by Beverly Aarons
“Finger-licking good!” Gail Thompson laughed as she described the first time she got a taste of Hallelu-jah! Sauce. She was eating hot and crispy chicken wings with the sauce drizzled on it.
“It was so delicious,” she said. She rubbed the wings into the sauce. “I just could not get enough of it.”
It was the mid-1990s in the Central District of Seattle. Her husband, Carl Thompson Jr., the owner of the now-closed southern Creole restaurant, Thompson’s Point of View, wanted to “distinguish [their] hot wings from everyone else’s in the community.”
At the time, Gail Thompson said that most restaurants served hot wings with hot sauce or something similar. Carl could have followed the crowd, but he wanted to stand out.
“He loved Asian cuisine,” Gail said. “Especially Chinese food.” An Asian restaurant in Beacon Hill had a sauce Carl really loved. He began to experiment. Combining the Asian sauce with Creole spices, he explored various unique flavors. It took a long time, but after much trial and error, Carl cooked up a sauce with a taste worthy enough to test on one of his regular customers.
Gail Thompson chuckled as she described the customer’s reaction.
“The guy jumped up and he screamed, ‘Hallelujah!’ in the middle of the restaurant,” she said. “So hence the name of the sauce: Hallelu-jah! Sauce. And so that was one of the condiments that was requested most often in the restaurant … people would put it on their vegetables. They put it on meat. They put it on everything.”
Hallelu-jah! Sauce was so popular that the Thompson restaurant didn’t dare run out of it. Even after Carl’s death in 2010 and the closure of the restaurant in 2011, customers continued to request the sauce. At first, Gail was cooking up the sauce and giving it away for free. But after a year of gifting the sauce to customers, she had an epiphany.
“It just occurred to me that the expenses I was putting in with the jars and the sauce and everything and handing it out, I had a ready-made market,” Gail said, describing how her company Junebug began. “So I started bottling it and selling it.”
A B.S. in Business Management and two decades helping her husband on the managerial side of the restaurant gave Gail a basic understanding of how businesses operate, but selling a packaged food product was completely new territory. There was a lot she still needed to learn — she needed a mentor.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Gail said of her challenges starting Junebug. “I just had this idea and I could see that it was a good idea. And then the was, ‘Where am I going to get funding?’ … I didn’t have all this experience in a restaurant, so I couldn’t tag it on [a loan application]. And I had no idea how to start budgeting for it. So I had to piecemeal everything together, piece by piece, and continue to ask questions in order to get it going. So it took me from about 2012 until 2014 to actually get it to the point where I can say, ‘Now I can bottle this and now I have a label for it. And this makes sense.’”
Even as Gail figured out what she needed for her business, her journey remained difficult without mentorship. But one evening in 2014, a serendipitous moment pointed her towards the help she needed.
“I was headed home from work one day and I was just thinking about the business, and on the radio came a commercial about Ventures,” Gail said. “And I thought, ‘Well, that would be a good thing.’ And so I applied …” But she didn’t get accepted.
Gail’s income was too high for Ventures, a nonprofit that helps low-income individuals become business owners. But two years later, while unemployed, Gail heard the Ventures commercial again. She applied and was accepted into their business incubation program. She says that with the help of Ventures she began to receive the focused and useful guidance she needed.
“Whatever you need help with, they’re there to answer the questions,” Gail said. “You don’t have to struggle through things alone anymore.”
Things like how to create a budget, where to find her barcode, and — most importantly — how to choose a co-packer (a company that manufactures and packages a product for a business), were all struggles for Gail before participating in the Ventures program.
Gail is on her third co-packer who she describes as an “excellent” partner who understands her needs and respects her wishes. But she wasn’t always so fortunate. When her first co-packer, another excellent partner, closed his company after 30 years, she worked with someone else whose business practices threatened the Hallelu-jah! Sauce signature taste.
“One of the things they wanted to do was to quickly start changing my ingredients,” Gail said. Her voice tensed.
“’If we use this, it’ll save us more money. If we use that, it’ll be a little bit cheaper.’ And so when you start cutting corners from your original recipe, the flavor profile changes. It’s like if I eat a certain ketchup and somebody goes and buys something else, I know right away. It’s too sweet or too bitter or too tangy or something. You know it’s not the ketchup that you use. And so it’s the same with my product. I wanted to keep it original. So I finally, after about four months working with them, I said, ‘You know what? This is not working. This is not working.’ Because they would create a product and try to convince me that it tastes the same as what I gave them.”
The flavor of Hallelu-jah! Sauce is something Gail says she is not willing to compromise. She has a “responsibility to customers” to deliver a product that is “safe, low-cost,” and with the same delicious flavor they’ve come to love. She sees her company Junebug and the continuation of Hallelu-jah! Sauce as a way to honor the legacy of her late husband.
“He had been kind of a staying force within the community,” Gail said of her husband, whose nickname was Junebug. “People would come in and ask for advice from him, ask him to be on different committees, to work within the community. He was really a person that was sought after and very well-respected. And so I wanted to do something to honor him.”
Before the pandemic made face-to-face taste testing unsafe, Gail gave away Hallelu-jah! Sauce samples at grocery stores and farmers markets in the Seattle area. Now she’s selling her product mostly online.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
The featured image is courtesy of Junebug’s Sauce at Sauceworks.
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