Hoff & Pepper Founder Aaron Hoffman didn’t know who Chrissy Teigen was when she posted a picture of the company’s signature “Hoff Sauce” after its first-place win at the New York City Hot Sauce Expo. All he knew was that he had better make an Instagram, because Chrissy Teigen is a model, TV personality and cookbook author with over 32 million followers. But make no mistake: the gourmet sauce and seasoning company grew a die-hard local fan base long before garnering national attention.
A Test Market That’s Hot on Buying Local
Since Aaron moved to Chattanooga 20 years ago to expand his tech company, one of his favorite things about doing business there has been how excited the community gets about buying local. Hoff & Pepper wouldn’t be center stage at the world’s biggest hot sauce competition without the local coffee shop owners who agreed to let the company use their commercial kitchen on weeknights; or the dedicated customers at their Chattanooga Market booth on Sunday mornings. Since Aaron and his co-founder and wife Michelle “Pepper” Hoffman first started bottling their sauce in 2013, they’ve landed their products in over 1,200 retail stores nationwide.
Space to Spice it up
After seeing the success of other local companies who had graduated from the INCubator, Hoff & Pepper made the move in 2017. There were the obvious cost-saving draws (low rent, utilities covered), but the space also boasted assets that aren’t usually top of mind: the loading dock, the security system, the on-call handyman and doorways wide enough for pallets full of delicious hot sauce. All these features proved critical in boosting efficiency when, during COVID-19, Hoff & Pepper saw record demand. Even though wholesale business died down as restaurants closed, once Aaron and Michelle shifted their focus to online retail, sales took off – so much so that the company is launching a brand-new website. They’re also expanding the business internationally, and while that poses a challenge for food retailers with packaging regulations varying by country, the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC) team helped them secure a grant that covers the label changes. It’s not just hot sauce labels that will need to adapt to foreign audiences: Hoff & Pepper has plans to extend its product line to include other condiments and seasonings – and if you think about what Heinz is to Pittsburgh, Chattanooga could be well on its way to a hot sauce museum…
A Hot Take on Starting a Business
Within the next couple years, Aaron and Michelle plan to move into their own space and their storied suite in the INCubator will be up for grabs. What should you know if you’re thinking of claiming it? According to Aaron, it’s okay (and maybe even a good idea) to not quit your day job right away; he didn’t until this past March, when his forfeiting of a steady paycheck happened to coincide with the onset of a global pandemic. However, thanks to the years he spent validating his product – first with friends, then with fellow Chattanoogans, and eventually with Instagram influencers – Hoff & Pepper is ready to take the heat.
Think INC is a series of success stories from INCubator companies past and present. Chattanooga’s INCubator — the largest business incubator in the state of Tennessee and the third largest in the United States, with 127,000 square feet of space for entrepreneurs — is located in the Hamilton County Business Development Center (BDC) in Downtown Chattanooga, TN.