Millennials often get a bad reputation whether they are labeled The Me Me Me Generation or are blamed for everything under the sun, including arbitrary things like the disappearance of bar soap. Millennials are also labeled the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history. In order to combat this negative stereotype, we are celebrating Millennial entrepreneurs with the brand new series “Young and In Business.”
Welcome to the craft beer of hot sauce. Tongue Huggers is a growing hot sauce brand out of Michigan that is looking to revolutionize hot sauce like Starbucks revolutionized coffee. Co-founders Sam Harris and Alex Passanesi are two friends who were dissatisfied with the current state of hot sauce that just concentrated on spiciness rather than flavor. Instead of waiting for the industry’s ambitions to match their own, they decided to go into the business themselves and crafted their own hot sauce with a taste that hugged their tongues with flavor. In order to find out more about this brand (and get free hot sauce samples), we sat down with Tongue Huggers co-founder Sam Harris.
Interview by Dana Summers and photos courtesy of Sam Harris
Everyone and their mother is trying to chase the next big app or social media and you and your partner are two dudes from Michigan who are like “screw that, we’re going to create the next culinary revolution.” So I must ask: why hot sauce?
Sam Harris: It did not start as a business idea at all. Alex and I were looking for a project to do together and a few batches of hot sauce are relatively inexpensive to experiment with. We saw an opportunity to develop the category a bit more while looking at brands like Cholula, Tabasco and Frank’s redhot, and how few ingredients they use. Cholula isn’t as much as an offender as Frank’s and Tabasco but those are basically spicy vinegars with almost no flavor–at least not as much as we saw the potential for. Once our friends had given us enough encouragement and feedback, we decided “hey, we obviously have something desirable here, let’s get it out there, let’s do for hot sauce what craft beer brands like Founders, Bell’s and Short’s has done for beer.” (Those are breweries in and around Michigan).
Is Tongue Huggers organic, vegan, gluten free?
Harris: We are gluten free! And as organic and local as we can be. Our label will show you almost everything is organic except, for maybe things like the vinegar or the salt. And we source a ton of our ingredients locally, but some peppers like ghosts peppers are difficult or impossible to find locally. But our bottles are manufactured pretty much down the road in Okemos, Michigan, so we’re really proud of the extent to which we’ve been able to support local businesses through ours.
How has your personal background affected the development of Tongue Huggers?
Harris: Alex and I have both worked with food–him at a far more advanced capacity than myself. But we both love the idea of serving the community through good food. I worked one day in clothing retail and quit, but I worked multiple summers at an American-Korean fusion diner called Kosmo in Ann Arbor and loved talking about and serving people food. It’s an important job even at minimal wage! Everybody loves food, even if they don’t know it.
What has been your biggest accomplishment since starting your business?
Harris: There are a lot of reasons I’m proud of Alex and myself, but number one would probably be our decision to simply go for it. Sometimes I think to myself “this is fucking crazy, what are we doing?” But then I think about the craft beer brands that inspired us, or the entrepreneurs I’ve heard as presenters or researched online and I feel refueled and ready to take on the challenge. The biggest thing for me has been realizing there are problems you don’t want to have, but also problems that you absolutely should want to have. Nothing worth having is going to come easily for us at this point in our lives so we may as well go for a direction of positive discomfort.
Are there any other businesses that you take inspiration from?
Harris: Mainly craft beer brands like Founders, Bell’s and Short’s. We love these brands because they obviously care about every product they market and always have a good story on the bottle. Nobody needs to pay that much for a six-pack when you could get a six of Budweiser, but we do, and we love to.
What is your vision of success for Tongue Huggers?
Harris: If I can ever see some stranger, online or in a store, get as geeked for Tongue Huggers as my friends and I get for the new founders seasonal IPA, I’ll consider myself successful. A huge lesson I’ve learned from my advertising education and agency experience is that building small, strong audience is the best thing you can do for a brand, no matter how large or small you plan on being. Many people have talked to us about the possibility of selling out to a larger brand but we want to use this as an opportunity to learn, travel, and meet new people who are just as passionate as we are.
What are you doing now to expand Tongue Huggers’ reach?
Harris: I’ve been pretty lucky. Ever since we started up last November, I’ve had the opportunity to travel internationally and across the US to see friends and family. Many of whom have tried the product and given great feedback. Once we have a couple more pillars in place, primarily a dry-shelf certification, we’ll be able to hit up trade shows, farmers markets, smaller retail vendors, and even run some ecommerce campaigns.
Where do you see Tongue Huggers five years from now?
Harris: We’ve talked about a farm, food truck, a small restaurant, pop-up shops… We’ll see which one of one’s we decide to commit to, but we couldn’t be more excited.
Many of our followers are in Austin and we love our hot sauce, so when will Tongue Huggers come to Austin?
Harris: That’s definitely where a food truck might come in, haha. But I’m lucky to have met some pretty awesome people from Austin this summer who’ve graciously invited me to visit with a few boxes of Tongue Huggers. I can’t wait to see what Texans think of the sauce.
If you’re in the Lansing/East Lansing/Ann Arbor region, Tongue Huggers sauces are sold at the Allen Farmers Market (located at 1629 E Kalamazoo, Lansing, MI 48912) every Wednesday from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. EST.