INTERVIEW: How I built my food brand in the U.S. – Chris Bickersteth
Chris Bickersteth’s KOTO pepper sauce is considered by many to be one of the best in the U.S.
PT: As an avid consumer of pepper sauces, I have had so many pepper sauces here over the years, including famous ones like Sriracha, Tabasco and even the scorching Satan’s Blood with a heat index of 800,000 Scoville’s units. None of them comes close to the intensely gustatory pleasures of your KOTO pepper sauce. It is not just my opinion. Many gourmands of pepper sauces I know agree with this evaluation. KOTO pepper sauce has become one of my most famous gifts to friends and family. I discovered it in a Sierra Leonean grocery store in Durham, and I finally asked the owner about the producers of this excellent sauce, which inevitably led me to you. What is your name? Could you tell us where you were born and where you grew up?
Bickersteth: My name is Chris Bickersteth. I grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. My mother is Jamaican, and my father is Sierra Leonean. They met in London and got married. My father was an accountant, and my mother, a nurse. My mother introduced us to Caribbean food so I grew up eating Caribbean and African food. My Mom made juices, jams, and sauces based on Caribbean methods, but she was so creative. She used African fruits to make most of her juices. My grandmother was a Yoruba woman from Abeokuta. My Yoruba name is Oduntola. She and her siblings migrated to Freetown and settled there. She was a very successful trader of palm oil, quite wealthy. I watched and admired her as a child as she conducted business with wholesalers, retailers, and producers. She knew how to talk to people, and she was a great businesswoman. She owned many properties. She was so successful she sent all her children to England to go and study. She inspired my going into business.
PT: You are the maker of KOTO pepper sauce. In many African cultures, boys and men don’t cook. It’s considered a strictly female duty. What got you interested in cooking?
Bickersteth: (laughs) My mother. My father died when I was young. My Mom is not a typical African woman. She didn’t subscribe to the idea that boys shouldn’t cook. She taught all of us how to cook and introduced us to Caribbean cooking.
PT: Are you the first child?
Bickersteth: No, I’m stuck in the middle. I have an older brother, Nigel and a younger sister, Heather.
PT: What was your favourite food back home?
Bickersteth: My favourite Sierra Leonean dish is Krain-Krain. It’s made from jute leaves and palm oil. You add any meats of your choice. It’s eaten with cassava fufu.
PT: When did you migrate to the United States?
Bickersteth: I was first in London. I did my A-Levels there and I was planning to do my ACCA, the professional accounting exam. That was in 1984. I lived there for some time, but there was too much partying with my friends, so I decided to leave and come to New York. That was in 1986. I stayed with friends in the Bronx. If you are young, New York is the place to be. I was working full time and taking classes at Baruch College in New York. I met my wife in New York, in the Bronx. She was a friend of the friends I lived with, and she used to visit them. She was a student then. We got married and had our first child. We decided to leave New York for Dallas. She later got a job as a professor at the University of Texas in Dallas. My wife’s brother also lived there. We stayed with him and his family for some time before getting our own place. I started taking classes at UT Dallas. I was able to transfer all my credits. The university was a commuter school in those days, for older adults who are working. I was working full time and taking classes. The college was five minutes from our home and my place of work. I was able to finish my degree.
PT: What degree did you get?
Bickersteth: I got a degree in accounting.
PT: How did the idea for a pepper sauce start?
Bickersteth: After living in Dallas for ten years, we moved to Virginia. My wife got a job at George Washington University in Washington D.C. I would go to African grocery stores and see a lot of badly packaged products. It got on my nerves. You see products from Asia and the Caribbean all packaged nicely. We, too, have a lot to offer the world. That was what got me started.
PT: What year was this?
Bickersteth: In 2008-2009. I wanted to do something better. I started in my backyard. I played around with recipes, and I packaged two or three dozen and took them to African grocery stores. A couple of weeks later, when I went back, none of them was on the shelf. An official from the Virginia Department of Agriculture in charge of food safety had removed them because they were not registered. They left some paper for me to contact them if I wanted to register my product.
PT: What next?
Bickersteth: I contacted them and spoke to the inspector. I had to take a class about acidified food sauce. It is required if you want to manufacture hot sauces. Either you or somebody in your company must take this class, how to control the bacterial level to keep the sauce safe.
PT: Who taught this class?
Bickersteth: Various Food Science departments of the universities.
PT: After taking the course, what was the next step?
Bickersteth: Someone told me I could do the cooking in my house or find co-packers to partner with. Co-packers are people who make products for other people. They have the machinery; they’ve taken the appropriate classes, and they know food safety laws. For example, you have to send your product to a lab for testing. This lab could be commercial or a part of a Food Science department. And if you are going to sell your product inter-state, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be involved. The laboratory will give you a Process Authority letter to certify that your product is safe for consumption. I went to a co-packer and he registered the process with the FDA. Every time you make the product, you have to use the exact recipe because that’s what the Process Authority letter authorizes.
