Entrepreneurs

This hot sauce company started in a 100-year-old Harlem brownstone, now the product flies off the shelves at Whole Foods

Vy Higginsen
Mama's One Sauce | Christina Nuzzo
Vy Higginsen

Vy Higginsen is in a coveted place for an entrepreneur in the food business. Her product, Mama's One Sauce, a condiment and marinade that comes in "mild," "spicy" and "fire," has become a cult favorite at Whole Food's Harlem, New York store since the location opened its doors on July 21, 2017.

"We are constantly re-ordering that item," Damon Young, store team leader at the Harlem Whole Foods tells CNBC Make It.

"People come in and they're like, 'Oh, do you have that Mama's One Sauce?'"

Mama's One Sauce on shelves at Whole Foods
Courtesy of Whole Foods
Mama's One Sauce on shelves at Whole Foods

But when creating the recipe, Higginsen's idea wasn't to build a business. It wasn't even just about making hot sauce — she wanted to create something that would evoke the sights, sounds, flavors and smells of her youth, growing up in Harlem in the 1950s.

"The idea was from a memory," she tells CNBC Make It.

A history not forgotten

Higginsen has had an interesting life so far: She was one of the first female advertising executives at Ebony magazine in the 70s, was a radio disc jockey across stations in New York for a decade, once published her own magazine about New York City, co-wrote a hit musical with her husband in 1983 and later started a non-profit, Mama Foundation for the Arts, which offers free music education in Jazz, R&B and gospel in Harlem, where both her husband and her daughter work with her.

Cicely Tyson and Vy Higginsen during a radio show, January 4, 1974.
Getty Images | Afro Newspaper/Gado
Cicely Tyson and Vy Higginsen during a radio show, January 4, 1974.

But some of her fondest memories are of growing up in a brownstone on 126th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues in New York City, busy streets only a block away from where the Harlem Whole Foods now stands.

"My family has been on this block for almost 100 years," Higginsen explains. She currently lives next door to the house she grew up in, which is still owned by her family.

Her father was a Pentecostal minister and her mother was entrepreneur who operated the family's home as a rooming house. That meant a variety of guests were always coming and going, Higginsen recalls.

"There were people who came from all walks of life," she says. "There were people who came from the South, they came from the Caribbean and they came from India."

Since the brownstone only had one kitchen, the guests would take turns making their favorite dishes. Higginsen can still remember what it was like to have all of those flavors and aromas mixing under one roof.

"My house was always full of these incredible smells and tastes," she says.

"Then, after the food was cooked everyone would eat and then they would sing. So my life was full of good food and good music."

'Godfather of Soul' James Brown performs with The Famous Flames at the Apollo Theater in 1964 in New York, New York.
Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images
'Godfather of Soul' James Brown performs with The Famous Flames at the Apollo Theater in 1964 in New York, New York.

The music of Harlem also streams through her memories, from singing hymns at her father's church on Lenox Avenue and 131st Street, to seeing iconic performers like James Brown at the Apollo Theater in her teenage years.

"The church was around the corner, the music was gospel," she says. "As I got older the clubs were on Lenox Avenue and that was Jazz. The Apollo had the R&B, there was a radio station on the corner of 126th Street, there was Sylvia's around the corner," referring to Sylvia's Restaurant, a famous soul food eatery that opened in 1962.

Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem
Getty Images | Buyenlarge
Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem

"People would sing on the street corners under the lamplight singing Doo-Wop. Life was colored by music," Higginsen recalls.

It was these memories that inspired Mama's One Sauce.

About two years ago, while reminiscing about the old days with friends Kevin and Felicia Lewis, whose son studied in the music program at The Mama Foundation, Higginsen had the idea to create a hot sauce. She knew it was the perfect thing to bring to life her eclectic memories.

"My partners and I began to put together the smells and the tastes and the feelings of my childhood and that is how it all came around," she tells CNBC Make It, referring to the Lewises.

The trio tinkered with ingredients and flavors until they found the right recipe, which drew on the Caribbean, southern and south Asian flavors she remembered. When they cooked it for friends and family, the positive reactions made them realize the sauce might be something worth selling.

"We had the product and we didn't know what to do with it," Higginsen explains. "People would say, 'I want some, I like how it tastes,'" but she didn't know where to sell it or how to scale.

Then Higginsen learned about an opportunity right in her neighborhood.

Big changes for small business

In the spring of 2016, Higginsen sat down to lunch with Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, a long-time friend. Evans-Hendricks is a co-founder and executive director of Harlem Park to Park, an organization that supports small business and entrepreneurs in the area.

"I've known Vy for years. She is a legend in Harlem," Evans-Hendricks tells CNBC Make It. "One day she mentioned to me that she had this sauce."

As a solution to help turn Higginsen's passion project into a business, Evans-Hendricks brought up an initiative she'd launched in the fall of 2015, the Harlem Local Vendor Program.

