Charlie Backer remembers “chugging” bottles of Tobasco with his brother when he was just 8 years old. So it’s no surprise that, as an adult, Backer has founded a fast-growing line of hot sauces under the brand Hot Charlie’s Hot Sauce.
A former payroll and human resources consultant, Backer said his product line was born a few years ago when he was preparing for a Super Bowl party. He wanted something with a ton of heat and flavor, so he headed to Dierbergs and bought a list of ingredients he thought would go well together.
“At this point, I could barely make mac ‘n’ cheese without burning it. I was a terrible cook,” Backer said, laughing. Even so, his sauce was a hit at the party, and his friends told him he had to start selling it.
In his first days as a blossoming entrepreneur, Backer sold five bottles on Facebook. Soon after, he was selling 50 bottles per week.
In August 2017, he found a manufacturer and began professionally bottling his hot sauce.
“I had no idea what to expect. I had 1,000 bottles leaving the assembly line,” said Backer, of Oakville in suburban St. Louis. His first marketing pitch was a success when he mailed a bottle of the sauce to Fox 2 TV in St. Louis, calling it the “first bowtie-friendly hot sauce” — a reference to the label depicting Backer in a bowtie. The TV station ran a feature on his sauce.
Then in what Backer calls the best and worst thing to happen to his company, his then-employer eliminated his full-time consultant position.
“I took that as the ‘Dare to be great’ moment,” Backer said. “In 2018, I grew it from [being sold in] five stores to about 100 at the end of the year.”
Recently, Backer secured a deal with national retailer Home Goods, which will sell his hot sauces in 800 store locations.
“I have a very supportive wife who believes in me and is awesome, and the kids definitely keep me motivated,” he said, adding that his company now is turning a profit and has been bootstrapped from day one.
In addition to his original hot sauce, Backer also sells Hot Charlie’s Ghost Pepper Sauce, Charlie’s Hot Sauce Dust, Hot Charlie’s Hotter Sauce Dust and Hot White Cheddar Popcorn, produced in collaboration with Palo Foods.
“It’s been one hell of a roller coaster, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Backer said.
My biggest mistake
“I think a huge mistake is thinking that everything has to be perfect before you do it. I was really blessed at different moments in the HC’s adventure of being pushed up against the wall — whether it was losing my job or me needing to grow to pay the bills. It’s really easy to overthink things. Don’t overthink the first step. A lot of times with entrepreneurship, we don’t always know where we are going. It’s one day at a time, one step at a time. . . . You just don’t know until you try it.”