By Melissa T. Stock and Kellye Hunter
You’re almost there. The recipe is great, and you think you’re ready for the big time. Not sure what to do next? Don’t worry if you’re feeling lost in a maze of packaging and procedures. We polled four hot and spicy buyers: Joni Rayment, owner of Salsas, Etc., a hot shop and mail-order source in Milpitos, California; Richard Crawford, partner of Chili Chompers, a hot shop chain and mail order source in Savannah, Georgia; Jamie Mays, retail consultant for Calido Chile Traders, a nationwide franchise based in Merriam, Kansas; and Faye Greenberg, specialty food director for the Central Market, a gourmet specialty food store in Austin, Texas. These people know what is hot, and they told us the best way to approach them with product, follow up on your query, and improve the chances of getting your stuff on the shelves.
Don’t be Afraid
All buyers say they welcome samples from all companies, but that small manufacturers must be realistic and honest about how much they can produce. Rayment says it is better not to oversell yourself, and only promise what you can actually deliver. Mays says that if a small manufacturer cannot produce large quantities, Calido Chile Traders is happy to handle small amounts of merchandise through one local franchisee, even though the product must still be approved through the main office.
At Salsas, Etc. and Chili Chompers, the owners put out samples of products in their stores for customers to try. “We really want everyone to succeed,” says Crawford of Chili Chompers, where each product is sampled for eight to ten months in the store to give it ample exposure.
Consider Your Packaging Before Approaching a Buyer
Your product may taste great, but if it doesn’t attract attention and conform to industry standards, it isn’t going to sell. Here are some points to assess:
–A professional looking label. Every buyer agrees that a professional looking label is a necessity. No photocopied pictures taped to the bottles.
–Shelf appeal. How does it stand up next to other products? Rayment thinks flask bottles are clever because the wider bottles take up twice as much shelf space, and more of the label shows because it does not curve around. Also consider how easily the bottles pack and how many will fit in a case.
–Obscenity. It’s in the eye of the beholder. Calido Chile Traders wants only “tasteful” labeling: “I’d be in big trouble if I tried to put `Slap A ‘Ho’ hot sauce in a downtown Chicago shop,” says Mays. “In order to get a product like this in our stores, I might suggest a name change to something like “Slap A Hog.”
However, Rayment says that even though she finds some labels offensive, there are others that she finds humorous, and humor, she believes, attracts both attention and customers. “Some people won’t buy anything with a devil on the label,” she says, “but others buy these sauces as gag gifts for their preachers.”
–UPC Coding. This is not necessary, but it is fast becoming an industry standard, and many stores use this method for tracking products. All buyers agree that UPC coding helps your chances of acceptance.
–Nutritional labeling. This also is not necessary to sell your product to a buyer, but it helps in selling to health-conscious consumers.
–Batch Numbers. Calido Chile Traders prefers batch numbers on product to make tracking easier.
–Expiration Dates. These are absolutely necessary for items that perish quickly such as chips, which only have a shelf life of about a month. But for other products such as hot sauce and non-fresh salsa, you will want to check with buyers for their company’s preference and specifications on this matter.
–Sealing. All products must be vacuum sealed, and should be able to spend time on the shelf without spoiling or leaking. International manufacturers should take extra care because improperly sealed product will not pass customs. Safety seals win brownie points with consumers.
–Directions. Make sure the directions work on products such as rice mixes, and that the finished result tastes good without add-ons.
Making Contact With a Buyer
Now you have all the details worked out and you’re ready to make a presentation. Every buyer we spoke with is happy to receive any product, but they all prefer that you call first to establish yourself, send samples of your product, then…LEAVE THEM ALONE. They need time to critique packaging, try out your product and gather commentary from other people in their offices and stores. Wait at least 30 days before calling back. “We get turned off by persistence,” says Rayment. “Give me a month and I’ll have an answer for you, don’t call three times a week.”