A mission you believe in. It is not enough to create a product that tastes good. You also need to be working toward the greater good. My mission is not to sell lots of sauce, my mission is to tell the story of Oregon agriculture, help support local small farms, and teach others how to do the same.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Marshall, owner of Marshall’s Haute Sauce in Portland, Oregon. Her small batch sauce company grew from her love of gardening and her background in home preserving. Sarah is passionate about farmers, artisan producers, and canning seasonal ingredients. Teaching canning classes, experimenting in the kitchen, and organizing a local canning club — the Portland Preservation Society — inspired her to write Preservation Pantry: Modern Canning From Root To Top And Stem To Core. Sarah is also the co-host of the culinary podcast, Masoni & Marshall: The Meaningful Marketplace.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
My earliest memories are of gardening and canning with my mother. She was born and raised near San Francisco, and moved north in the 70’s to live among the trees. I grew up in Oregon; my parents had a mom-and-pop shop called “Joy of Creation” where they sold stuff like handmade clothes and leather baby moccasins. In every home we lived in, my mom had a garden and she always canned the food we grew. It shaped who I am today. As I grew older, they moved into town and got “regular” jobs, but the focus on living off the land and valuing everything the earth gives us really stuck with me.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
I went to school to be a social worker and worked in the non-profit sector for many years. I worked with families coming out of systems, attempting to stabilize and reunite them. I started teaching the families how to cook, can, and work together in the kitchen. I would teach them how to take the fresh food from the community garden and the food bank, and preserve it to feed their family for many months. We often picked up lots of fresh tomatoes and peppers from local farms, who were donating after the market days. Through that work, I fell in love with the farmers, and the community connection that’s fostered by farmers markets. My “ah ha” moment came when I realized my true passion was for teaching food preservation and supporting local food systems. A lot of the families I worked with as a social worker needed help in shifting their focus from processed foods to fresher, healthier foods. Teaching them to can food and to make exciting sauces from fresh produce was a big part of my work. My smoked habanero barbeque sauce was a hit with a lot of the people I worked with and some people started telling me I could sell it. I left my job and started Marshall’s Haute Sauce, and began working on my book Preservation Pantry: Modern Canning From Root to Top and Stem to Core.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have been very lucky in business, because I have had great friends and mentors along the way. When I was first starting, I took my sauces to Sarah Masoni at the Food Innovation Center here in Portland. She has a wonderful way of speaking very directly to people about their products, and guiding them in a different direction if need be. She told me flat out that one of my sauces was ugly. It stung at first, because I saw my sauces as an extension of myself. After the initial sting, though, I realized she was completely right. I was mixing red and green peppers, which made the sauce a bit muddy in color. I went back to work, used only red peppers, renamed it Red Chili Lime and it is now one of our most eye-catching sauces. I learned that it is important to listen to feedback from those who are not directly connected to the products we make. Particularly from people like Sarah who really know the industry.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think a big mistake is to let someone tell you that there is only one way to do what you’re trying to do, and if you don’t conform to a particular model then your business is not going to work. When I first started out, everyone told me that it would be impossible to build a successful business using locally grown food. Over and over again, I was told to stop producing the sauce myself, that I needed to get a co-packer, and that I had to get my costs down by using preprocessed ingredients. Despite that constant refrain, I stuck with what I believed in, and made my sauces the way I wanted to. After 10 years in business, I am very proud to say that I am still making each bottle of sauce by hand using local ingredients. Let me make that very clear — I, personally, have made every single bottle of Marshall’s Sauce that is out there in the world, despite all of the people who told me that was not possible. I want each bottle to be a gift from my own hands to the person who buys it. As people are planning their business, it is important to stay true to what they believe in. I started with a set of values that involved preserving local food, and telling the story of Oregon agriculture. I stuck with that, because it was the most important for me, and it has worked out.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Remember the food scientist I mentioned earlier, who helped me not make a costly mistake? She and I started a weekly podcast called Masoni & Marshall: The Meaningful Marketplace, where we talk with the makers who head up women-owned food businesses from around the country. My hope is always that new food entrepreneurs are listening. Take some time to learn from all the makers out there who are working in the industry, they have so much to share and a lot of them are really open to helping others get started. If you can, I suggest finding a mentor among those people.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
I see many people get stuck and almost stand in their own way. When it comes down to it, we are our own worst critics, and that negative inner voice keeps many people from achieving what they set out to do. I’d encourage them to simply have confidence in themselves and their products, and that confidence comes from becoming an expert. You have to live and breathe what you do, and that takes work- lots of learning, and lots of practice.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
In the food world, I get hired often to develop new products for people. People usually find me if they are looking to add something spicy to their line. I have created recipes for spicy wine, hot honey, chili crisp, spicy vegan jerky, and ghost pepper drinking chocolate, to name a few. I love when people hire me. My counseling skills come into play and I listen to what they want, and help to tell the story of their business through the recipes I create. And when I nail it, it is exhilarating for us both.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
You have to do what is right for you. Some people set out to do business with the goal of making money; I hear terms like “blow it up and sell it”, all the time. I set out to create a values-based business that would support both my local food system and my family. The thing people need to know is that in one scenario, you make all the decisions and in the other you do not. Both structures have challenges, so do your research and if you can, try talking with business owners who have taken different paths. All of that leg work can help inform your decision.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
If you have a new idea that isn’t out there I think a patent is important, but it gets tricky with food recipes. You could change one spice and have it be legal for someone else to make it. There were people right out of the gate that would make the same sauces I was making, but change one ingredient. I decided to embrace that as flattery, because I believe I am making something special that comes from my farmers and me. As for sourcing, as you know I am very committed to farmers markets! They’re a wonderful place to start your sourcing journey.
