Ken Huynh is a little fishy… and a little saucy. Don’t worry, these attributes (at least the “fishy” part) are not part of his personality. Rather, I say that because he makes, bottles, and sells artisanal Vietnamese dipping sauces, known as “Nuoc Cham,” created from a blend of fish sauce, spices, and other flavorful ingredients.
The Saucey Sauce Company was conceived – really, encouraged – at a Vietnamese-themed dinner party thrown by Ken and his sister, Toan, about a year-and-a-half ago. On the menu was a Vietnamese noodle salad, grilled chicken and beef, and home-made Vietnamese dipping sauce to top it off.
The dipping sauce was a huge hit, and their friends told the Huynhs, “You should sell this stuff!” Most people might have shrugged off this suggestion, but Ken and Toan stopped for a second and thought about it. Really thought about it.
The original sauce was based on one of their mother’s recipes. Growing up, Ken and his sister would put the sauce on everything. From french fries and burgers, to eggs and everything in-between. To their family, the sauce functioned like ketchup: it’s good on anything!
And it turned out that there was nothing like it on the market. “The type of ready-to-serve dipping sauce that was already out there at the average Vietnamese restaurants and Asian grocery stores was just something kind of plain and sallow, with very little flavor. It was all kind of like salt and pepper, just basic stuff,” Ken said, describing all of the sauces he and Toan had tasted over the years.
So on a whim, Ken and Toan decided to give it a shot and bottle their product. They started by making a spicy garlic sauce. Given that it was passed down through their family, nobody had ever written a recipe. It was always just a “pinch of this” and a “little of that,” which meant that their first step was to actually put together a formula for the product. They sat in Toan’s kitchen and recreated the sauce, writing everything down as they went along.
Then came the crucial question: what should they name the company? “We couldn’t think of anything that really captured the spirit of the both of us. My sister has a really kooky sense of humor, so initially we wanted to have a fish guy – pursing his lips and winking – as our mascot. We just thought, ‘well the only name that makes sense to us is Saucey Sauce,’ and that was it. So we didn’t brainstorm other names, it just kind of happened. A lot of people think it’s a huge planning process, but sometimes things just fall into place and it just feels right.”
A graphic designer friend helped them create their current logo. It went through several iterations, including one where the fish guy accidentally looked more like a fish girl, but eventually they landed on what they have today.
In just a little over a month they had a product, a name, and a logo. Ken and his sister were ready to start selling!
So how could a small start-up company quickly gain visibility in New York’s overwhelming food scene? The answer: street fairs!
Given that it was May, at the beginning of barbeque season, the timing was perfect. The Saucey Sauce Company secured a spot selling their products at the Hester Street Fair because, as Ken told me, “they are the most adventurous of the food fairs. They were willing to take a chance on something different.”
In June, Ken quit his job as a manager at the Publicis Groupe. He didn’t exactly plan to be an entrepreneur, but when it happened, it happened fast, and Ken wanted to devote all of his time to growing the Saucey Sauce Company. He obtained his food handler’s license from New York City, and the Saucey Sauce Company worked with Cornell’s food entrepreneurship center to ensure that their formula was compliant with regulations.
Three months at the Hester Street Fair led to a multitude of new opportunities. First they partnered with Marketshare, a Brooklyn based business that takes artisanal producers and retails them. From Marketshare, they participated in the Smorgasboard food fair.
And all of a sudden they were on their way to becoming a big fish in the pond: they were “discovered” by Williams-Sonoma!
Could it get any better? In fact, things are going extremely well for the Saucey Sauce Company, and they are even in talks with a major grocery store to carry their product. But Ken tries to remain pragmatic about the future of the company. “When we started, we thought we could have something special, but we didn’t think it would be around a year later. And still at this point, it doesn’t feel like a company that will be around a year from now, even though we’ve got a lot of exciting things happening right now. So that’s the mental risk. At any moment, it might not work and all you have is your passion, and your vision of what you want.”
Luckily, Ken’s vision is broad. The line has expanded from its first flavor, spicy garlic, to include fresh lemon, sweet ginger, and spicy garlic extreme, along with recipes for cocktails that incorporate the sauce. There are even talks about a cooking show, featuring the Saucey Sauce team, or a refrigerated food line, in the future.
Ken gave me a little window into the day-to-day of his work. Right now, he and several part-time interns make all of the sauces themselves.
“Let’s face it it’s not pretty, it’s not sexy. It’s dirty. You smell like garlic and your hands are pruny from squeezing lemons. And then you’re going door-to-door from store-to-store and feel like you’re sweating through your shirt and talking to someone and trying to be really enthusiastic about the sauces that you love. But it’s like… those are summer days man. People think that it’s this exciting thing, but there are exhausting parts involved too. You have to do them all.” (Just remember this after you’ve tried your first taste of a Saucey Sauce; a lot of work went into getting this on the market!)
But the sometimes back-breaking work of running the Saucey Sauce Company has also taught Ken an essential lesson about what he is gaining:
“I believe that the older you get, the only thing you gain is perspective. But that’s more valuable than anything else. You have to pay to get it. You can be born with smarts, good looks, or the ability to speak well, but that’s a natural gift. You pay for perspective through hard work and time and I think that’s something that’s extremely valuable. The process of humping – in the military they call it humping – when you’re just busting through, working through things to make them happen… that process has given me perspective.”
The Saucey Sauce Company is growing at a steady pace, and is even expanding and currently hiring. Many things have been tough, and they have overcome many challenges to get to where they are today.
But the easiest part of Ken’s job? “Once they taste it: sold. It’s honestly the truth. That’s why I don’t want to say it’s easy, but really, the product speaks for itself.”
Get out there and see if it speaks to you!
Ken’s Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
- Get out there. Talk to people. Network.
- Do your homework. Get all your stuff in order, and make a business plan.
- Just start it. Whatever it is. Prove your fears wrong and go for it.
- There are ways to get around the financial risks. Get a loan or a grant.
- Be creative.
- Figure out how you can help people accomplish what they want. If you do that, they will want to be a part of your business.
- Assess yourself. Ask yourself what you enjoy doing. Make sure that is what you are doing.
And see a video of them on abc News here!
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