Aaron Hoffman reveals the secret sauce behind building a big brand in Chattanooga
A native of Kansas who grew up cooking in his home kitchen, Aaron Hoffman cultivated a love of food and a taste for anything spicy. He eventually launched a career in design, marketing and media, but never stopped concocting new sauces. When he and his wife, Michelle (also known as Pepper), handed out bundles of their Hoff sauce as Christmas presents in 2013, a product was born. Over the next several years, Hoffman used his experience to perfect the brand and develop the product, and now Hoff Sauce’s distinctive style – a little retro, a little bold, a lot of casual – is at the heart of the success of the growing company.
“Just take the brand very seriously,” he says. “Realize that you are going to spend a good amount of money to get a good brand.”
You had a lot of experience building brands for other people when it came time to build your own.
I had a 25 year career in design and technology, and had my own digital design agency for 10 years. I started out as a designer, but that was when the web wasn’t there yet. I lived in upstate New York and knew I wasn’t going to college. I wanted to work on my own stuff. It was in 1990 and 1991, so there was design, but no computers. I found a job at a snowboard company in New York. My first job was to design snowboards. Once I got really interested in technology in 1997, I started my own design company with a partner. We developed an animated series that kind of took off – that was the start of Tubatomic Studios – and then we moved from Kansas to Chattanooga and moved Tubatomic here. In 2007, I left Tubatomic to start on my own. I was on the software side and learned a lot about product development, how to develop a product and how to test it. You wouldn’t think it would have anything to do with hot sauce, but it does.
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Software in hot sauce? How did you make this jump?
I love spicy things, love to cook and we started to develop it as a Christmas present for friends and family. Then more and more people asked for it. The first time the public tried it was at one of the Main x 24 competitions. It took first place in 2014. We had full time jobs, but I knew it. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, I’ve always had ideas for scrambling on the sidelines – restaurants, food trucks, always food related, a gourmet hot dog stand. Then I realized this hot sauce was right under my nose and we lived four blocks from Chattanooga Market. I said, ‘Let’s just validate this, put some money in it, get a license, join the market, rent a cheap booth.’ We started selling it, and that definitely validated it. [Michelle] first quit her job, she worked at AVA as director of the Four Bridges Arts festival. So the first year was her. Then we entered the Business Development Center. At first we were making Mean Mug coffee sauce. We had to have a commercial kitchen, so we asked if we could pay them to work there at night and on Sundays when they were closed. The first year we worked in this kitchen, and in 2016 we entered the Business Development Center. We went from my wife working alone to a team of 23 people.
Hoff Sauce has a distinctive vibe that transcends the product. How did you trigger this?
Building a product is more than a simple design, it’s more than a simple recipe. You have to look at it from all angles. Before you even start, you need to know what you are trying to build. I knew I wanted this to be an everyday sauce that was flexible enough to use with every savory meal. I wanted it to appeal to people who love the typical Louisiana hot sauce, but to taste fresher and more artisanal and just make it different enough from Tabasco and Louisiana style and differentiate it from those sauces. Then for the current brand, I wanted it not to be some type of brand that goes out of fashion. I wanted it to look like it was created 50 years ago and to stand the test of time. I wanted to avoid any design trends, that was really important, but also to be friendly and to appeal to a large audience in the brand itself, not just the gravy. We decided to put them in vials for reference in Tennessee. It was a nod to Jack Daniels, but all of our competition has these skinny little bottles. With our flask we have all this real estate on a store shelf that we can really be a differentiator and look different from the rest of the sauces. And the straight black and white label never goes out of fashion. It feels handmade, and that was important, making sure it felt handmade in small batches. I went back to my days as an art director and hired two freelance designers that I worked with at Tubatomic, and we had all worked together before and we knew each other very well. I didn’t perform it, but I was the artistic director.
It’s a great design for the product you’ve developed. will it evolve?
We haven’t changed it a bit since 2015, and we constantly get compliments about it. I don’t intend to change it. We’ll probably make some minor tweaks to it in a few years, but very small changes. It’s great that you can sell products because you have people who are brand loyal and they don’t just want to show it to other people, they also want to meet other people who are interested in it. But you can’t just put your logo on something and expect it to fly out the door. Most of the time, they don’t sell very well on their own, but sell in a vacation package. You need to order $ 49 to get free shipping, and people will order the product to get free shipping. My advice is don’t go too crazy with the merch until you’ve validated that you can sell it. We definitely did too much merch before validating that we could sell it.
How did you know it was time to go all in on the Hoff sauce?
It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to build a brand, and a lot of times people have ideas and they can get a little too excited and quit their jobs and go do it. I was employed for five years full time while my wife ran the business. I did not take a salary. It takes a long time to build something and do it organically, unless you want to get involved with investors. I didn’t want to do this. We’ve been baiting it pretty much all the time. Now we are a profitable business and we do not have to reimburse the investors.
Not all entrepreneurs have the advantage of having training in design and branding. What advice would you give them?
Just take the brand very seriously. Realize that you are going to spend a good amount of money to get a good brand. If you don’t have a very respectable agency working for you, and if it costs less than $ 1,000 or $ 2,000, you have to go somewhere else. Even though I had the experience, paying freelancers amounted to several thousand. You have to swallow it from the start, but only do so after you have validated your products.
How did you land on the look and feel of the label?
I definitely had a mood board with different things on it. I looked at a lot of older brands from the 40s and 50s. I had an old label that I designed on my own that was not as good as the one that came out. I was getting tons of feedback from friends and family so I partially validated it before I started at the market. I wanted it to be friendly, but there to be a 50s / punk rock style that felt familiar and friendly. I put my face on the label because it was a design trend in the 40’s and 50’s, that someone made this product and they put their face on it to support it. It’s not really done anymore. That feel is what I was looking for with a matte label, and it’s not the best label because it doesn’t have a shiny plastic coating on it, but we never had a complaint about that. People say ‘I’ve never seen a label like this.’ We are really trying to be different from current trends, not just to be different, but to be something that would stand the test of time.
What else does it take to make a good mark?
One important thing that we just did this year was to have a copywriter friend who had done some branding before. We worked with him to build our real voice, how we communicate, mission, values, company vision and everything from how you would get on an elevator and explain what you do in your business and what that the company is about to do. how do we respond to people on social media – what would that voice sound like? Comical ? Serious? We worked on it for a few months and it really helped us. We now have a social media team, and that has really helped us communicate who we are as a company.
We just started [the YouTube series] Hot Ones, we’re moving into a new facility in the first quarter of next year on South Market. We’re in 6,000 square feet and it’s 25,000. We started the year in 1,400 stores and we’re in 3,300 stores. We grew 100% last year, and it looks like 100% again this year.