About Our Indie Food Business
The Karma Sauce Company was founded with the mission of providing you with the highest quality healthy and delicious foods. Foods like those we make for ourselves. No compromises, no cut corners.
We prep all our products in our own micro factory and grow most of our own veggies (especially peppers) on the Karma Sauce Farm. Most everything else comes from within 50 miles. We keep our eye on quality every step of the way. All of our award winning products are gluten-free, wheat-free, soy-free, dairy-free and preservative-free.
The Karma Sauce Company is dedicated to providing delicious food. Food that is good for you and a delight to your senses. When our first homemade batch of Karma Sauce was prepared for our group of locavores, the question wasn’t “Can we produce this?” but “How can we not?”
Behind the Karma Sauce Company
This story is about the Karma Sauce Co. and me. But what I can never say enough about is the the great support I have received from my friends and family. Without their help none of this would be possible. I am eternally grateful.
I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember. There was always something on at home. Dad was a cook in the US Army when he came over from Poland. We made clusky or perogies around the holidays; then there was helping Mom with Swedish meatballs, lasagna and pies (making cheese strips with the leftover crust). Outdoor activities included long sessions picking wild strawberries for jam near our home on Long Island and the dreaded digging and weeding in the garden. I don’t have any photos from the kitchen back then, but it probably looked something like this (one of my protégés).
After my Dad passed away my Mom moved to East Hampton. Time passed and I went off to school in Potsdam NY– every year saving my pennies earned over the summer at home for the semester to follow.
When you have kitchen skills finding a restaurant job in the Hamptons is not hard. I quickly rose to the position of “Sous Chef” as a seasonal employee. My tenure on the line was noted in a 1986 Hamptons Magazine article celebrating brunch. Here I am rocking the flock-of-seagulls while Bogie watches my back.
One interesting note: Buffalo Wings were essentially non-existent on Long Island at that time (can you believe it!). I first experienced them during my time up in Potsdam. I already had an affinity for all things spicy and immediately fell in love with this new-to-me creation. Having full run of the specials menu for my nights on, I introduced Buffalo Wings at the Restaurant in Amagansett. This was the first time Buffalo Wings were served at a Restaurant in the Hamptons (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)
Eventually I graduated and got a job as an optical engineer at Kodak after a stint at grad school in Dayton, Ohio. Practically a compulsion, I kept cooking even when I didn’t need to. In my spare time, I picked up all sorts of food related hobbies: vegetable gardening, home brewing, making sausage, canning etc.
Next step: I married my wonderful wife Kelly and we moved to New York’s capital district for a while. Our rural property allowed me to greatly expand our garden and experiment with all sorts of homegrown pickles, chutneys and hot sauces – smoked habanero blueberry for example. Professionally, my work was non-culinary except for the one group discussion when Alton Brown visited us at the GE research labs. Here I am mugging for the camera during that visit (I’m on the left).
After our children were born, we decided to move back to the Rochester area to be closer to friends and family. We moved in the winter, and in retrospect I should have paid more attention to all those trees – I was looking at deep deep shade in the summer. No peppers ☹
Fortunately, our great neighbors the Chey–Warren’s had an interest in starting a veggie garden and and invited us to collaborate on the project. They also had sunlight (yeah!) and a puppy named Karma. Karma was super-cute but her main contribution to the project was stealing a packet of carrot seeds and spreading them on the lawn. No carrots that year!
Laura Chey had the idea to do a locavore challenge in September 2008 and I was all over it to the extreme. For example – I used no imported olive oil that month, only local butter, squash seed oil and lard – I even sought out local salt. It was fun for me but tedious for Kelly (sorry, Honey!). One area where I really wanted to kick-it was hot sauce. I decided to do something new that would bring together ingredients typical of the area (winter squash, onions, honey, and apple cider vinegar for example). This was when Karma Sauce was born, initially with no name or intent to make commercially available.
The response to the sauce was overwhelmingly positive and so we decided to go for it as a business. I was already making two versions, mild and hot, so I decided to start with both. The names Good Karma Sauce and Bad Karma Sauce just popped into my head one day while I was walking down the street. Once I arrived home, I immediately started working on the brand. Getting to market proved to be more of a challenge.
One new word you learn when you consider getting into the food business is “co-packing.” The conventional wisdom is that actually making products for sale is impractical. With that in mind, I started interviewing co-packers.
What I found was that most co-packers around were unable to work with whole raw vegetables (forget locally sourced) or they lacked the equipment to make processing practical. The fact is, the most important prep tool at many of these businesses is the can opener. The market is flush with small label products that are little more than repackaged products from major brands (add a little Franks, a little Worcheshire …). This practice is summed up in this photo from the Seattle Weekly News. Some of these products are very good but this was not what I was going for.
A big part of the motivation for getting Karma Sauce out to the public was to offer a better, healthier condiment – Most of the alternatives are loaded with fat or sugar. How many times are the nutrition benefits of that steamed broccoli undermined by the corn syrup based dressing on top of it? I was unwilling to start down the “re-formulation” path (even minor alterations). And so we started laying out plans for our own micro factory. Our design was geared toward working with local produce to make batches of the sauce that were true to the original recipe.
Along the way I had lot to learn and do: A course in Better Process Control School at Cornell, setting up commercial equipment, label design, web development, trademarks, press releases and on and on.
In 2010, we at last got into “full scale” production and hit the market!
Once things started to take off , sourcing the hotter peppers was an issue. The local demand is just not there, plus the season is a little challenging; Habanero peppers grow just fine but the season is long and harvest is best when the farmer’s market season is winding down, a big risk for the grower.
And so we reached a point where we came full circle back to growing . We needed peppers in sufficient scale to supply the sauce business. This required leasing land nearby. With a rototiller and shovels in hand, it was doable for our production quantities at the time.
Once you have you own commercial kitchen you start to ask yourself “What else can I do?” The answer is “Almost anything!” And so we expanded the line, always within the scope of our philosophy of providing healthy food alternatives.
At the same time I decided to test our metal at the national spicy food events even taking a road trip to Texas for Zest Fest in 2013. And to our delight, we won lots of awards! (and many more since)! I was initially a little taken aback by this, especially for the original Karma Sauce recipes, which I don’t think of as hot sauces in the conventional sense.
Back home, I looked for opportunities to foster the development of like-minded folks so I began to volunteer at Foodlink (where we also donate a part of profits) and then I joined board of Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty. Here I am pitching Finger Lakes products at the senate offices in DC. Have a question about getting into the business? Just ask me!
As the business grew, eventually it became clear that we needed more space and better control of our growing environment. And so we bought the farm. But really … we wanted to be on the farm anyway. Now we are in the chapter of building out our new property in North Bristol, NY – A beautiful piece of south facing hillside. Now that we have the farm, our possibilities are essentially limitless. Is it a lot of extra work? You bet! But it’s good work!
Now for the really crazy part – All this is, for now, a part time business. During the weekdays I still work full time as a optical engineer. And the projects I work on are pretty cool. Like this thing. A few of my 44 patents are technologies used to put together the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope will launch in a couple of years. Maybe the launch date will coincide with the launch of Karma Sauce as a full time enterprise? In the meantime, I need to get back to work!
Thank for visiting the Karma Sauce Co. I hope you enjoy our products!