What started as a bottle of handcrafted hot sauce is now so much more for Red Clay Hot Sauce owners Geoff Ryhne and Molly Fienning, whose company is expanding into new stores and product lines. In addition to its four hot sauces, Red Clay now offers hot honey, spices and a hot pepper jelly bringing enough heat to flag FDA naming officials.
“It’s a story for us of how I think our team really stays true to our values,” said Fienning, describing Red Clay’s newest product, a Hot Pepper Conserve, given the somewhat arbitrary name after the Food and Drug Administration said its sugar content wasn’t high enough for it to be called a jelly. “We said [to ourselves], ‘No, we’re not sacrificing this to call it a hot pepper jelly.’”
Yes, remaining authentic is still a priority at Red Clay, even after the company raked in $1.1 million in revenue in 2020.
Rhyne founded Red Clay seven years ago while working as a chef at The Ordinary, debuting the brand with just one product, a cold-pressed, fermented Fresno pepper-based hot sauce that quickly hooked in-the-know Charlestonians. But according to Rhyne, the company’s shift occurred when Fienning stepped in as co-CEO.
“It grew organically and had a great base support in the Charleston market, but Red Clay did not become the Red Clay it is today until Molly stepped in a couple years ago,” Rhynne said. “No longer were we just this cult favorite — we were able to bring this to the people.”
Fienning’s ability to position the products, engage with customers and build relationships has grown Red Clay’s reach, allowing Rhyne to maintain its current sauce portfolio and add new products to the mix.
“Most hot sauces buy peppers, boil it and 24 hours later they have their sauce. Ours is a 6-8 week process where we’re purchasing, fermenting and then taking it over to the bottling line to add those other elements,” Fienning said. “It is a labor of love, but we think that’s where we get the uniqueness because it is fermented and cold pressed.”
The fermenting process Red Clay uses to make its hot sauces leaves what’s called a fermented pepper mash. Rhyne adds the mash from Red Clay’s habanero sauce to local Georgia honey to make Red Clay’s line of hot honeys: Hot, Hot-Hot and Spicy Peach.
And, that extra pepper mash led to the creation of five new seasonings: Spicy Margarita Salt, Spicy Bloody Mary Salt, Spicy Everything Salt, Charleston Harbor and Spicy Red Mash.
“In the same vein with the extra mash that we had, Geoff dehydrated it and turned it into a series of drink salts and seasonings,” Fienning said.
The salts and seasonings are more versatile than their names suggest. Charleston Harbor is a great addition to something like shrimp skewers, and Rhyne said the tomato-based Bloody Mary Salt or Red Mash can be used to season meat or vegetables.
“That’s like the all-purpose seasoning that you can use anywhere,” he said.
As for that hot pepper jelly that’s not really a jelly, Rhyne suggests serving it with grilled pork.
“This is so versatile, where you could use it in other applications besides a hunk of cheese. That’s part of what our strategy is here — this isn’t just a red pepper jelly, or conserve, that you just pull out for the holidays,” Rhyne said. “You could put it with all sorts of savory components.”
You can now find Red Clay in Fresh Market and more than 1,500 Publix locations, and the company will soon land in another popular grocery store chain. According to Fienning, who projects the company will bring in $2.5-3 million in revenue in 2021, 25% of Red Clay’s sales are direct-to-consumer via Amazon or its website.
All this for hot sauce? You betcha.
“It’s gaining momentum, and what’s cool about this business is you get that return customer,” Fienning said. “We care a lot about yes the branding being beautiful because that gets it off the shelf, but then you only will come back a second time or third time or tenth time if the product’s delicious.”