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Organic condiments make everything better

Opinions abound on whether higher education is a necessity. Whichever way you lean, we can all agree it's a great networking opportunity. What does this have to do with Red Duck? Karen Bonner, Shannon Oliver, and Jessica Hilbert met in the MBA program at the University of Oregon and that is where the story begins.

The three women were classmates during their first year and grew to respect each other. All three chose to take New Venture Planning in their second year, thinking easy A! "We knew we could depend on each other," recalls Jessica. They would need to come up with an idea, research/vet it, and see if it could be successful. "In our blind wisdom, and being good grad students, we went to a campus bar to have tater tots and talk it over." The major outcome was why, when grocery stores and restaurants work hard to put out a quality product, do they serve it with junky condiments? "Shannon had cherry cola ketchup in Hong Kong. Karen had curry ketchup in Belgium. We decided we'd improve inferior products. We tinkered in our home kitchens and brought in our prototypes for our final presentation. People liked what we'd done and agreed it was a good idea. And we did get the A!"

They decided to continue their class project by following the New Venture course sequence. During the next New Venture course, they got to travel around the country to test their product and see if it would fly outside the Willamette Valley. Both Louisville, Kentucky, in February 2013, and Austin, Texas, in May 2013, gave the ketchup a thumbs up. "We decided it was something we should really do," says Jessica. "We launched the business while still in school, January-May 2013, and used our student status to say, 'We're students, please help us!' We attended class all day, then headed to our rented commercial kitchen at about 8 p.m. to make ketchup in 10-gallon pots. I was seven months pregnant, so not as much help as I could have been. I'd head out at midnight, and Karen and Shannon would finish up about 2 or 3 a.m. Obviously, this wasn't sustainable."

They graduated in June, Shannon and Karen with MBAs and Jessica with a JD/MBA. It didn't seem effective to have three MBAs in the kitchen; they needed a contract manufacturer. To raise money, they did a Kickstarter campaign. $25,000 and 604 people later it was on. "It was a huge moment for us to see bottles of our ketchup come off a production line, filled, sealed, labeled. We'd been doing it all by hand. Our first product came off the line in late May/early June 2013."

Blind taste tests, with French fries, of course!

In the early days, living in Eugene, they all sold and did in-store demos. Once a week, someone filled up her trunk to peddle their product in Portland. Another day during that week, someone else would fill her trunk and drive around the rest of Oregon. The first products they had in stores were their three ketchups: smoky, curry, and spicy. "The first six stores that picked it up early on were independents because they're flexible and can just try things, where some chains are more corporate and have to have approval."

In 2014, they got a distributor and now have 11 products in about 5,500 stores in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Hong Kong. "Karen handles all the money. I do sales and marketing and since I have a law degree, handle the minimal legal needs we have. Everything else goes to Shannon; customer service and operations. Amazon has changed everything. Not only digital sales, but when they bought Whole Foods, grocery sales. We partner with Amazon on their digital platform as well as in their brick and mortar platform."

Someone combined their spicy ketchup with horseradish and called it cocktail sauce. They thought they should officially do it, but it was difficult. "Most horseradish is prepared and processed. Our products are super clean; the only preservative we use is vinegar. We eventually found someone to grind horseradish for us." Cocktail sauce was their next product and came out in 2015.

Their barbecue sauces followed. "There are so many options already, but not many organic, and some organic ones didn't taste good. Ours came out in March 2016 and they were a surprise hit. They're our best selling products."

Their latest products are taco sauces: Approachably Mild, Uniquely Korean, and Actually Spicy, launched in March 2018. "We met with a class of MBAs during a time we were thinking of what to do next. One student said, 'I like a lot of tacos and taco sauce.' We hadn't thought about taco sauce. We created a line of tomato-based hot sauces, a cross between vinegar-based sauces and salsas. They're our second best sellers. Two of the three sauces have zero grams of added sugar; lots of flavor without a lot of junk."


Being organic is important to them. "At first, we thought we could get a higher price for organic. As it turns out, it's not necessarily true. People say they will pay more, but then they don't, especially on the East Coast. In our early prototyping, we used conventional tomatoes. When we switched to organic, we could cut the sugar and salt in half. The tomatoes brought the bright flavor. Plus we wanted a well-run, thoughtful business, inside and out. We didn't want junk in our houses and wanted to do the right thing environmentally. We use a tomato processing company that is dedicated to organic processing. If a company does both organic and non, they usually process organic first. But that can mean processing before tomatoes are ready to be harvested. We go from the field to purée in less than four hours." They're a Certified B Corporation, going through rigorous certification and pledging to be motivated by more than profit.

Future plans are mainly focused on existing products in new channels, i.e., food service. Hospitals and schools would be a good place for organic products with fewer ingredients that can cause people trouble. And they'd like to get into restaurants and cafeterias. "On whole, we're proud of what we've been able to do and love doing it. I think that comes through in our products. We're hopeful that we help people think more deeply about the choices they make."

Connie Adams/March 2020

Red Duck
4110 SE Hawthorne Blvd, #501
Portland, OR 97214

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