Packing Taste Podcast: Yellowbird Foods
Q+A with George Milton of Yellowbird Foods
BY AXEL BRAVE
Packing Taste with Axel Brave is a Texas-sized podcast about anything and everything food. In the last foundingAUSTIN issue, we featured an excerpt from Axel’s interview with Yellowbird Foods founder George Milton. Read the excerpt below or listen to the full interview!
Axel Brave | Did being a musician help you set up a framework for becoming your own boss?
George Milton | Being a freelance musician helped. Before I went to piano bars, I was in bands, and we just played at bars. When I was doing it by myself, it was a lot of going around and asking for a time to play at their venue. I had to convince them to hire me — “I’ll come play Wednesday night for free or donate my cover.” It’s just a hustle, a non-stop hustle. Playing the gig isn’t the hard part, you know? Ninety percent of the hard part was actually getting a gig and then getting enough gigs to where you can support yourself. Then another 8 percent is getting your gear there and setting up. Once you got the gig, have your gear there, playing is the easy part … as long as you’ve practiced.
AB | Who taught you how to cook and make sauces?
GM | My first job was being a cook at a wing restaurant. I was 15. I lied about my age on the application — it was in Alabama. I remember my mom coming to pick me up at 2:00 in the morning, and the restaurant was in a work-release program so it was me and a bunch of guys who bussed in from the county jail. There was this dude named Rhett, who actually had the same mustache I have now. Anyways, the guys would shoot hot sauce to wake up. So I guess that was my first experience with spicy food.
AB | When did you decide that you wanted to make selling the sauces something bigger?
GM | I was playing here [in Austin] around town. I was bringing the sauce with me and letting people try it. I actually had a friend who had a corn dog stand, and I asked him if he would use it on his stuff. He said sure. It was funny because as a musician I made several studio albums I was promoting and also selling at the gigs. And then it kind of slowly became this thing where people would ask if I was the hot sauce guy — that their friend or brother told them about my sauce. They’d typically want that instead of my album. So I started selling hot sauces instead of my album. It took awhile for it to click, but then one day I asked my partner Erin “Why don’t we sell hot sauce?” So I started selling it out of my truck and at farmers markets.
AB | What strengths did you play on when you entered a crowded category like hot sauces?
GM | I don’t think we came in knowing what our strengths were. Certainly, we are very optimistic. In any category you can think of, it’s pretty crowded. In the very early stages, we planned it out: What does the brand stand for? What hill are we going to die on with this product? We set a few parameters: This is going to be all natural and healthy food that you can put on your food to make it taste better. We weren’t thinking of our competition. We didn’t come from a world of retail or manufacturing. We just didn’t worry about the data on day one. What we said was, we’re going to make this product and see what happens. We’ve worked our asses off at every stage of the game and at every milestone we hit we’ve said, “Yes, and…”
AB | What’s your most recent mile stone or Aha! moment
GM | I feel like I have an Aha! moment every day. I’m a thick headed guy, so when something seeps through on a weekly basis it feels good. As for milestones, we just launched a certified-organic line nationally with Whole Foods. It happened last week, but it has been a project that has been five years in the making. We had to find suppliers for organic fresh chiles, which is difficult
AB | How did you educate your customer about your sauces?
GM | Any place where people would listen to us. It’s hard to have very meaningful conversations because there’s a lot going on and there are probably more important conversations than: What’s your favorite hot sauce? But, our strategy is to stick to what we do very well and that’s hot sauce and that’s what we try to share. It’s hard to know how much you like a sauce by just trying it by itself, so we try to pair it with foods.
AB | What are some support systems and hurdles you experience in Texas?
GM | There are a lot of different companies doing this sort of stuff, fighting for people’s dollars and attention. But the really cool thing about Texas is that there are a lot of cool brands here working together. The restaurant scene and the food manufactures’ scene is great. We’ve really enjoyed working with Texas brands. Lots of collaborations, giveaways, and demos. The other thing about Texas is that Texans love buying Texas products. I don’t think any state has as much pride as Texas — and I guess you guys can fight me on that, but I’ve lived in a handful of other states, and if you haven’t lived in Texas then you’re missing out.
AB | Do you have any key advice for food start-ups?
GM | Probably two key pieces of advice: Number one, it’s very important to be authentic and specific with what you’re doing, Don’t just put stuff out there. And second, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Certainly in Texas, there is a great scene here, especially in Austin. There are a lot of people who have started great food brands here. We’ve been able to just call anybody up and ask for advice. We’ve dodged many pitfalls because I could reach out to someone and buy them a coffee and pick their brain.
About the Founder Interviewee
Here in Texas, we all love a little heat and spice on our food. It’s a fiery lifestyle we choose. George Milton, CEO and cofounder of Yellowbird Foods, has created quite the cult following out of Austin, Texas. When Milton first moved to Austin from Houston, he was a full-time musician.
In bands and solo acts, Milton traveled around cities to score music gigs by constantly hustling and staying strictly focused. When Milton and his partner, cofounder Erin Link, decided to start eating healthier, they began crafting hot sauce at their home, with natural ingredients. Soon they came up with a delicious hot sauce recipe with banging flavors and started sharing it with the Austin community. Their hot sauce became so well known that when George would play at venues and promote his EPs, the audience would approach him wanting to purchase his hot sauce more than his EPs.This was Milton’s Aha! moment. George and Erin quickly realized the opportunity to share their masterpiece and started to scale their business into a national hot sauce empire. Yellowbird Sauces fireballed into a successful hot sauce company with devoted and loving fans. You can find their sauces in all Whole Foods Markets nationwide. And as the Yellowbird Flock Leader always preaches: Sauce Responsibly, Always Use A Condiment!
About Packing Taste Podcast
Packing Taste podcast with Axel Brave is a Texas-sized show about the Lone Star State’s exploding food scene. Texas is one of the fastest emerging states in regards to new food brands, food manufacturing, food science, restaurant scenes, diversity in foods, farming, and helpful networks for the food community. On Packing Taste, Axel invites different food leaders — from CPG founders, CEOs, Chefs, Incubator directors, and more — to discuss anything and everything food related. If you are a food start-up, foodie, or passionate Texan, this show is for you.
Host Axel Brave grew up around great food and great company. Being raised by two Argentine parents meant that every Sunday family and friends would gather to spend time together. At the age of 10, Axel began to learn to use a grill as his stage to entertain and feed his guests authentic foods. After graduating university, exploring five continents, and everything in between, Axel moved back to his hometown in Texas and started AXEL Provisions. At 26, Axel is running his second food business which has created a lot of buzz by bringing culinary staples from Latin America to the U.S. market. AXEL Provisions is becoming a Texas brand favorite for grill masters, foodies, and anyone who wants to eat tastier, more authentic foods.