There is arguably no more American a sauce than ketchup. Without it, burgers and fries are naked. More popular than it’s tangy, yellow fraternal twin, mustard, ketchup is the condiment nobody doesn’t like. Unlike mayo or even relish, most everyone can agree on ketchup. It’s the universal condiment. Where would backyard barbecues be without it? What would July 4 be without ketchup?
That was the dilemma Lisa Murphy faced two years ago when she was hosting a July 4 barbecue for friends. Burgers were on the menu, and a friend of hers had found a truffled mustard from France they wanted to serve with their meat. But with such a fine accompaniment, they agreed that regular old ketchup was not going to cut the mustard, so to speak. Lisa’s friend challenged her to make a better ketchup. And thus began Sosu Sauces, a small, Oakland-based artisan sauce company focused on bold flavored, healthy, specialty ketchups and sauces.
Everyone at the barbecue was so impressed with the ketchup that Lisa became inspired to keep making it. Having graduated from UC Berkeley with a business degree, Lisa quickly realized there was a business opportunity to be had when it came to ketchup because there was something missing in the marketplace—there was nothing on the market made from fresh tomatoes and that packed the kind of flavor she felt ketchup deserved to have.
“I knew there was a business need. That’s important,” Lisa said. “There’s too many companies that make a company just because they’re passionate about the food. They forget to ask themselves if there’s a need for the product.”
So Lisa set out to solve the problem of how to get better quality sauces into people’s hands. She made ketchup on the weekends. She invited friends over for ketchup parties. She held her own focus groups featuring 10 different homemade ketchups and asked friends for their feedback. Eventually she and her fiancé decided they should try to sell the product. Lisa was working for a tech start-up in San Francisco’s Mission district at the time, so she started hitting up specialty stores such as Bi-Rite and Rainbow Grocery on her lunch hour, asking if they’d be interested in carrying a nice ketchup. They bit.
“We made 2000 jars and sold them all. We tested price points, took it to ceramics and butcher shops, went all over the place. We wanted to see who would buy this—it sold out in February. Places have kept store shelves for us.”
Yes, sold out. Because that’s the problem with seasonal produce—it’s, well, seasonal. And if you make a product that’s based on something seasonal, and if you’re going to do it right, then you only have access to that produce for a narrow part of the year. Thankfully, the product was so well received that many of Lisa’s distributors have saved shelf space for this year’s batch of ketchup, which should be arriving in stores soon.
Dealing with the seasons and demand have been a learning process for Lisa, who decided this year to turn to farmers to make sure she would have access to the tomatoes she needed to fulfill demand. Because each 9 oz. jar of Sosu ketchup contains two full pounds of tomatoes, she contracted for 50,000 pounds of tomatoes this summer and fall.
“If you don’t have patience, don’t get into the food business,” she said. “Especially with crops that rely on Mother Nature—you have to wait.”
Prior to taking on sauces full time this past February, Lisa had worked for a German company that produced augmented reality for ad agencies and large consumer companies looking to add an interactive element to their marketing programs. Working with augmented reality actually helped her make the transition to food, she says, because both are tangible.
“Food is tangible. I can taste it, I can feel it. I believe in technology and believe in augmented reality, but I really love food, so it was now or never,” she says of her transition.
Sosu, which comes from the Japanese for “sauce,” currently offers three kinds of ketchup—a ketchup made from Golden Jubilee tomatoes; Srirachup, which combines ketchup and Sriracha; and Thaichup, which contains lemongrass and curry. Lisa has plans to branch out to other sauces, including pepper-based sauces such as her own Sriracha and her own hot sauce, beginning this winter.
According to Lisa, Sosu Sauces is looking to disrupt the ketchup and sauce category much like new technologies are disrupting old categories.
“I just feel like ketchup needs to be more exciting. Our goal and our vision is more than just ketchup. Our goal is to change the sauce category. Barbecue sauce is particularly bad. Food has tight margins, so a lot of companies have gone to extremes to make things cost $1.99—you can’t even get a pound of tomatoes for that!”
Lisa takes her business inspiration from companies such as Method, which set out to change the market for household products with naturally derived, environmentally friendly cleaners.
“Before [Method] came along, everything was made from chemicals. They said, we’re going to change that, we’re going to create a high-quality product without chemicals. Their mission has always been, we want to be clean. I see Sosu doing the same for sauces—I want to innovate that—use fresh ingredients, farm sourced.”
Lisa also wants to make sure her sauces are accessible to any buyer who wants to eat better food, not just those that can afford to buy high-end, artisanal products.
“Artisan has gotten a bad rap. Everyone’s using that term to price their products really high. For me, if I want to be in the sauce category, if I want to encourage people to cook at home using a better sauce, that’s not affordable for the general American. I see sauce as a way to buy fresh produce and cook at home. If you start with a good sauce, everyone knows how to use it. I don’t want to charge exorbitant prices. Quality is number one; the second is affordability. I think an artisan product can be affordable. You just need to be smart about how efficient you are and how you run your operations. “
What drew you to food?
This goes back to when I was a pretty young child. I was born in China. I came to the U.S. when I was nine years old. I moved from Shanghai to Orange County. At the time my language was pretty poor. When you’re trying to learn a new language your confidence is pretty low. But my aunt was cooking for the whole family—she would go into the kitchen at 4:30 and come out at 6:00 with a meal. She’s very experimental and a good cook, she used a minimal amount of stuff. That’s where I got my love of food. I started working with her and asking, ‘Can I try this?’ At that time of my life I could be whatever I wanted, and I wasn’t restricted—I could do it and took control, and I knew how to make a good dish. I think that’s where my inspiration comes from. I could come home and do what I want and make food and not be criticized or restricted in what I made.
