Deb Rock Says Her 3-Ingredient Sonoma Hot Sauce Is the Perfect "Last Dab" to Any Meal
Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.
Today Deb Rock is the founder of Sonoma Hot Sauce, but her love of food started during her childhood. She grew up in a military family and as the daughter of a Mexican migrant, the entrepreneur was exposed to different foods and flavors at home. Rock helped her parents prepare the family's meals, and she says she drew cooking inspiration from pros such as Justin Wilson, who she loved because of his cajun-inspired cuisine, and Martha, who she thought added a modern touch to the food world. Whenever she got the chance, she would visit the local library to get her hands on a cookbook to comb through.
As she entered adulthood, Rock began making farm-to-table meals for her family using the food she grew in her backyard, located on the rural outskirts of Seattle, Washington. She learned how to wrap tomatoes in newspaper, store carrots and peas, and hang cabbages upside-down from the rafters; then, she started freezing, canning, and jamming her harvests. She looked to cookbooks—and Martha's tomes, in particular—during this process, noting that these home economics were essential parts of her family life. Creating these affordable meals from seed, she explains, ultimately informed the production of her hot sauce and business perspective.
Rock's fondness for the freshest cuisine has never let up. Through years of fostering her gardening and cooking skills, she has created her own brand of hot sauce with a range of offerings, from travel size bottles, like the Sonoma Hot Sauce "Mini" Hot Sauce ($5.99, sonomahotsauce.com), to party packs, such as the Sonoma Hot Sauce One Dozen 5 oz and Six 1.7 oz Stocking Stuffers ($199, sonomahotsauce.com). All of her products are vegan, gluten-free, and keto- and paleo-friendly. "I call my hot sauce eggs' best friend," she says. "It just takes you home." She says she has every intention of bringing her locally grown, handmade hot sauce to people's plates around the world. Ahead, learn more about Rock's entrepreneurial journey.
Gardening with a Mission
Before creating her own hot sauce brand, Rock worked at a food bank for nearly 15 years in Seattle, Washington. She took her personal experience farming produce in a rural community to plant and grow food to donate to shelters and programs, like Meal on Wheels, in the heart of the city. "I did it all myself in the very first year, and I grew over 2,000 pounds more produce than that garden had ever produced," she shares. Soon, she built a community of locals in the gardening and volunteer spaces. "I would put ads in the paper for free hands-on gardening lessons, from ages 9 to 99," she says. "We saw kids and grandmas and grandpas planting, sowing, laughing, and talking about work. This was an evening volunteer event, so you could get off work, not fight the traffic downtown, and put on your garden clogs." It felt like entertaining, the entrepreneur adds. They were able to hang out, have a nice dinner party, and watch the sun go down.
Transitioning to the Hot Sauce Business
Rock found fulfillment as a premier gardener and advocate for those in her community, but she says she knew that she wanted a change of scenery in 2017. "I'd never driven the coast," she recalls. "I'd never seen the Redwoods and I'd never been to Big Sur." She decided to hop in her car one day and follow the open road to explore a place beyond Seattle. Along her travels, she found herself unsure of her location and stopped by a winery; she realized she had ended up in Sonoma County in northern California, at a time "when the wine grapes were getting harvested, the lemons were there, and the figs were just everywhere—you could sit on a park bench and make a salad," she says. "Everything grows in Sonoma County, and it just captured my heart."
She decided shortly thereafter that Sonoma County was her ideal place. "Brown people were just as normal, just as successful, and just as worthy as anyone else," Rock says. "It really impressed me." She discovered a newfound sense of purpose in the gardening potential of this area, too; peppers, she says, were hard to grow back in Seattle. However, only 20 percent of the northern Californian farmland was, and still is, being used to create produce. The business owner wanted to put her own stamp on the food industry, while also working with local farmers to grow organic peppers to scale her new business, Sonoma Hot Sauce.
Rock raised money through a crowdfunding campaign and used a California state grant and EIDL loan to officially launch the brand and begin the production and distribution of her tasty, spicy condiments. She recommends Small Business Majority, a nationwide program that supports, educates, and gives voice and access to the Small Business Association and federal government resources, as well as Hello Alice, a digital destination with resources for women-owned businesses, to those seeking funds and support to establish their brands.
Growing for Good
No matter what's on the market, Rock says that her product, made from three streamlined, nutritious ingredients, is special—the peppers are the true stars. "My hot sauce has no dehydrated spices. There is no sugar in it," she says. "It is lovingly hand-grown and handmade—everything comes from the seed." The entrepreneur has no plans of slowing down. Today, she collaborates with other women-owned businesses, such as UCHU Spice and Panola Pepper Company, to expand her network, and has two new sauces in production for this year: a Meyer lemon charapita sauce and the world's first cold sauce made with a strain of habanero peppers bred to have zero heat, but all the fruity nuances of traditional habaneros. As Rock continues to grow her business, she holds onto one big entrepreneurial feat. "I'm proud of being that last dab," she says. "It's the crowning glory."
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