, he loses money.

Ten years after Proc­tor star­ted mar­ket­ing his award-win­ning hot sauces, he’s barely hanging on. “I’m al­most on the verge of call­ing it quits, but then I say to my­self, ‘I haven’t ex­hausted all of my op­tions,’” he says. “I can sell it to any­one who gives me a chance to sell it. I just have to get past, ‘It’s just a hot sauce.’”

I met for lunch re­cently Proc­tor at the Ar­go­naut, one of the first Wash­ing­ton res­taur­ants to stock his sauces. Five years in­to the res­taur­ant’s re­la­tion­ship with Uncle Brutha’s, Ar­go­naut reg­u­lars now com­plain if they don’t get the sauce. Uncle Brutha’s green sauce is the per­fect com­ple­ment for the res­taur­ant’s pop­u­lar fish ta­cos.

The Ar­go­naut makes sure to stock Ta­basco and oth­er bet­ter known hot sauces, but those bottles are there only if cus­tom­ers spe­cific­ally ask for them. Few do. Uncle Brutha’s is the de­fault sauce for all dishes and is a fa­vor­ite at the mix-your-own Bloody Mary bar, even though Ta­basco is right there. The kit­chen staff even has their own private re­cipe for wing sauce us­ing Uncle Brutha’s. 

Proc­tor and I have sched­uled our lunch dur­ing a United States v. Ger­many World Cup soc­cer game, and the Ar­go­naut is packed. Yet in the three hours of our con­ver­sa­tion (paus­ing to watch the U.S. muff a goal in the fi­nal five minutes), only one cus­tom­er asked for a dif­fer­ent hot sauce—he wanted Cholula. “It’s something about the wooden cap,” Chand­ler Chris­ti­an, one of the res­taur­ant’s man­agers, spec­u­lates.

Proc­tor and I are eat­ing “na­ked” chick­en wings to sample his two sauces, a red and a green. Proc­tor ex­pertly pairs the wings with a full-bod­ied Chardon­nay on the sweet side. “Sweet wine is best with spice,” he says.

The red sauce, “No. 10,” bites. And I mean that in a good way. “It’s got a good bit of heat. It’s no­tice­able,” Proc­tor says un­der­statedly. “A lot of people com­plain about hot sauce that it doesn’t have as much heat. I want to make sure there is equally as much fla­vor.”

There is a lot of both in No. 10. The chili fla­vor is multi-fa­ceted. It is the spice equi­val­ent of un­furl­ing a set of red col­or samples. It lingers and stings my lips pleas­antly. It de­mands my at­ten­tion. The green sauce, “No. 9,” has a lower tem­per­at­ure than No. 10, but it widens the palette to in­clude ginger, lime, salt, and even honey. It’s spicy in a dif­fer­ent way. The res­taur­ant man­ager de­scribes it mat­ter-of-factly: “It has a little ex­tra go­ing on in it.” I can’t de­cide which one I like more. Both please.

Proc­tor cre­ated the No. 10 re­cipe from red jalapeño pep­pers and an ar­ray of ve­get­able juices that bal­ance out the heat. At first, the sauce was just a part of his per­son­al hot wing re­cipe. But then the wings be­came so pop­u­lar among his friends that he de­cided to bottle the hot sauce to give away as gifts. At the time, he worked in Los Angeles pro­du­cing mu­sic videos. The hot sauce was just a lark.

“I had cli­ents say, “If you keep bring­ing the sauce, I’ll give you all my jobs,” Proc­tor says. He quickly real­ized he was on to something. Bren­nan Proc­tor, creat­er of Uncle Brutha’s hot sauce. (Cour­tesy photo)

When he moved back to Wash­ing­ton, Proc­tor began selling his hot sauces at East­ern Mar­ket on Cap­it­ol Hill, which hosts a pop­u­lar out­door bazaar of loc­al vendors on week­ends. His Sat­urday booth be­came so pop­u­lar that East­ern Mar­ket man­agers al­most im­me­di­ately gave him a Sunday slot. Soon after that, Proc­tor opened a small store front on the same block. The first year in the brick and mor­tar space, busi­ness was look­ing good. Cus­tom­ers were steady. There were lines out the door on week­ends. He was on track to make a profit the next year, which would have been his first. 

