Welcome back and thanks for joining us for another edition of our customer spotlight blog! The blog series where we talk to one of Sen5es awesome customers and learn all about them and their business.
This week we were lucky enough to speak to James for the fantastic Hask-Hells Hot Sauce. I think this may be our longest interview yet! We get to find out all about hot sauces, the community it has built and starting a business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hask-Hells is a Bristol based hot sauce company that started in 2020 and has an amazing line-up of hot sauces ready for you to try.
Hi James, How are you this weekend?
I am awesome thank you, the sun is shining and I’ve just finished packing up this weeks orders including this week’s competition winner and a few for some reviewers including some who are planning on posting them up on Youtube which is pretty exciting. How you guys doing?
We are great thank you! Thank you so much for joining us for this edition of our customer spotlight. The first question I tend to ask our customers is why did you start you own business in the first place?
Way back in July 2020, during the UKs first Covid-19 lockdown, I decided to dig out a Hot sauces book that I had been given by my in-laws but had not had a chance to use. I could not leave the house, so it seemed like the perfect time to dust it off and have a read. I bought some equipment online, some ingredients and started to experiment with a few sauces. At the time, our twins were still young, and my wife was still working throughout so when I was not required to be on daddy day care I started to play around with different recipes.
At that point it was not even a thought that it might be a business. It was purely something fun to keep me occupied during lockdown. I was just enjoying the process of following a recipe and creating something from scratch. I have always enjoyed cooking and to a lesser extent baking, so I found it fun, exciting, and somewhat relaxing during quite a tense time.
As I could not see anyone or give out any bottles in person, I began to freeze a few batches as I knew some of my colleagues at work had been following my exploits on social media and were keen to try it. To say some of my early attempts were a success was a bit of an understatement and with their encouragement I was soon starting to experiment with the recipes for them to taste test for me.
As lockdowns started to ease, I was able to give a few bottles to others to try and the feedback was on the whole positive. I increased my batches a little more and started to sell purely to friends and family and through mostly word of mouth. Through social media I was able to create a bit of a buzz and it became apparent that people were enjoying what I was producing and would be happy to pay for it.
How long have you been making your hot sauces? And why did you decide to start selling them?
It is still crazy to think I have been making these less than a year so far and started off with 7 or 8 different sauces of varying degrees of difficulty and heat, it became apparent to me, if I was going to do this seriously, I was going to have to reduce the range due to work and family life as it is important to get the balance and enjoy the time that I have with my family.
I have only been really selling since August through social media and word of mouth and if I had not had the feedback I have had, I probably would just have continued to make them for myself. Turns out I have a bit of a talent for it and as people have been contacting me directly asking it seemed like a natural progression.
Recently you sent us a bottle of your sauce to try! I think it might be the spiciest thing I’ve ever tasted!! How do you come up with your recipes?
All the sauces I make have been based on recipes I have taken from books that I have been given or bought myself to broaden my horizons, and as I have become more confident I have made alterations to the recipes and the sauces have evolved. I have tried different combinations of chillies to get the right balance of heat to compliment the flavour of the other ingredients and consistency of a sauce is something that needs to be seriously considered too.
For me it is important for the sauce to have the heat that you would expect from a hot sauce, but I want people coming back for more, so they must be tasty, I have seen and heard of sauces that focus on the heat and it almost becomes a challenge or a novelty which is something I am keen to avoid. I want it to be an experience and a journey with me for all the right reasons.
What has been your biggest challenge of setting up your own business so far?
Things I would never have considered before were now things I was having to investigate as the prospect of running a small batch hot sauce business became more of a reality. As it is a food business it has been a challenge learning and implementing the health and safety rules and regulations and I have made sure I completed many online health and safety courses as well as doing a lot of research on how to safely produce a sauce including understanding sterilisation and how the pH levels were important.
Things like allergens are so important to know and to get right too. What I have really appreciated is the fact that although there are a lot of hot sauce makers all over the world, every single one has welcomed me into their community and lots have given me advice on how best to move forward.
