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Member Spotlight: Benito's Hot Sauce

Member Spotlight: Benito's Hot Sauce

Benito’s Hot Sauce has been producing their line of Vermont Craft Hot Sauce in Morrisville, VT since 2007. Today, their products can be found in over 300 stores throughout Vermont, New England, and the Northeast. Each year Benito’s sources their ingredients from six local Vermont farms which includes over 8,000 lbs. of chile peppers, fresh organic vegetables, and other farmstead ingredients. Owner Ben Maniscalco says that, “this connection to the Vermont agricultural landscape is incredibly rewarding for us and is also something that our customers value a great deal.”

For Ben, there are many other rewarding aspects of running a small hot sauce business. Challenge, innovation, and schedule flexibility are at the top of the list. Being part of the local food system is gratifying and Benito’s is proud of the partnerships they have developed with local Vermont farmers, food coops, and specialty food distributors as well as the connections they’ve made with customers at both the Burlington and Stowe farmers’ markets.

Ben remarks that there are well over 5,000 hot sauce companies throughout the U.S. Due to this intense industry competition Ben shares that, “the most challenging aspect of the business for me has been growth in both grocery and specialty brick and mortar outlets outside of Vermont.” Benito’s combats this challenge by focusing on their eCommerce to increase sales on both their website and Amazon platform. Ben says that this tactic, “somewhat addresses this concern by providing the brand with a national platform to reach consumers while simultaneously keeping better margins than those which exist in traditional grocery channels.”

If you’re new to the specialty food business industry Ben advises producers to consider these three key areas: Revenue Streams, R&D/Product Viability, Return on Investment. For Revenue Streams, Ben says to “try not to have all your eggs in one basket when it comes to sales…Diversification gives a small specialty food business strength, flexibility and sustainability in the long term, especially during uncertain times.” Many categories within the specialty food industry have become saturated, think hot sauce, artisan coffee, chocolate, jam, and granola. What will make your product stand out? R & D/Product Viability is important and, “small specialty food producers should know what they are getting into and be ready to hit the ground running when it comes to differentiating themselves from the pack. On the flip side, offering a product that is too unique or “new” to the existing market can quickly become a bottomless pit of consumer education that can suck time and cash,” advises Ben. As for Return on Investment, this is a big one. Ben says, “It is vital that small specialty food business owners that are just starting out develop systems to measure their return on investment at every stage and in response to every business decision they make.” There are many unforeseen costs when starting a specialty food business and Ben cautions owners to be careful. “Producers need to keep R.O.I. in mind at all times especially when it comes to things like marketing through a distributor, offering discounts to large out of state chain stores, free fills/slotting costs, online advertising campaigns, etc.”

Ben shares that he has launched a new business called Vermont Condiment that offers a variety of co-packing options, business consulting services, and a commercial kitchen rental space. With this new business, Ben hopes to, “bring the experience that I have gained in the specialty food industry over the last ten years to help “smooth the road” for other future and current local specialty food entrepreneurs.”

Before the onset of COVID-19, one third of Benito’s total annual gross revenue came from retail event sales. Now that their entire summer event schedule has been cancelled, Benito has refocused their energy into generating more online sales. Ben says they can do this by, “lowering shipping costs in order to be more competitive with other online hot sauce retailers.” Benito’s will be launching a new and improved website within the next month to offer more products and an improved user-friendly experience. Ben shares that, “since the pandemic began, we have seen a 55% increase in online sales and a 30% increase in wholesale sales to local stores and distributors. Overall, business is down about 15% currently, but we are very optimistic that things will return to normal for us.” Ben is thankful for Vermont consumers and is, “very grateful to the Vermonters who continue to buy our products through the local Food Coops, conventional grocery stores, general stores and mom and pop grocery stores throughout the state.”

Benito’s Hot Sauce has been a member of VSFA for eight years. Ben shares that he, “initially chose to join VSFA for the ability to network within the Vermont specialty food scene.” Over the years Ben has come to recognize the enormous benefits included with membership. He says he finds, “the annual meeting workshops to be extremely valuable,” and that he, “always walk(s) away with useful and practical solutions that address relevant business concerns.” During these events, Ben says he has made valuable connections with local farmers, ingredient suppliers, packaging suppliers, and event promoters; all during casual networking time.

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