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. Every day 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 consumables that's been largely ignored: condiments.
Yellowbird Sauce, a spicy condiment company in Austin, seeks to change 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," says co founder George Milton. "We founded the company under the premise that we're going to make real food condiments, specifically chili pepper condiments.”
Yellowbird Foods was originally created by Erin Link and George Milton. Erin and George are partners in both business and in life. Erin and George’s personal quest for improved health motivated them to start the business. "We both were getting into healthier living, clean eating and stuff like that. 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," George says. "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.”
Erin and George started the business intending to focus simply on farmer’s markets and local restaurants. George would spend hours making the sauces in commissary kitchens he rented by the hour. "I would go over there from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. 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 the couple is breaking ground on their first factory and enjoying the perks of having their sauce available in Whole Food Markets across the country.
Becoming an entrepreneur was no big deal for George or Erin. “I'm a musician, and I've been doing that professionally for my entire adult life," George says. "I have always been somebody who likes to work for myself. Being a musician, most of what you do is hustling to get the next gig. There’s hardly any comfort level at all. The jumping off point for me to become an entrepreneur was nothing."
Erin's path to becoming her own boss took a little longer. “We both moved to Austin to be creatives. Then we figured out that everyone moved to Austin to be creatives. It wasn't special anymore," Erin says. Erin went to the University of Houston for design. After graduating, she got a corporate job. When she moved to Austin she tried to do some freelance work but ended up getting a full-time job. "I got a job with Red Hat doing in-house design. It was probably two years after I was working with Red Hat that I was moonlighting for Yellowbird. Two more years in and I just said "I'm done, I quit," and did Yellowbird full time.”
George and Erin are used to working together. “Before Yellowbird Sauce, I did an album and she did a bunch of the photography and artwork. We are two halves of the same brand," said George. "I can make it [products] look good on the inside, but I don't know how to present it to people. That’s what Erin is really good at.”
Erin helped George solidify the Yellowbird brand. “I came up with the name Yellowbird because we wanted something that was the opposite of what other hot sauce brands used as mascots: pirates, flaming skulls, and so on," George says. "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. They eat bird peppers, little tiny peppers that 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.”
The drive to be different from their competitors 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. “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," Erin says. "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 the sugars and the potassium sorbates, and other unhealthy ingredients.”
George shares her belief. “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, its 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."
Expansion is definitely an objective for both YellowBird Sauce founders, but not without a specified focus. “We don't want to make sauce and seasonings and snack foods and beef jerky. We want to have a very concise focus," says George. 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 their's, 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," says George. "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, success also requires partnership. “You have to have good people that you're working next to. If you have a great partner, together you can make a world of difference. If you have a terrible partner, then … you know.“ Both are glad having a good partner is one problem they don't have to worry about.