Every artisan product these days has to have a compelling story, and it’s Red Clay Hot Sauce CEO Molly Fienning’s job to keep telling the one behind her company’s product.
In her role as message translator, Fienning supplied the gloss for almost every answer that sauce creator and company founder Geoff Rhyne gave in a recent interview with The Post and Courier, reiterating his commitment to quality ingredients, reverence for family and adherence to traditional techniques.
While the many cooks around town who worked with the former The Ordinary chef de cuisine probably wouldn’t dispute the characterization, what sets Rhyne’s five-year-old hot sauce brand apart is tastemakers have taken to the condiment based solely on its flavor. For example, the esteemed New Orleans sandwich shop Turkey and the Wolf recently ordered bottles of Red Clay to put on its tables.
“He just tasted the product for what it was, which is nice,” Rhyne says of owner Mason Hereford. “The product has to stand on its own two legs. And now we’re going into Tabasco’s backyard.”
Rhyne doesn’t expect to overtake Tabasco, which dominates the $1.4 billion hot sauce industry. But he and Fienning are now looking for Red Clay to become a major regional player, with both the sauce and a newly-introduced hot honey winning over younger millennials across the country: Fienning names Sir Kensington’s mayonnaise and Noosa Yoghurt as role models.
“We had to ask ourselves: Do we want to keep this a Charleston local favorite or build an awesome national brand that people love?” Fienning says, explaining how they decided “to put money, time and effort” into the latter.
At first, the company’s growth was slowed by Rhyne’s insistence on Fresno peppers, Champagne vinegar and hand-processing, all of which are costly.
“People called me stubborn on a regular basis,” he says.
But once Rhyne secured sourcing and bottling partners, he was able to scale up production to the point that it became feasible to approach supermarkets and other national accounts about Red Clay.
“All the other guys were brokers, and we were the Bad News Bears,” Rhyne says of Red Clay’s pitch meeting with Fresh Market. Still, they landed the deal, and Red Clay hit the store’s shelves in May.
According to Fienning, Red Clay is on track this year for $300,000 in sales, more than quadrupling its 2018 total. She projects Red Clay will surpass the $1 million mark in 2020.
“We want to grow without having to sacrifice our principles,” Rhyne says. “So we’re taking it gradually. But we’re also sprinting as fast as we can.”
Rhyne believes retail products such as Red Clay are an essential component of a stable and sustainable food scene, so he’s also working on creating the infrastructure to support their local production. He’s approached the Culinary Institute of Charleston, his alma mater, about the possibility of building an on-campus bottling line.
“What if we could create something special?” he asks.
Fans of Red Clay would say Rhyne already has.
To learn more about Red Clay, go to its redesigned website at redclayhotsauce.com.