But then two bad things happened. First, East­ern Mar­ket caught fire in April 2007, one of the biggest city fires of the dec­ade. The mar­ket and out­door bazaar shut down for two years. Walk-in busi­ness at Uncle Brutha’s slowed to a crawl. Proc­tor found him­self in ar­rears with his land­lord and even­tu­ally had to va­cate. It was only with the pro-bono help of a law firm that he was able to settle the rent­al dis­pute.

The next year, the glob­al eco­nomy tanked, which made whole­sale deals with new res­taur­ants all the more dif­fi­cult. The re­tail side of Uncle Brutha’s busi­ness was dead. The whole­sale side hung by a thread.

Proc­tor still hasn’t re­covered from a double blow of those dreaded un­ex­pec­ted events that can doom the bud­ding small busi­ness. But he has picked up enough ma­jor sales to keep him afloat. Whole Foods Mar­ket agreed to stock his sauces at all its mid-At­lantic stores. Two Mary­land mar­kets — Dawson’s in Rock­ville and The Fish Mar­ket in Clin­ton — re­cently star­ted stock­ing his goods. He has been in the gift shop at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Wash­ing­ton main­stay, for years.

Proc­tor is deal­ing with one of the hard­est bar­ri­ers that small busi­nesses face when climb­ing their way in­to solvency. It takes money to make money, and he doesn’t have any ex­tra. He has to pick and choose where he in­vests. The an­swers aren’t al­ways ob­vi­ous. For ex­ample, he de­clined to have Uncle Brutha’s sold and ad­vert­ised at the ball­park for the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als Ma­jor League Base­ball team, a place­ment that would have sig­ni­fic­antly upped his vis­ib­il­ity. But he said the team wanted $25,000 up front. Proc­tor didn’t think that was a good deal. Be­sides, he didn’t have the money.

But then he spent more than a year switch­ing to a slower pour 5-ounce bottle at the re­quest of a man­ager from Bus­boys and Po­ets, a loc­al chain that proudly ad­vert­ises its use of loc­ally-sourced in­gredi­ents. In the­ory, Bus­boys and Po­ets and Uncle Brutha’s make a per­fect match. The res­taur­ant used Uncle Brutha’s for a few months, but the bottles were dis­ap­pear­ing so fast (some people were steal­ing them) that the pur­chas­ing man­agers stopped or­der­ing Uncle Brutha’s un­til Proc­tor could change the bottle.

There is now a new, less spillable Uncle Brutha’s bottle, but Proc­tor still hasn’t closed a deal with Bus­boys and Po­ets. Proc­tor is con­vinced the big com­pan­ies in his field aren’t faced with these kinds of de­mands. (I e-mailed and called the ex­ec­ut­ives of Bus­boys and Po­ets to ask how such de­cisions were made, but re­ceived no re­sponse.) It hardly mat­ters. The lar­ger prob­lem is that per­snick­ety pur­chasers may mean head­aches for middle man­agers at the big­ger com­pan­ies, but for a small busi­ness own­er like Proc­tor, they could make or break his en­ter­prise.

Proc­tor ac­know­ledges that the stakes he faces make it hard to keep things in per­spect­ive. Should he give up on Bus­boys and Po­ets after try­ing so hard to please them? If he spent $5,000 for a bet­ter mix­er, would that make a dif­fer­ence? Should he try to make a deal with the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als? Should he ex­pand his port­fo­lio to in­clude an­oth­er sauce? Whatever dir­ec­tion he goes means that an­oth­er pos­sib­il­ity — maybe the one that will cata­pult him in­to prof­it­ab­il­ity — will be neg­lected. It’s over­whelm­ing.

His friends ask him why he keeps it up. “It’s really good stuff—that’s why,” he says.

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