Spreadsheets too are my nemesis, I am very much a practical person, so it is taking a lot for me to create spreadsheets, tracking costs and then keeping on top of them. It’s easy to spend the money on consumables and ingredients but it is also worth remembering how much each bottle is costing me. If I can give someone in my position some advice, it is to set them up as soon as possible and evolve them as your business grows. Keep track of everything and keep your receipts.
I have also enjoyed the creative side of creating the labels, I am probably on my 3rd edition as they evolve with another generation currently being worked on. Following advice from friends and family to ensure I have a strong brand name; I have teamed up with a local Bristol artist who has custom designed a logo for me and I have been able to use that to create individual labels so that each sauce has a slightly different look while still looking part of the Hask-hells family.
I have been thinking how they would look as gift sets on the shelf in a shop or deli. I frequently use social media to get feedback from reviewers and influencers within the hot sauce circuit and ask for advice from fellow sauce manufacturers as there are things I will be legally required to include, such as nutritional information and allergens, as well as a few things that differ slightly in the UK and US markets and I want to make sure I get it right during what I am calling this the soft launch.
Where do you see your hot sauce business in 5 years’ time?
Honestly, I do not know where the business is going to be in 5 years, obviously when I go back to full time work it will limit the time I can give to the sauces so I am trying to use this time I have now to get everything in place, but I would love to be able to do some bigger batches one day a week, maybe in a professional kitchen so that I can have stock at home to sell but not impact the home life balance.
I would maybe like to take it to Hot Sauce conventions, when they reopen so that I can expand my customer base and see how I compare with other brands, I have also had a lot of interest from USA, Australia and across the world so maybe if I can get pricing and shipping costs competitive, I could sell internationally and put myself in a different market.
One day I could look at taking it to markets as well but for now I think selling to independent shops such as delis, restaurants, pubs, or beer stockists might be the way to g. It's really important to keep growing the online presence and keep on networking with local businesses to form partnerships so that I can source better quality ingredients.
I have considered making more of my loyal supporters who post and boost my profile and reward them by creating brand ambassadors. The competitive side of me wants to enter my sauces into competitions and it is a goal of mine to feature on The Bauce Brothers Top 100 hot sauce 2021 list.
The twins have also been very keen to help and as they get older I think they would like to get more involved, they already help a bit with sticking labels.
I’ve noticed you don’t have a website. Is there a reason for this? Is there one on the way?
I do not have a website for a couple of reasons now, I think from working in retail for many years I like having the direct contact between myself and my customers and I do feel that you lose some of the personal touch through a website.
Although the customer is buying my sauce, they are buying a little part of me and my personality too.
The other reason for not having a website is control of orders. I am one person doing everything and if I was selling through a website, I feel like it might snowball and get out of control. Depending on the situation and how things progress, it is something I may consider but I am a small batch business, and I am enjoying the networking element.
You have a pretty impressive following on Instagram! How important is Instagram and social media to your business?
It has been a huge part of my starting up, at a time where people are limited to the interaction we can have, it has allowed me to talk to people all over the world. My Instagram following for @Hask_hells is nearly at 3000 followers at time of writing which I still find surreal and I have roughly 300 people following my page Hask-hells hot sauces on Facebook.
The main benefit is that it has allowed me to generate sales not only to family and friends that did not know I was making hot sauce but to people all over the UK without needing the face-to-face sale, but I have still been keeping the personal touch and keeping the posts relevant as well as fun is important.
To date I have sent bottles to many places all over England, Wales, Scotland and even a couple of bottles to the Republic of Ireland. Social media has allowed me to express my creativity though, it enabled me to have fun with competitions, it has allowed people to share reviews of both my own sauces from other reviewers and of people reviewing my sauces on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
I love that people can share their knowledge so we can all improve and make the best possible product we can. I have even been able to help other small batch hot sauces makers starting out with the advice I was given.
I also have made a lot of new Chilli Head friends bec