Made in New England: Meet Alex of Alex’s Ugly Sauce
Local foodie Alex Bourgeois was fed up with the lack of delicious hot sauces, the ones with the perfect amount of heat and flavor, on the market. One fateful day, he was gifted bagfuls of leftover hot peppers from his local CSA, so he decided to experiment with his own recipe.
After four years of perfecting that (secret) recipe, Alex quit his job and launched Alex’s Ugly Sauce, offering up small-batch hot sauce to locals around Boston. With eight varieties of sauce, micro-batches and new products like a Bloody Mary mix, this company is on mission to spice up your life (and your food). We got to chat with founder Alex to discuss harvesting challenges, the importance of supporting the local food economy and having fun with his customers at the farmer’s market.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
A.B.: I got the idea to start Alex’s Ugly Sauce when I realized that I just wasn’t satisfied with any of the sauces available in any of my local stores. I was always buying new sauces, looking for that perfect blend of heat and flavor, and then finding that I had to mix two or three or four of them together to get what I was looking for. And then of course, I wouldn’t be able to find one of them at the store, and I’d have to start all over again.
Then, at the end of CSA season one year, my farmer (Glenn Stillman of Stillman’s Farm) cut down all of his hot pepper plants during his gleaning and brought them to the market to let us take some home. He told us “Take home as much as you want,” so I took home bagfuls and dried them over the radiators in my apartment. After that, I had all the peppers I needed to start experimenting with my own recipe!
R.K.: How did it all begin? What was the first thing you did when starting off?
A.B.: Once I had the basics of the recipe figured out, I started bringing bottles with me to work, and using it on my lunch. Pretty soon, people were seeking me out to use the sauce on their food as well, and then asking if they could buy bottles from the next batch I made so they could have it at home as well. Once it got to the point where all of the bottles in the next batch were reserved before I even made it, I realized I might be on to something.
The following October, I took a week off of work, bought six bushels of peppers (around 150 pounds) from Stillman’s Farm and a stand-alone refrigerator, and set to work preserving the peppers so that I could use fresher peppers for the next set of batches. The resulting sauces were far better than the ones based on the dried peppers, and the recipe quickly became repeatable. Then I found myself lamenting that I had to go to work every day and didn’t have enough time to make hot sauce. After that, it was just a matter of time before I quit my job and dedicated myself full-time to the business.
R.K.: How do you source your ingredients?
A.B.: Whenever possible, I work with farmers or vendors that I already know when sourcing my ingredients. All of the peppers that we use in our sauces are grown in Massachusetts, and all of our honey is responsibly harvested in New England. We are always looking to find new partnerships with farmers and produce vendors to ensure that we have the best possible ingredients. I put our sauces on my table for every meal, and feed them to my family and friends, so spending a little more on ingredients to make a superior product is an easy decision.
R.K.: Personal favorite sauce?
A.B.: I don’t really have a simple answer to this question, since I use almost every sauce we make with some frequency. It is hard to choose an absolute favorite, but I cook with Anaheim, Jalapeno and Cayano most often, and I tend to bring a bottle of Original or Dragon with me all the time (as well as having one in my backpack, one in the car and one in the work van). There are times, though, when all I want is the endorphin rush of the Screaper.
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
A.B.: People buy a lot less hot sauce than they think they do. We get people all the time who come up to the table and tell us they are huge hot sauce fans, and then say they buy two to three bottles a year. That’s a really long buying cycle!
One of the biggest challenges we faced starting out was finding a space in which we could produce the sauce. Finding a suitable facility out of which to work was obviously critical for launching the business, and I was very fortunate to have Crop Circle Kitchen (now CommonWealth Kitchen), a shared-use commercial kitchen, less than three miles away in Jamaica Plain. When we launched in late 2010, this was the only shared-use facility in the city of Boston, and I was amazed when I learned how far some people were traveling to work there, just so they could launch their food businesses.
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
A.B.: Starting a hot sauce business in New England has been both a benefit and a challenge. Consumers are fiercely dedicated to the local food scene, and there are an incredible number of farmers and farmers’ markets around to support local food efforts. People are often surprised that so many varieties of hot peppers can be grown here, and it’s fun to talk with them about how many interesting crops grow well around here and to see them get excited about what new foods they might be able to find that are grown locally, as opposed to coming from California or Mexico or further away.
Of course, having the climate that we do also makes for a shorter growing season, and some uncertainty around annual pepper yields. This has led to some challenging harvest seasons for us, both in terms of varieties and quantities of peppers available, but that really is part of the fun of running a local food business. Our customers appreciate that one of the joys of supporting local food is that it is going to vary a bit from year to year.
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
A.B.: I would really like to see even more of a focus on locally sourced ingredients in our foods, and an increased awareness between companies that focus on using locally sourced ingredients and those that are simply locally based. There is such an incredible variety of amazing food grown here, and so many possibilities for new and interesting food products using it, and I would love to see consumers want more than just a company that is based here, but instead want to see those companies really support the whole of the local food economy from growers to suppliers to sellers.
R.K.: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
A.B.: Whenever possible, I do my food shopping either at farmers’ markets or Boston Public Market, to try and support the smaller food vendors in the area. I buy as much of my produce as possible from the farmers I work alongside during the markets, specifically Stillman’s Farm, Still Life Farm and Springbrook Farm. I have a terrific winter CSA from Still Life Farm! I am also a huge fan of Red’s Best Seafood, Stillman Quality Meats and Q’s Nuts.
We are incredibly fortunate to have our production kitchen in the same building as CommonWealth Kitchen and all of their amazing food entrepreneurs, so I really like supporting as many of these companies as possible, including Top Shelf Cookies, Fresh Food Generation and Commonwealth Cold Brew. A few years ago, Crop Circle Kitchen moved from Jamaica Plain to a larger space in Dorchester and was reborn as CommonWealth Kitchen, so being in the building with them feels like we are still close to our roots while still being able to grow in our production space.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
A.B.: I have tried to take inspiration from many of the people I work around, finding admirable qualities in many of them and changing my processes and interactions and expectations as I attempt to integrate those qualities wherever possible.
R.K.: What’s your favorite quote or business mantra?
A.B.: “If you’re not having fun doing this, then find something else to do; we are all working way too hard not to enjoy ourselves.”
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
A.B.: I am hoping to have a few new products developed and I would like to expand our presence in both specialty stores and supermarkets.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
A.B.: It is really, really hard, but it can also be a lot of fun. You have to be ready to work a lot more than you think you’ll have to, and to do all sorts of jobs you’d never picture yourself doing, but the rewards are incredible and well worth it. If you love what you do, that will come across to your customers, and there is nothing better than having someone come up to you and tell you how much they love your product, and how they won’t use any other since they have found yours.
R.K.: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
A.B.: I really do try and have fun every day with whatever task needs to be done. I still get excited each year when the pepper harvest starts, and I jump around like a kid in a candy store when the bushel boxes start piling up and we are literally elbow-deep in peppers. That same excitement comes through when I am behind the table at a farmers’ market, and I really enjoy talking to, and sometimes messing with, the folks who stop to sample the sauces; if I’m having a good time, they feed off of that, and I feed off of that in return, and we all end up having a better experience, and that really is what this is all about.
Want more Made in New England? Check out our full series coverage.