If you've created a recipe that people love, selling it could be a great way to get into the food industry. Many people start off small by cooking their recipe at home and selling it to friends and family. As demand grows, you'll have to let sales plateau or make a change in your production methods. After all, there are only so many bottles of hot sauce you can make in one kitchen.

Before starting a BBQ sauce business with your own production facilities, there is an intermediate step you can take: hiring a bottling company to prepare, bottle and package your soon-to-be-famous sauce for you. Because the Food & Drug Administration regulates food manufacturing, you should find that the process is similar from one company to another. However, each company has its own requirements, processes and company culture, so it's important to find the company that best fits your needs.

Choosing the Right Bottling Company

There are several companies in the United States that can cook and bottle sauce for you. Finding the best company for your needs involves comparing their costs, quality, what other services they may offer and their minimum order quantities. Different bottling companies may specify minimum orders based on volume, weight or the number of cases.

To give you some idea of what different companies may be able to offer, consider these three:

  • Brooks' Bottling Co. (Oneonta, New York): With over 60 years in the BBQ industry, this company can help with sauce bottling, recipe formulation, brand development, copacking, sales and distribution.
  • Endorphin Farms Inc. (St. Augustine, Florida): Specializing in hot sauces, this bottling company has helped a long list of companies win national and regional hot sauce awards. 
  • Ashman Manufacturing Co. (Virginia Beach, Virginia): Founded in 1987, this company has developed over 350 of its own gourmet sauces and seasonings while helping other companies with recipes and bottling. 

One way to compare companies is by using a grid. Open a spreadsheet and put each of your needs in the columns and then put each company you're considering in a row. Assign a score for each need based on its importance. Then, you can request quotes from the companies with the highest scores.

Protecting Your Secret Hot Sauce Recipe

Before anyone can start bottling your sauce, you'll have to give them the recipe. You will likely want to protect your recipe as intellectual property. It's best to consult an attorney before deciding how or if you should take measures to protect your recipe.

First of all, copyrights don't apply to recipe ingredients. A patent may be an option, but if your recipe contains typical ingredients for a sauce, it's unlikely that your patent application will be approved. As a rule of thumb, if a food is created in a lab, it could be patentable, but if it can be made in a kitchen, it probably isn't.

The most likely option for protecting a recipe is to make it a trade secret, like Coca-Cola and KFC chicken. Trade secrets won't prevent people from discovering your recipe on their own, but it will protect you from having someone copy it. There are no forms needed for trade secrets, but you will need to prove you took adequate measures to protect your recipe, including nondisclosure agreements. State laws can vary on what is or isn't eligible as a trade secret, so you should get advice from an attorney on what's required in your state.

Understanding Nondisclosure Agreements

A nondisclosure agreement should be a standard part of any documents a bottler sends to you so that you have an assurance that they won't disclose your recipe or share your sauce with anyone else without written permission. You would be the disclosing company, and the bottler would be the receiving party.

The nondisclosure agreement would not apply to anything that is public knowledge or if it has been independently acquired by the bottler through other means. Only a court order or subpoena would justify the bottler from disclosing confidential information.

Industrializing Your Home-Based Sauce Recipe

One of the first things you will need to do when working with a bottler is to adjust your recipe for industrial-sized proportions. This is often easier said than done. In your kitchen, you're likely used to using proportions based on cups, teaspoons, pinches and dashes to make a pot of sauce. Upsizing these amounts for 100 gallons will require some work.

The bottling company you hire will likely give you guidelines on what it needs, but in most cases, you will have to convert the units to weight or percentages based on weight. This means you will have to weigh each component of your recipe. Some ingredients, like cans of tomato sauce, already have their weights on the packaging, but when it comes to water, salt and other ingredients, you will have to find a conversion table online or weigh them yourself.

The bottling company you hire may be able to convert your recipe to a larger size for a fee. Ask about this beforehand if you're not confident in your ability to convert the recipe yourself. The fee is usually a couple hundred dollars.

What to Expect When Engaging a Bottling Company

Every company has different minimum requirements. Some companies have minimum orders of 100 gallons, while others base their minimum orders on the size of their kettles or on a number of cases of bottles. Once they give you a quote, they should then be able to outline the production process for you. Each part of the process usually involves a line-item fee, such as:

  • Evaluating the sauce for its pH level

  • Registering the sauce with the FDA if it's an acidified food

  • Creating a procedure for each ingredient to protect from foodborne illnesses

  • Creating FDA-approved nutritional, ingredient and allergen statements

  • Creating an FDA-approved label

  • Manufacturing the sauce

  • Bottling and packing the sauce

  • Shipping the sauce to you or warehousing it for you

Selling Your Own Condiments and Sauces

If you are having a food production company bottle your sauce for you, you will need to ensure you have a market to sell it all in a timely manner, or your investment will be lost. Farmers' markets and food fairs can be a great way to get your product into the light, particularly if you offer free samples. Local specialty stores are often happy to sell a local product, particularly if you are willing to give them credit terms or sell the sauces on consignment.

Grocery stores may also be open to selling your sauce provided you give them a reason to offer your product in addition to those sold by companies with which they have established relationships. Often, this involves paying the store to put your brand at the end of an aisle for a limited time or, just like at the farmers' market, offering free samples to shoppers.

Another option is to sell your sauces online. This may be particularly attractive to people online if you establish yourself as a cooking expert on platforms like YouTube or Instagram. If you create wonderful recipes using your sauce and people can see that you know what you're doing, they may be happy to click a link to buy a bottle from you.