PT: So you worked with a co-packer.
Bickersteth: Yes. You could start your own kitchen if you have money, work with a co-packer, or work in rented commercial kitchens. I started working with a co-packer in 2010-2011 in Virginia Beach. He has a company called Ashburn Sauce Company. He has his own products, and also packages for other people. You give them the recipe, they make the product and charge you some money. But he had never seen my kind of recipe. I’m the first African he’s ever worked with. He was used to making the typical vinegary sauces. We struck a deal. I would go down there, and we would work on it together. We needed big cast iron pots, which he didn’t have. I had to buy these and some other cooking utensils. I would drive down and make the sauce myself, and the two of us would bottle and package it together. I’ll load the truck and drive back to Northern Virginia. I did this for a couple of years. Luckily, I started this with my cousin Solomon who passed away last year. I concentrated on the production, and he handled the marketing and distribution. I miss Solomon terribly. We sell the sauces mainly to stores and distributors. We hustled. We talked to everyone who would listen to us about our products.
PT: How did you finance your business?
Bickersteth: As I said, we worked with Ashburn for some years. We paid him some X amount of money, but he wasn’t making much money from the deal. The vinegary sauces were much easier to make; they take a shorter time. Ours takes the whole day. He advised us to do it on our own. He is a mentor to me, and we still work on some stuff together. He helped me out a lot. So, we went and got our own place in Northern Virginia. We found a place in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an empty 1,500 sq ft. place. Solomon and I decided that we could sell some shares to family and friends to raise money. We needed money to build out the kitchen. That was an extremely challenging experience. We did most of the work ourselves. We hired architects to make it into a commercial kitchen. We thought it would only take 3 or 4 months, but it took up a year! The cost of doing it was far more than we expected. Commercial kitchens need the hood system to suck the air out and bring in fresh air. That alone cost about $60,000. All the money we raised went into just that one unit. Inspectors kept asking us to change things. We eventually got all the permits. If I had to do it again, I’ll pay a contractor to do it.
PT: When did you start production?ⓘ
Bickersteth: We started about six years ago. My wife and kids helped when we started. My daughter would help every now and then. My middle son, Ayinde, always helps me out. I work full time as an accountant and do this on the weekends. I work seven days a week. We would drive up to New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and Philadelphia. A couple of months before Solomon passed, I told him I cannot do it anymore. We hired my son Ayinde to work full time with us. Prior to coming on board full time, he was working in marketing for an electrical company when he got out of college. He understands a lot about our business already, and he took the necessary classes online with a North Carolina college, which is much easier. When I took the classes, I had to go to Pennsylvania, rent a hotel, and stay there for a whole week while completing the course. I used my vacation from my full-time job. Solomon and I have put a lot of sweat equity into the company.
PT: How do you see the future of your business?
Bickersteth: It’s very bright. We now make five different sauces, and we have ginger beer with four flavours. (Traditional, Sorrel, Passion Fruit and Tamarind). These are all on our website: www.kotollc.com. We market to wholesalers right now, because it’s much easier. The retail part of our business is just about 1 per cent of our sales. My son is thinking of scaling this up, using social media platforms to advertise, and even working with Amazon. There are also prospects of getting into the supermarkets, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Big Box stores. We are thinking of automating production because there is an increase in demand. We need filling machines, conveyor belts, labelling machines, a printer for date and number. We’ve applied for loans and are waiting to hear back. Our original investors have been patient and we are grateful. It typically takes about ten years and beyond to start making money. The profit margin per product is slim and we reinvest any profit back into the business. We have venture capitalist investors looking to come on board. I get calls from all over the world from people inquiring about the products. A friend wants me to come and start a factory in Nigeria. We sell our products all over the U.S. – Georgia, California, Texas, Ohio. The distributors sell them to the African grocery stores. Even though the profit margin is lower with distributors, the turn-over is faster and payment is guaranteed.
PT: What else would you like to tell us and do you have any advice for potential African immigrant entrepreneurs?
Bickersteth: There are so many African products to bring to market. Making a high-quality product and good packaging are essential. For example, the potential venture capitalist investors were very impressed with our ginger beer packaging. The products will sell themselves, once they are high quality. We are also thinking of bringing bitter kola drink to market. As an entrepreneur, you have to enjoy what you do. If you don’t have the capital, think creatively. Build the business and reinvest in it. It’s a lot of work and you have to have a passion for what you do. We haven’t even begun to tap the potential around us. We want to partner with black-owned bakeries out there, so we could use the fibre left over from making ginger beer into ginger cookies, the way we do at home. We need to make the business very successful here in the U.S. before thinking of establishing abroad. This is the biggest market in the world.
The name for the pepper sauce, KOTO, came from a place in Freetown. The Kru people of Liberia settled in a part of Freetown called Kru Town. We called it Koto for short. Kru people love to eat very hot pepper. This pepper sauce took its name from that neighbourhood. My wife, who is a professor of African History, wrote the story on the bottle.