Ryan Demirjian, the founder of a company that carries decades of family tradition in a bottle, tells us about what it’s like to run the hot sauce brand Kill Sauce. At twenty years old Ryan’s father, Avo Demirjian immigrated from Lebanon bringing with him his family recipe. He pursued a career as an aerospace engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for many years. In 2014 Ryan decided that it was time to share the family recipe with the world. Since then, Kill Sauce has grown to be sold at individual retailers, as well as stocked in chain stores. Here is what he had to say about the success of Kill Sauce so far.
GH: What is your brand extension strategy?
RD: Kill Sauce is definitely a bit disruptive, especially in the food scene. But the way I see it, that’s not a bad thing. I think we can do a lot with Kill Sauce. There are many avenues we’d like to pursue ranging from spices to oils, snacks, and possibly even beverages. Interestingly enough, we’re currently in the process of launching our hot wings pop cup at Smorgasburg LA, which is one of our main markets on Sundays in downtown. As you may have guessed, we’ll be pairing all our sauces with wings to create the ultimate tasting experience. In terms of dream goals, it sounds ridiculous but I really think we could use a Formula One team. It just fits with the brand!
GH: Who is on your management team and what does each bring to the table?
RD: The management team is basically just me, but I do have a lot of good help around me. My dad is a huge help, so he and I work on a lot of stuff together. I also have freelance help with web design, and Instagram marketing starting soon.
GH: Where did the recipe for Kill Sauce come from?
RD: We’ve always been big consumers of fresh peppers and hot sauces. But in 2013, my dad started to make some fresh sauce at home, which would become our first sauce – Habanero. The idea was to considerably reduce the sodium content often found in hot sauces, eliminate the unwanted preservatives, and capture pure flavor out of each pepper without overwhelming everything with heat. After testing it with friends and family with no business model in mind, it became a hot commodity. We couldn’t make enough to give away. At that point, I decided it’s time to officially label these small bottles of lightning.
GH: With Kill Sauce being family grown, what have you learned about entrepreneurship from your father and what do you hope he’s learned from you?
RD: We’re very different. My father was born in Aleppo, Syria, but grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. I was born in Los Angeles so we come from starkly different backgrounds. He’s an Aerospace engineer by training and naturally sees all problems from a scientific vantage point. He naturally excels at troubleshooting and eliminating possible errors through testing, which makes him instrumental in recipe development. Recipe development in the food business is much different than it would be in a home kitchen. The challenges are often insurmountable as a product is converted from a small pot home recipe into a commercial grade formula. Safety, consistency, supply, cost, margins of error, seasonality, heat levels (in this case), flavor – every factor is magnified and presents a different challenge.
As an LA native, I’m much more in tune with the branding, marketing, and execution of successful brands these days. The artistic direction of Kill Sauce has been of critical importance for me. Although I’ve worked in the corporate world for nearly 10 years, I’m much more in tune with the creative elements in business.
I am always concerned with disconnecting and viewing our products from a 3rd party perspective – the consumer. We live in an oversaturated, digitally deafening age. Every day there is less time to captivate an individual with your marketing message. Competition is infinite. This is the area I tend to focus on mostly while crafting the Kill Sauce narrative.
I think both my father and I have brought very different expertise to the table which has allowed us to learn from one another.
GH: Can you tell me more about the meaning behind the Kill Sauce slogan “use liberally. Live longer”?
RD: Hot sauce has often been a typecast actor on the stage of food products. Many consumers expect it to rely on gimmicky antics to stand out, and the integrity of ingredients is often compromised to achieve this end. This is contrary to our approach to recipe development. We believe that hot sauces should not be hot for the sake of being hot, nor should they include excessive salt, sugar, or chili extracts for flavor. Instead, they should be crafted with a focus on fresh peppers and natural ingredients without preservatives. Each Kill Sauce variety is thoughtfully designed to both showcase and balance the unique flavor and heat of each pepper. On that note, we believe Kill Sauce should be used liberally to maximize flavor while engaging in a healthy experience.
GH: What’s made Kill Sauce successful?
RD: Success is a relative term. In my opinion, there are significantly larger companies with 100x the cash flow that may be deemed unsuccessful. The key is not focusing on financial success, which is where many entrepreneurs or companies lose sight of their mission and derail. While the numbers are important to keep you alive, it’s all about making sure you’re passionate, inspired, and that your product reflects the same. The minute your passion doesn’t shine through, it’s time to close up shop.
GH: If you could do it all over again, would you do it the same way? If not, what would you do differently?
RD: My answer to this question will probably be different in 5 years. We’re still small. Right now I don’t think I would change anything. Also, these days there is no one way to get to where you’re trying to go. You just have to keep knocking until your knuckles bleed. We’re just going to keep going and learning from our mistakes. Thankfully none of them have been detrimental thus far.
GH: What are your goals for the brand this year?
RD: This year we’d like to secure a few anchor customers (10+ stores) as well as regional distribution. Up to now most of our customers have been independent single-store retailers. However, this past year we were picked up by World Market, which took us nationwide into 220 locations. We’ve barely scratched the surface, and the real fun and work is about to begin.
Learn more about Kill Sauce here.