If you haven’t tried AR’s Hot Southern Honey, you will soon. This Virginia-based food brand, started in 2016 by Ames Russell, is in 270+ stores in 15 states and growing rapidly. That might just be because the spicy honey goes well on just about everything! Though AR’s Hot Southern Honey is expanding fast, Russell is still a solo entrepreneur who only recently left his job in technology to run the business full-time. We sat down to talk proof of concept, co-packing, and the tricky world of intellectual property.
How did the idea come about?
I grew up putting honey on my fried chicken, and as I’ve gotten older, I like spicy, so I started putting hot sauce or red pepper flakes on the honey. One year, I decided I’d give away hot honey for the holidays. I gave 100 bottles to family and friends, and by February, people were calling and saying, “we loved the hot honey, how can we get more?”
I thought, “I must figure this thing out – there’s obviously interest in it. I just needed to figure out how to bring this thing to market and do a proof of concept to see if it has commercial appeal beyond my family and friends”.
My proof of concept was if I sell the product into retail, will it sell and will customers reorder? When customers did in fact reorder, I realized the friends and family interest was also present in the general marketplace. When I started to get that kind of traction I thought, it’s time to get serious about this.
Do you have competition, and if so what’s your differentiator?
Yes, there are a few others in the “hot honey” space. I am so focused on meeting my customers needs and working to scale up all aspects of my business that I probably don’t pay enough attention to them! The beauty of what I have is an all-natural product, and I’m COMPLETELY transparent about it. People want natural products and transparency. What you see on my label is what you get – real honey and real peppers – not a product made with corn syrup and tasteless peppers extracts, masquerading as one with honey and peppers. The difference is remarkable!
Had you started a business before AR’s Hot Southern Honey?
I had been in several startups, but not in the food business. It was in the technology business. Most of my career has been in product sales and marketing, and I stumbled into technology without much passion. My lack of personal passion for technology is what got me excited about doing this thing with my food product. It’s so much more fun, at least for me. I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing.
Are you still bottling yourself, or co-packing?
Right now, I’m headed to the plant that’s doing my co-packing. This is the 5th or 6th production run they’ve done. I’m just there to taste the product before they bottle it. They say it’s not necessary to be there, but I’m so protective of the quality of my product. At some point, I hope I can let it go a little bit. And I’ll eventually expand – I know that I don’t want to be dependent on one co-packer and that it’s important to have flexibility.
What aspects of the business do you do by yourself?
I’ve offloaded the production, but I’m doing the sales and marketing, and the packing and shipping. I working on offloading more functions too so I can focus on sales and marketing.
Which aspects come naturally? Which don’t?
I’m a sales guy. I hate sitting at a desk doing the stuff I have to do, the paperwork. I’d much rather be driving my honey wagon around, delivering honey to my customers and prospecting new customers.
I have three channels of distribution: I sell wholesale to retail, I sell to food service, and I sell to other food producers. I’d rather be doing that kind of activity than administrative tasks.
Can you think of a problem you didn’t anticipate when you started?
There’s a lot to pick from! But my name is Ames, and I’ve only ever met two other people in my life with that name. When I started the business, it was called Ames’ Hot Honey. When I started to get traction, I knew I had to get serious about this and do some due diligence. An end game strategy for me is to sell business, and if I don’t own my name and brand, I can’t sell.
So I went to see an IP lawyer, and I had done some research. After consulting with the lawyer, he told me I had to change my name. I didn’t anticipate having to re-brand. It was a big effort, but thankfully it was seamless – I was still mostly distributed locally, and I could slowly transition the product, not pull it off shelves. Lesson learned! When I talk to people who are just starting out, I ask them if they’ve been to an IP lawyer. It’s so important to think long-term from the beginning.
What are your goals for 2019?
My primary goal for the year is to scale up distribution.
What are some of the tools you use every day to make your business possible?
I worked as a consultant in a technology firm, in their CRM practice. We helped companies adopt technology to improve their sales processes. I should have something connecting my Shopify, my QuickBooks, PayPal for invoicing and receiving payments, and I will this year!
What does success mean for you?
It would mean being able to pay myself and achieve nationwide distribution of my core products. Then roll out an already developed full product line extension. Stay tuned – Hot Southern Honey is just getting started!