Courtesy of Nikoa Evans-Hendricks

The program is a coordinated effort between community organizations like Evans-Hendricks' and giant forces like Whole Foods and Columbia University. The goal of the program is to get the products of Harlem entrepreneurs — who are increasingly challenged by the neighborhood's gentrification and rising costs — onto the shelves of big retailers.

"Commercial rents have gotten so expensive in Harlem that now, to start your own business, it is really impossible for a small, independent operator to lease a space and open a store to sell their wares," Evans-Hendricks explains.

The average per-square-foot cost for commercial rents in Harlem has seen a 91 percent increase from 2005 to the spring of 2017, according to a survey by the Real Estate Board Of New York. And Harlem has seen a flurry of new restaurants and bars opening in recent years, like celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster in 2010. Not to mention the opening of chains like Whole Foods.

While the the introduction of Whole Foods might seem perilous to small food and beverage entrepreneurs, the upscale grocer's plans to open a store in Harlem didn't worry Evans-Hendricks when she first heard in 2012. In fact, she saw it as an exciting opportunity.

"The reality is you can't stop big box store development," she says. So the question became, "If it is coming, how do I ensure that Harlem small business and Harlem small entrepreneurs benefit from it?"

She called up Whole Foods' corporate office and proposed the company get involved in the area through Harlem Park to Park's Harlem Harvest Festival, an outdoor event coordinated by the non-profit where local businesses gather to sell food and products.

"They were really open to that idea," she says. Whole Foods began to partner with Harlem Park to Park on the fair six years ago, and has continued each year since, according to a representative from the grocer.

Through that partnership, Evans-Hendricks and her Whole Foods colleagues took notice of increasing numbers of small vendors turning up to sell handcrafted foods and beverages, opting to sell online or from their homes instead of renting space.

That spurred an idea: What if Whole Foods sold some of these local products in their store when it opened? To help the small operations scale to the standards of big retail, resources were pooled with other community organizations like Harlem Community Development Corporation and Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates and the Local Vendor Program was created in 2015.

Entrepreneurs in the program's initial cohort, like Miguel Martinez, creator of That's Smoooth shaving products, and Annabelle Santos, creator of Spadét lotions and soaps, now have their products on shelves at Whole Foods — an opportunity that may have been impossible for these upstarts before, Evans-Hendricks says.

Higginsen applied to the program in the spring of 2016, and by September she was one over of 20 local business enrolled and later selected by Whole Foods to be carried in the store. During the six-month program, Higginsen was guided by Whole Foods' team on design and production, and she met with staff at Columbia Business School to learn about how to run her business. The expertise was invaluable, she says.

"Understanding how the numbers work, and what to include in costing out your product, and what kind of return you can expect to have on your product — those aspects were really enlightening and illuminating, and also inspiring," she says. "It was really an eye opening experience and I am so grateful to have had it, because it put us on solid footing."

The local vendor program doesn't provide funding for the small businesses, so Higginsen and her two partners invested a total of $20,000.

"That doesn't include the sweat labor," she laughs. "We all had a little savings. We invested in our idea, we invested in ourselves."

Higginsen found a co-packer to manufacture her sauce in bottles in upstate New York, and on July 21, when Whole Foods' Harlem store opened, her product — which sells for $6.99 — was ready for purchase.

Product with a purpose

In the Harlem Whole Foods, Mama's One Sauce is a top mover in the category. It's even featured on some of the store's hot bar items, like chicken wings, according to Whole Foods' Young. For Higginsen, that's meant several thousands of dollars in sales so far.

While the sauce is only currently available at the Harlem location, Higginsen is working to have Mama's One Sauce sold at other Whole Foods stores soon. At a fair hosted by the Harlem Local Vendor Program in December, Higginsen was also able to pitch her sauce to other retailers, like Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy's and Columbia University's dining services. Columbia ordered 1,200 bottles to use on campus.

"We were like, oh yeah baby!" she says. "We are ready and we are prepared to do numbers in volume now."

Still, at Whole Foods in Harlem, Higginsen is well-known figure. She frequently pops by to talk with customers and store employees.

"She literally lives one block away, and that is really awesome because the community really identifies with her," Young says. "She'll invite you to her house like, 'Hey come over I want to make dinner and let you meet the family.'"

To promote the sauce and bring awareness to her music education non-profit, the Mama Foundation for the Arts, Higginsen has her singers give a free concert at Whole Foods every Thursday. She plans to have a portion of profits from the sauce go to the foundation.

"Everybody attends the school for free, so we have to raise money in all kinds of ways that we can to make sure we keep our program to no cost to them or their family," Higginsen says. "We wanted to make sure it was a product with a purpose, and the purpose is to help support the music."

Young explains that Higginsen's passion in turn helps the community feel more connected.

"It is a very genuine relationship customer facing and business facing on our side," Young says. "That is really cool to be a part of the growth that this small vendor is experiencing — us being a platform for that is really awesome."

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