John Walden, Founder and Chief Quality Assurance/Quality Control Officer of J.W. Southern Sauce grew up in restaurants. His parents and family worked long careers in the service and restaurant industry, where he learned a lot about what makes a good meal. The secret? Sauce. While his love for food and delicious sauces sparked at a young age, manufacturing and producing his own masterful sauces was a new endeavor. From 2005 to 2011, Walden served in the United States Army, where he completed two combat tours in Iraq. While serving in the Army, he started developing J.W. Southern Sauce, born through his collective experiences across several countries and many years of trying to make military food more flavorful. Several years and lots of hard work later, the one-of-a-kind LGBTQ-, veteran-, and now Black-owned and operated brand launched on March 18, 2021.
We mustard from the beginning
Before launching J.W. Southern Sauce, Walden received formal education about the sauce manufacturing industry by attending an array of food-safe programs and the University of Georgia’s Department of Science and Technology’s Better Process Control School. From there, he needed a message behind his brand, something that represented all his hard work and would resonate with others. Similar to the Army’s acronym for corps values, Walden decided on the acronym F.O.O.D. (which stands for Foundation, Optimistic, Opportunity, Developing) to represent his constant motivation behind mastering the art of sauce making. While some people approach the food business as either a necessity or a way to make a living, Walden approaches this business as an art form. “It takes time and patience to find the perfect spices and ingredients that will blend into that magical taste that everyone would want and love,” he says. “Being successful is just a piece of the puzzle; keeping each sauce consistent bottle after bottle is the art of the challenge that I take pride in.” Since we eat with our eyes, Walden views sauces like a painter views his or her painting, always looking to create an artsy and perfected product.
In August 2021, after perfecting his recipes and brand messaging, Walden’s spouse encouraged him to go out and sell his sauces to the world. Walden knew he would need someone who was self-motivated and knew how to operate without a blueprint. Someone who could turn Walden’s art into a household name. His spouse introduced him to his cousin Kindrell “Brent” Hutchinson, who was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of J.W. Southern Sauce. Hutchinson, a native of Gainesville, Florida, found success as a real estate investor who had never thought about working in the food industry. However, after sampling Walden’s sauces, any skepticism was overpowered by his taste buds. “I never intended on investing, until I tasted it. I was ready to say NO! But oh man, it’s the best sauce I’ve ever tasted! I’m a foodie and I quickly realized there is nothing like this on the market,” says Hutchinson.
With consumer feedback turning out to be a huge success, Hutchinson knew the demand was there. “People want the perfect sauce, John is a master craftsman he doesn’t mess around with his culinary arts and all he needed was the business model and the world would thank him later,” says Hutchinson. A full line of bold and tangy sauces was launched shortly after, including J.W. Honey Mustard, Original, Savoy, Ranch, and Tartar Sauce!
The secret sauce to success
J.W. Southern Sauce’s retail journey started with cold calls to local restaurants. “We made cold calls to some major restaurants and sold our sauces to them; it was a major success. They tasted it and immediately started thinking of which meals they could use our sauces with,” says Walden. When consumers began asking questions about the sauce makers, they knew they had something good. Soon the pair started marketing to local grocers. “Because we are a small business and minority-owned, we would run into some local stores trying to bring in our product with low-profit margins but turn around and sell with significantly higher profit margins for their stores,” Hutchinson explains. However, this did not discourage their hunger to grow. After doing some online research on how to expand their retail presence and get in contact with retail buyers, they came across the same name over and over, RangeMe.
After signing up for RangeMe, Walden and Hutchinson wasted no time applying to Retailer Submission opportunities, including Southeastern Grocer’s Local Vendor Expo. Just a week after submitting, they got an email saying that they were selected. “I have to give credit to RangeMe for connecting us with major retailers. I mean if we didn’t, it’s almost impossible to reach any major retail buyers,” says Hutchinson. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without RangeMe’s platform.” As of today, J.W. Southern Sauce is now slated to be sold on more than 420 Southeastern Grocers store shelves across the United States such as Winn-Dixie, Harvey’s, and Frescos Supermarkets. “Word got to the buyer about our products before we pitched it! That speaks to how amazing the sauce is,” Hutchinson explains.
As a minority-owned and -operated business, it can be difficult to avoid biases within the industry. Yet the duo found solace and acceptance through RangeMe. “What helped us was that Southeastern Grocers and RangeMe are inclusive of local suppliers and small businesses, especially those with minority ownership,” says Hutchinson. “You guys have given us the same opportunities as major suppliers and allow us to compete at the same level to provide the best sauce in the world,” says Walden.
Up next for J.W. Southern Sauce
It doesn’t stop there! J.W. Southern Sauce is currently onboarding with Southeastern Grocers and plans to be put on store shelves later this spring 2023. They are also currently in communication with another major retailer. As their retail presence continues to grow, their main goal is to allow every major retailer the opportunity to sell their products.
While everything is happening so fast, their team emphasizes the importance of having faith in yourself and having a product the world wants. The J.W. sauces are an art form to Walden, and brand building clearly is a passion for Hutchinson. Their advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to “Be prepared for when you go into major retail stores, they’re not making small purchase orders by any means. They want to know how much you can handle.” The second piece of advice is what Hutchinson always tells the team: “We have to be prepared to hear 99 ‘Nos’ in order to hear one ‘Yes’.” Lastly, “You should have a strong, solid mission behind the company and be ready to provide your product to people at a high level and highest quality. Anything below that will align you with your competitors.”
We have been attending many grocer conferences lately and everyone asks us how we did it. Heck even suppliers that have been trying to break into retail for almost 20 years. I always say that RangeMe is like the Linkedin of the CPG industry. You have to make your presence known and demand to be seen. I wanted to give a shout out to Ray Harsono, our Supplier Success Manager who was a major help. He helped us create our presence and walked us through every step.
Kindrell Hutchinson, CEO, J.W. Southern Sauces