The heat is on: Small companies look for big success in highly competitive New Jersey hot sauce market

There’s no sense saying the competition to become the next name-brand hot sauce out of New Jersey is heating up … it has been at a boiling point for years. A newer entrant, Neil Narcisse, is now finding that out.

Neil Narcisse of Shore Sauce. (Shore Sauce)

The former music producer didn’t decide to become a full-time condiment purveyor in recent years just to sell a couple bottles of hot sauce at weekend farmers markets. Like many of his spice-perfecting peers, he wants to have his brand regarded as one of New Jersey’s best hot sauces, he said. If he’s being honest, he’d prefer it to be known as one of the country’s best.

“(But) however hard you think it is to do this, it’s harder,” Narcisse said. “It’s a tough business. There’s a lot of brands, so it’s really competitive. It’s also really expensive.”

The inflation-hit fresh ingredients he sources for sauces inspired by his family’s Haitian heritage make for costly production. And separating his business, Shore Sauce, in a hot sauce market that turns small sections of grocery store shelves into a behind-the-scenes battleground … results there don’t come easy.

For him and others trying to bring attention to their fiery creations in a post-pandemic food scene, the regional contests at now-returning food events often offer a necessary path to recognition.

“It’s one way to get your name out there, and get some type of credibility,” Narcisse said. “In this competitive market, you have to do what you can to build up the following and the sales.”

Narcisse said he’s confident in his product’s Caribbean-influenced flavors. In the few competitions he’s been able to enter recently, his sauces placed in top spots.

Austin D’Almeida, left, and John Sauchelli of Jersey Barnfire Hot Sauce. (Jersey Barnfire Hot Sauce)

John Sauchelli has a half-decade more experience running a hot sauce company. He and Austin D’Almeida, co-owners of Jersey Barnfire Hot Sauce, decided to give the business a try after making the sauces as something they did for fun in the kitchen together, passing the time while drinking beers and gagging from the smoke of charring peppers.

Throwing their hat in the ring on the hot sauce contest circuit provided early validation of their business endeavor.

“We from the get-go were winning awards,” Sauchelli said. “It’s something we didn’t initially set out to do when we started making hot sauce. It was just something we did to eat what we like — because we never found any hot sauces out of the many I tried that satisfied my personal palate. We wanted to make what we felt was missing.”

Sauchelli, who was a pastry chef for 25 years before launching the hot sauce business, said it was important for the co-owners to demonstrate they had a unique and desirable enough product — deemed so by more than their own supportive family and friends.

Their biggest contest win came right before the pandemic shutdown, when they were announced as one of the New York City Hot Sauce Expo’s Screaming Mi Mi Award winners. Sauchelli described it as the “Academy Awards” of hot sauce.

The New York City Hot Sauce Expo’s Screaming Mi Mi Award. (Jersey Barnfire Hot Sauce)

That brought a new consumer interest — at least from hot sauce connoisseurs — in Jersey Barnfire, which the co-owners learned to produce commercially in the Rutgers Food Innovation Center.

“When you get a trophy or medal at any event, there’s usually a big announcement and people are all of a sudden rushing to your booth to buy a bottle,” he said. “The show’s coordinators advertise the winners and all that, too. So, that brings attention. We’ve also gotten some major customers out of attendees of these hot sauce expos.”

The Jersey duo’s product has been featured in Fuego Box, a hot sauce-of-the-month delivery box. It’s also highlighted as one of New Jersey’s craft products in the Newark Liberty International Airport.

Jersey Barnfire is growing at a measured pace, Sauchelli said. They don’t want to scale up at a rate that would force any compromises with the product they’re winning awards with.

“If you go real big, your market, and margins, can get tight,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s a lot for a once-small business to work with. So, we expect to remain more of a small batch company. And, honestly, if we could just be New Jersey’s known hot sauce, and really crush it in our home state, that would work well for us.”

They’re not the only ones out to do that.

The 28-year-old up-and-comer in the space, Narcisse, admits he still has plenty to learn. But he’s planning on being in the running for Garden State-bred hot sauce brand recognition for many years to come.

“There’s tons of brands out there, but there’s also people who want to buy lots of these sauces and try new things,” he said. “If you can figure out a way to differentiate your products from others, I feel as though people are going to gravitate to you. And that’s what I’m going to do.”