When you work directly with small farms, you become part of their team. We check in every January when the farmers we work with are ordering seeds and beginning to plan crops. Many months later, we are all ecstatic when the first crop is ready! I’ve had farmers run to my market booth as soon as I get to market to show me my first box of habaneros. That relationship makes my connection to my community stronger and my confidence in my brand strong. Plus, it just feels good.
There are lots of people with businesses like mine who outsource manufacturing and have co-packers manufacture their products. , if it works for you my advice would be to make sure that person or company that will be making your product understands you. You are embarking on an intimate relationship together, make sure it is a good one.
We don’t use distributors, but we do sell to retailers. We find people who understand what we are doing, and sell directly to them. This means that you won’t find our sauces on the shelves at big chain grocery stores that require makers to work with a distributor, and we are ok with that.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. A mission you believe in.
It is not enough to create a product that tastes good. You also need to be working toward the greater good. My mission is not to sell lots of sauce, my mission is to tell the story of Oregon agriculture, help support local small farms, and teach others how to do the same.
2. Passion for your product.
You will need to believe in your product. You have to tell your story to every buyer, customer, and new acquaintance. It is important that you believe in what you do, love your product, and want others to know about it.
3. Dedication to sticking with your values.
Decide what your core values are and stick to them. Maybe giving back to the community is your thing, or maybe want to be an eco-friendly business, or want to source from local farms. Whatever it is, figure out what is important to you and stick with it.
4. Connection to your community.
This is a highlight for me. I created a Pacific Northwest Sauce Makers (link to Instagram?) group with all the other sauce makers in the area. I wanted us to help to lift each other up and be part of a supportive team, rather than feeling like we were in competition with one another. We banded together to raise over $10,000 for SauceAid.com giving money to The Black Sovereignty Coalition and Family Meal. 5. Inspiration for the next generation.
It is important that as leaders in the business community we work to make the world better. There are serious problems in all of our systems, and especially in food production. I choose to inspire others to create foods that are natural, handmade, and locally sourced. I hope to pass on the values of canning and preserving to as many youth as possible. I love teaching and passing on the food traditions of my family to a new generation of home cooks. s.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
My sauces don’t just tell my story, they tell the story of what is happening in Oregon right now. My flavor combinations are inspired by the seasons. I didn’t just create Serrano Ginger lemongrass- that flavor came to be because serrano peppers, ginger and lemongrass are all available from Groundwork Organic farm — one of our suppliers — at the same time. When I tell people about the sauce, I also tell them to go meet the farmers who grew the ingredients it is made from and to, connect with them, and in doing so, learn why I chose them and their beautiful produce. I like to explore new ingredients and make things that haven’t been done before. I recently created a sauce with dulse, which is a seaweed that can be grown here on the Oregon coast. I dehydrated it and made a sauce called “Charred Chive Dulse”. The dulse imbues the sauce with a wonderful, fish sauce-like umami flavor, even though the finished product is totally vegan.
Sticking to our values of sourcing locally and hyper-seasonally sometimes means that we may only have one small 100-bottle batch of a given sauce per season. That can create a bit of a frenzy amongst our loyal customers to get their hands on that limited production sauce. We’ve solved that problem by creating a subscription package so that our diehard sauce lovers can be sure they won’t miss out on our very small run sauces like our cult-favorite Caramelized Scorpion Ghost sauce.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Through teaching and community connection — like organizing our local canning club: Portland Preservation Society — I pass on the tradition of canning and my passion for sourcing locally. I hope to inspire commitment to our local food systems. I want people to feel passionate about what they cook and eat.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I hope to inspire many changes within our communities. My daily goal is to teach others mindfulness about what we eat and where it comes from. I also like to try to get people thinking about who their food comes from — not just where! I make every attempt to source form female-headed and BIPOC farms. In Portland this is not too difficult, but I’d love to see it become easier to do all across our country.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I love to connect with people over food, so if there is anyone who wants to have a meal with me, please reach out. I am always inspired by Padma Lakshmi and her commitment to family, food, and telling people’s stories.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.