This morning I sold my first ever two cases of Hot Chilli Sambal to a specialty food store in NYC called Garden of Eden. For those of you who don’t live in NY, Garden of Eden is only the most awesome gourmet food store in the city. Their website describes the store as “a culinary Mecca for savvy shoppers who demand the finest products and ingredients at the best prices.” Eeeek, how did I get my simple little jar of Malaysian sambal on the shelves at this foodie heaven?
It all began when I started Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen in September of 2011. I organized supper club events and cooked exotic five-course meals for guests who experienced a one-night journey to Malaysia via the flavors of the cuisine. It quickly became clear that I needed to be able to reach more than the 20 people a night that I was able to fit into my basement. I moved on to selling Malaysian yummies at street fairs (The Flatbush Frolic) and farmer’s markets (The Brooklyn ARTery/Cortelyou Greenmarket) in our incredibly diverse neighborhood here in Brooklyn. That was a lot of hard work, but it was also very rewarding – I loved watching people come across my table at the street fair, read the signage and decide to give this unfamiliar cuisine a try. I loved it even more when they came back for more. I enjoyed all the comments – “too spicy”, “not spicy enough”, “delicious”, “what IS this?”, and “where’s your restaurant?” There was this one gentleman who came on a bike, ordered one of everything that I had and ate it all right there in front of me. He came back every weekend on his bike and did the same. On Sundays when I wasn’t there, he sent me a message via the market organizers that said “Where are you? I’m the guy on the bike who rides over from one neighborhood away for my Malaysian fix.” All this led to a big Malaysian food event at Bryant Park in February. In NYC’s coldest month ever, under beautiful heated tents in busy Bryant Park, my team and I served about 2000 people in the course of two days! I had a blast.
In the summer of 2012, in a spell of severe homesickness (which I usually make up for by eating nothing but spicy food for days) I called mum to ask her how she made her spicy, ambrosial sambal that I remembered from my youth that went so well with everything. She loved sharing her “recipe” which really isn’t a recipe because, as with every dish that I’ve learned to cook from mum the amount of each ingredient was “a little bit”, “some” or “just see how much you want”. I followed her “recipe” to a T, making sure to adhere to her most important directive faithfully – “cook, cook, cook very long on a small fire”. The results were truly heavenly. Angels sang, the clouds parted and a beam of sunlight shone into my kitchen! A whole mess of fresh hot peppers amounted to one 16oz jar that lasted in my fridge for about a month. I ate it on everything – scrambled eggs, tuna salad, turkey wraps, meatloaf!! As the contents of the jar dwindled down to nothing, I made plans to make more. Now that I knew how to make it, I couldn’t be without it. Boing! A light bulb went off in my head! (What did you say? That’s not the sound of a light bulb going off in my head? Whatever!) The light bulb said “jar this and make it available to spiceaholics everywhere!” And that was the start of it all.
I won’t bore you with all the persnickety details of getting a product to market – but I wouldn’t be doing the process any justice by not talking about it at all, so here’s a brief summary of my process. Commit to making this product for sale, realize I have no clue where to begin, panic, Google “how to jar a hot sauce” and “how to sell your food idea”, make a batch, eat the batch, share with friends (ie. market testing), panic, take Food Handler’s license course online, more Googling, worry some more, attend food manufacturer forums, set up the company, obtain DOH permit, attempt to vacuum pack sambal into jars to preserve, interview to be a client at commercial kitchen, worry, make a batch, worry, send to Food Lab for shelf-stability testing, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, attend more forums at Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and Brooklyn Public Library, Google “how to pressure can mason jars”, get letter from Food Lab saying product has passed testing and is shelf-stable, jump up and down in a happy dance, panic, buy three types of insurance, book time at commercial kitchen, hunt for wholesale prices on ingredients, crunch numbers, design labels, begin work on website, take pics for site, hate pics for site, take pics again, hunt for fresh red peppers, literally HUNT for them, none to be found,panic, find peppers (what a huge day that was!), manage ongoing anxiety over freshness of peppers, book help, get inspected by Department of Agriculture and Markets, and…. you get the idea! And yes, that WAS the brief summary. The actual process took half a year – I’m sure I’ve blocked the more tedious and difficult parts of it out entirely. I’m really great at forgetting things I don’t want to remember!
Yup, that’s me with a 40 gallon tilt-kettle of sambal. Do I look tired? No, right? I look fresh as a daisy. Truth is, I was exhausted – this photo was taken about 6 hours in, and I was the living dead. Why? Because I had been too excited to sleep for days before and hadn’t eaten since the early morning when I took my little one to camp. I was running on fumes, adrenaline and pure joy. After all these months of prep, this was just as exciting as giving birth to my beautiful daughter five years ago – with a lot less cramping. My team, Patrick Meyer and Karel vanBeekom and I began with 120lbs of fresh red peppers at 4:30pm and finished cleaning and scrubbing the kitchen to cleaner-than-we-found-it perfection at 3am. I collapsed into bed at 5am.
This happened on the 1st of August. The last two weeks have been all about working to get the website up and running, emailing store buyers, getting the labels printed, hating the labels, getting them printed again (they’re STILL not perfect) and sending samples out to buyers. The labels are wonky, I’m calling it “the handmade look” and moving right along. They will be absolutely perfect for the next batch.
This morning I called the Garden of Eden and spoke to their grocery buyer. I’m always a little anxious about making these calls – it’s no fun cold calling people. I must say though, they were SO nice. I went over with a jar and a brochure (thank you dear husband for helping me design that). We talked in the hot sauce/ethnic foods aisle about pricing and delivery. A few minutes later the words “okay, we’ll try a couple of cases, when can you deliver them?” came out of his mouth and I did a double-take! Did I hear that right? I told him I could come do an in-store demo on Monday and he said “ok, you can bring the cases then too”. I quickly shook his hand and fled the scene in a frenzy of elation, just in case he changed his mind or something. And that is how one Malaysian woman made her very first sale at one of the city’s finest gourmet markets. Now where’s the champagne?