Aaron Hoffman reveals the secret sauce behind building a great brand in Chattanooga

A native of Kansas who grew up cooking in his family kitchen, Aaron Hoffman cultivated a love of food and a taste for all things spicy. He ultimately launched a career in design, marketing and media, but never stopped cooking up new sauces. When he and his wife, Michelle (also known as Pepper), handed out batches of their Hoff Sauce as Christmas gifts in 2013, a product was born. Over the next few years, Hoffman put his experience to work honing the brand as well as developing the product, and now the distinctive style of Hoff Sauce - a little bit retro, a little bit edgy, a lot of laid back - is central to success of the fast-growing business.

"Just take the brand extremely seriously," he says. "Realize you're going to spend a good amount of money to get a good brand."

You had plenty of experience building brands for other people when the time came to build your own.

I had a 25-year career in design and technology, and I had my own digital design agency for 10 years. I started out as a designer, but this was when the web wasn't here yet. I was living in upstate New York, and I knew I wasn't going to college. I wanted to work on my own stuff. This was 1990 and 1991, so there was design, but no computers. I got a job at a snowboard company in New York. My first job was designing snowboards. Once I got really into technology in '97, I started my own design company with a partner. We developed an animated series that kind of took off - that was the start of Tubatomic Studios - and then we moved from Kansas to Chattanooga and moved Tubatomic over here. In 2007, I left Tubatomic to strike out on my own. I was on the software side, and I learned a lot about product development, about how to develop a product and test it. You wouldn't think it would relate to hot sauce, but it did.

From software to hot sauce? How'd you make that jump?

I like spicy things, I love to cook, and we started developing it as a Christmas gift for friends and family. Then more and more people were asking for it. The first time the public tried it was at one of the Main x 24 competitions. It took first place in 2014. We had full-time jobs, but I knew. I've always been an entrepreneur, I've always had side hustle ideas - restaurants, food trucks, always food-related, a gourmet hot dog stand. Then I realized this hot sauce was right under my nose and we lived four blocks from the Chattanooga Market. I said, 'Let's just validate this, put a little money in it, get a license, join the market, rent a cheap booth.' We started selling it, and that definitely validated it. [Michelle] quit her job first, she worked at AVA as the Four Bridges Arts festival director. So the first year it was her. Then we got into the Business Development Center. At first, we were making sauce at the Mean Mug coffeehouse. You had to have a commercial kitchen, so we asked if we could pay them to work there nights and on Sunday when they were closed. The first year we were working out of that kitchen, and in 2016 we got into the Business Development Center. We've grown from my wife working by herself now to a team of 23 people.

Hoff Sauce has a distinctive vibe that transcends the product. How did you set that in motion?

Building a product is more than just design, it's more than just a recipe. You have to look at all angles. Before you even start out, you have to know what you're trying to build. I knew I wanted it to be an everyday sauce flexible enough to be used on every savory meal. I wanted it to appeal to people who like the typical Louisiana-style hot sauce, but have it taste fresher and more handmade and make it just different enough from Tabasco and Louisiana style and make it differentiated from those sauces. Then for the actual brand, I wanted it to not be any type of branding that would go out of style. I wanted it to look like it was created 50 years ago and stood the test of time. I wanted to avoid any design trends, that was really important, but also be friendly and appeal to a wide audience in the branding itself, not just the sauce. We decided to put them in flask bottles for the reference to Tennessee. It was a nod to Jack Daniels, but all our competitors have these little skinny bottles. With our flask we have all of this real estate on a store shelf that we can really be a differentiator and look different than the rest of the sauces. And the straight black-and-white label doesn't go out of style. It feels handmade, and that was important, making sure it felt handmade in small batches. I went back to my art director days and hired two freelance designers that I used to work with at Tubatomic, and we had all worked together before and we knew each other really well. I didn't execute it, but I was the art director.

It's a great design for the merch you've developed. Will it evolve?

We haven't changed it a bit since 2015, and we consistently get compliments on it. I don't have any plans to change it. We'll probably do some minor tweak to it in a few years, but very small changes. It's great to be able to sell merch because you have people that are loyal to the brand and they don't only want to show it off to other people, they want to meet other people that are into it, as well. But you can't just slap your logo on something and expect it to fly out the door. A lot of the time they don't sell great on their own, but sell in a holiday package. You have to order $49 to get free shipping and people will order the merch to get free shipping. My advice is don't go too crazy with merch until you validate you can sell it. We definitely did too much merch before we validated we could sell it.

How did you know it was time to go all in on Hoff Sauce?

It takes a lot of work and a lot time to build a brand, and lot of times people have ideas and they might get a little too excited and quit their jobs and go do it. I stayed employed for five years full time while my wife ran the business. I didn't take a salary. It takes a lot of time to build something and do it organically unless you want to get involved with investors. I didn't want to do that. We bootstrapped it virtually the whole time. Now we are a profitable company and we don't have to pay investors back.

Not every entrepreneur has the advantage of a background in design and branding. What advice would you give them?

Just take the brand extremely seriously. Realize you're going to spend a good amount of money to get a good brand. If you don't get a very respectable agency to work on it for you, and if it costs less than $1,000 or $2,000, you need to go someplace else. Even though I had the experience, paying the freelancers was many thousands. You have to swallow that from the get-go, but only do that once you've validated your products.

How'd you land on the look and feel of the label?

I definitely had a mood board with different things on it. I looked at a lot of older brands from the '40s and '50s. I had a previous label I designed myself that was not as good as the one that came out. I was getting tons of feedback from friends and family and so I had partially validated it before we started at the market. I wanted it to be friendly, but have a 1950s/punk rock type of feel to it that looked familiar and friendly. I put my face on the label because that was a design trend in the '40s and '50s, that a person made that product and he put his face on it to stand behind it. That isn't really done that much any more. That feel is what I was going for with matte label, and it's not the best label because it doesn't have the plastic shiny coating on it, but we've never had a complaint about that. People say 'I've never seen a label like that.' We're really trying to be different from the current trends, not just to be different but to be something that would stand the test of time.

What else is involved in getting a brand right?

One important thing that we just did this year is getting a copywriter friend that had done brand building before. We worked with him to build our actual voice, how we communicate, the mission, the values, the vision of the company and everything from how you would get in an elevator and explain what you do at your company and what the company is about to how we respond to people on social media - what would that voice sound like? Comedic? Serious? We worked through it for a few months and it's really helped. We now have a social media team, and it's really helped us communicate what we're about as a company.

What's next?

We just got on [the YouTube series] Hot Ones, we're moving into a new facility in the first quarter of next year on South Market. We're in 6,000 square feet and it's 25,000. We started out the year in 1,400 stores and we're in 3,300 stores. We grew 100% last year, and it looks like 100% again this year.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Sporting Hoff & Pepper gear, Aaron Hoffman, right, and his wife Pepper pose behind the Hamilton County INCubator in November.