When I was working for the tech company, I had extra income to go to restaurants and try different foods. After I left my job in February, I took three months and went to Southeast Asia. I spent one month in Cambodia with a host family and working. I was searching for different flavors. People really like Asian food…and I was looking for flavors to bring back. I found one made from buffalo skin in Laos—it would make a good sauce for guys, but I don’t think I’ll make that. I learned how to made kimchi in Korea. That was kind of fun.
Why ketchup and sauces?
I had no idea I wanted to do ketchup. It’s not like when I was born I wanted to do that. Ketchup is not an industry that has been changed since Heinz. He’s one of the pioneers. I actually really admire him. He worked with his workers. He chose glass bottles so people could see what was in the bottle. He had ladies in the kitchen cooking down the tomatoes, and he was a pioneer in providing healthcare—he provided that for his workers. He was one of the first to do fresh ingredients and food safety. Cooked tomatoes were not safe back then; he made it safe. He was an entrepreneur who did this.
But that’s not what ketchup is now. Why does the ketchup in your fridge have to be made from really poor ingredients? When I was making burgers for friends on that July 4 weekend, I wanted ketchup that’s fitting for a good burger and good mustard, so I started making my own ketchup. I used to live in San Francisco, and I went to the Ferry Building. I found number two tomatoes—fresh tomatoes—and found an online recipe and started cooking it.
Ketchup has origins in China as a fish sauce. People have made different kinds forever—mushrooms, fruit—like peach ketchup. That inspired me because I grew up in a Chinese family, and I grew up going to the store with my parents on a Saturday and going to three different places to find the best produce and value. I had an aunt that experimented a lot and would take a little of this, a little of that—it helped to be experimental. It just so happens that Asian flavors are what I’m most familiar with. I make a traditional ketchup from orange jubilee tomatoes.
When it comes to educating people, we want it to be completely different—like my Thaichup, which has lemongrass and curry. I love those flavors.
This year we started working with farmers directly to get 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, and now peppers, too. I’m working directly with the farmers. They know there’s no waste—I’ll be with five farms next year. There’s so much food that goes to waste…especially heirloom tomatoes. Even if there’s a little black on it or crack, the stores reject it. Where’s that going to go? To feed livestock or back to the ground—perfectly good food that can be used for sauces or donated or whichever way you want to think about it.
Growing with farmers is important because you want fresh ingredients. That partnership needs to be very tight. If you don’t get the product or have bad quality, you don’t get the brand. I talked with 50 farmers this year—I visit the farm, taste tomatoes, meet them—it’s all part of the relationship. If you want to grow your business, that’s a very important part of your business is quality, and you can never compromise on quality.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
My Chinese background and my aunt who always cooked everyday in the kitchen when I came back from school.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Good question. There’s a difference between creating a passion and having a business for your passion versus creating a business business. If you’re looking at the long term, the most important thing is having a ‘why’ to why you exist. There’s a lot of companies that know how to do the ‘how’ or the ‘what,’ but there’s a lot of companies that exist—those that exist for a long time—have the ‘why.’ The best example is Apple. Or Method—they’re not just making cleaning products, they’re making products that are clean. I think that’s an important aspect that people miss. They’re making this chocolate bar or this jam and a lot of people miss the example of why this exists. Like this year, we don’t have a product, but they [stores] know why is because [our ketchup’s] fresh, and they’re more forgiving when they know that.
See if you can address a need or problem and answer the ‘why.’
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I think it’s definitely learning how to contract grow with farmers. I had no clue of how to do that and, you know, there’s a certain aspect of uncertainty. You don’t know how much you’re going to produce, and if you can’t produce, you don’t have a product. But after what we’ve gone through this year and doing the due diligence with farmers and knowing what you want, I think next year will be far better. It’s a challenge, too, but I know contract growing is what we need to do to have quality in the future and manage how to grow. It’s just forming those relationships and getting to a point where you’re comfortable.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I’m a people person. I love to talk to people. I love to work with people. This job has allowed me to work with the farmers and get to know them, and I’ve learned so much about how tomatoes are grown. An then there’s entrepreneurs, and you meet them and it’s great to hear their story and what their doing. So when there’s days when I’m like ‘What am I doing?’ I meet these people and it’s very inspirational to keep going.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Do you know Hodo Soy in Oakland? I’m pretty good friends with Minh Tsai, the owner, and he’s been my semi-mentor, if you want to put it that way. I really admire him because he sticks with his quality. He started his business to create quality tofu products. Even though now he’s in Costco, he sticks to his quality. I also admire him because he’s not looking at this as a passion. He looks at this as a business, and I think that’s very important. As much as it sounds like business and money—if you’re going to get your high-quality products into people’s mouth, you need to do that. And he manages every aspect of his business. If you’re going to work, you have to be the one whose sourcing it to the end product—just knowing the whole thing is very important. And I love his tofu. He’s the one that I know personally here very well.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
It would be my aunt’s cooking—because every time I go home, I would have her cooking and it was better than anything else you could get anywhere else. It’s the flavor I was used to growing up and that’s what I always remember.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Michael Tusk—Quince and Cotogna. So I had a dinner at Quince—actually at both Quince and Cotogna—and I can describe his food. When the plate comes out, it’s like a piece of artwork and even when you taste it, it’s very playful and fun. It’s like a musical piece—it’s jazzed up. And his pasta is just so good—and he’s one of those chefs who has developed a relationship with farmers in the Bay Area, and he’s not shy about telling people that. To this day, he still goes to the Ferry Building farmer’s market to get food, which is very rare for a James Beard award-winning chef. His food is an art. I wish I could make pasta like him; I don’t think I can. It’s like an art, a well put-together painting. Each ingredient has its place and contribution to the painting, if you want to put it that way.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Murphy, Sosu Sauces.