Issue Two Sneak Peak: Meet the founders of Yellowbird Sauce
Shoppers are increasingly becoming aware of the preservatives, sugars, and fats in their foods and they’re striving to make big changes. Concepts like farm to table and whole foods are taking off and everyday it seems another restaurant or fast food chain is providing its nutritional information on their menus. But, for all our focus on healthier foods, there is one category of consumable that's been largely ignored: condiments.
Yellowbird Foods, a spicy condiment company in Austin, seeks to change all that. “Yellowbird is all-natural, spicy pepper condiments founded with the idea that, although most condiments are made out of preservatives, sugar, and lots of salt, they shouldn’t be. So we founded the company under the premise that we're going to make real food condiments, specifically chili pepper condiments,” says co-founder George Milton.
Now available in Whole Foods across the country, Yellowbird Foods was originally created by co-founders Erin Link and George Milton. Partners in both business and life, Erin and George’s personal quest for improved health was a motivator for starting the business. Says George, “We both were getting into healthier living and food, clean eating, stuff like that. So we would have a lot of conversations leaving the grocery store about how we couldn’t believe that these food brands could get away with some of this stuff that they get away with. We said that if we ever had a food brand, we’d be honest about what went into our food. We wouldn't use all these chemicals, there's no reason to use them.”
Erin and George didn’t necessarily plan on having such wide distribution. They started the business intending to focus simply on farmer’s markets and local restaurants. “When we first started doing it, it was just in commissary kitchens, these commercial kitchens you can rent for $20 an hour. There was one kitchen that gave me a discount for off-peak hours, so I would go over there from 10 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m. I did that for a while, and then we grew and ended up with our own small, 1000-square-foot commercial kitchen. Now we’re breaking ground on our first factory.”
The shift to an entrepreneurial endeavor was no big deal for George or Erin. George says, “I'm a musician, and I've been doing that professionally for my entire adult life. I have always been somebody who likes to work for myself and, being a musician, most of what you do is just hustling to get the next gig and there’s hardly any comfort level at all, so the jumping off point for me to become an entrepreneur was nothing.” Erin continues, “We both moved to Austin to be creatives, and we realized that everyone else had moved to Austin to be creatives as well, so it wasn't special anymore. I went to University of Houston to study Graphic Communications and right when I graduated I started working for Waste Management as an in–house designer. When we moved to Austin I had the idea that I would work for myself and just do freelance design and, for many reasons, it did not work out very well. Eventually I got a job with Red Hat as their in-house designer and front–end developer. It was probably two years after I had been working with Red Hat and moonlighting for Yellowbird that “I decided it was time quit and work on Yellowbird full time.”
George and Erin benefit from complementary talents. “I think that even before Yellowbird we wanted to work on something together. Before Yellowbird Sauce, I did an album that she did a bunch of photography and artwork for. We are two halves of the same brand, I can do inside-the-package stuff, but I really have no concept of how to make it look good. I can make it good on the inside, but I don't know how to present it to people. And that’s what Erin is really good at.”
George was stuck on the name Yellowbird but, as a branding expert, Erin knew there had to be a good reason to go there. “I came up with the name Yellowbird because we wanted something that was the opposite of what other hot sauce brands used as a mascot: pirates, flaming skulls, and so on. Erin has the background in design and she wouldn't let me call it Yellowbird unless there was a good reason for it. Eventually I came across a story about how all birds are immune to capsaicin, which is the active chemical in chili peppers that makes them spicy. Then we learned about these little yellow birds that live in Thailand and they eat bird peppers, which are these little tiny peppers and it flavors their skin so predators won’t eat them. Capsaicin is a food source that only they eat, nothing else eats the peppers, not even bugs.”
While separating your products from a competitor’s is always ideal for businesses, this drive goes much further for Erin and George. They don’t just want to be different to corner a market, but to make a product that’s healthy and better for you. Erin says, “I think other condiment makers are trying to do several things. I think they are trying to drive the cost down to make the product, and they're trying to increase shelf life with preservatives. We don't want ours to be cheap sauces, we want them to be delicious and good for you, and not have the fillers, like sugars and potassium sorbate, and other unhealthy ingredients.” George agrees, “The stuff that we put in our sauce is natural: citrus, vinegar, salt, things like that. Once we started looking at going into stores, selling resale, we had a bunch of people telling us we’d have to use potassium sorbate or sulphites for shelf life and stability. We refused to. We've tested everything, it’s gone to the lab, gone to state process authority and FDA filed. It was just a process of developing it and sending it to the lab and to the experts and developing it to a point where it was stable and lasted.“
In the process of building their own factory, expansion is definitely an objective for both Yellowbird Sauce co–founders, but not without a specific focus, which George explains, “We don't want to make sauce and seasonings and snack foods and beef jerky. We want to have a very concise focus. It makes it easier to tell people who we are and it also makes it easier on the production side. Because if I get a big, expensive piece of equipment for bottling sauce and then we decide we're going to make flavored popcorn or something, then all of a sudden we have to do that by hand and it's inefficient.”
After a journey like theirs, what advice do Erin and George have for other would-be entrepreneurs? For George, it’s about understanding the value of both perseverance and the value of quitting. “Literally every week there’s a point at which you can either throw in the towel or step it up to the next level. Who knows where we'll be in five years or ten years or whatever, but so far we've always opted to step it up to the next level—but you don't have to. I've seen plenty of people be way happier and more successful by quitting what they were doing. We totally believe in the value in quitting something that's not working. We try to quit stuff in our business that's not working. But if your business is the thing that's not working, then quitting it is valuable.” As Erin points out, it’s also about partnership. “You have to have good people that you're working next to. If you have a great partner, that can make a world of difference. If you have a terrible partner, then … you know.“