Learn how the Holy City-based biz is heating up the industry, and get the chef-founder’s spicy recipes
Laid out before Red Clay Hot Sauce creator Geoff Rhyne are pristine ingredients fresh from the fishmonger, the farmer, and the butcher. The Georgia-born chef, who now lives in the Upstate with his young family, has returned to the Holy City to celebrate the recent success and expansion of his handcrafted condiment line with business partners Molly and Ted Fienning. A small group of investors, employees, and friends has been invited to dinner at the Fiennings’ South of Broad home, where Geoff, the company’s culinary director, is cooking the meal.
As Leon Bridges’s velvety croon spills through the kitchen, Molly shakes up a spicy bourbon cocktail spiked with a dash of their Hot-Hot Honey, peppering the chef with questions about the beautiful raw ingredients he’s shucking, steaming, and searing: oysters and littleneck clams from Abundant Seafood and a pork loin from Back 40 Butchery, alongside veggies from Lowland Farms.
“Raising animals humanely, farming sustainably, fishing responsibly—it takes a hell of an effort to get these ingredients to the kitchen. My job as a chef is to not screw ’em up,” says Geoff, who attended the Culinary Institute of Charleston and cultivated his straightforward culinary style while working the line at FIG. He’s familiar with hard work, having spent more than a decade climbing the Lowcountry restaurant ranks and simultaneously growing his hot sauce company.
“Ted and I love to cook and entertain,” says Molly. “And Geoff has taught us to appreciate local food ecosystems, source high-quality ingredients, and eat as seasonally as possible.” These same tenets, infused into their Red Clay brand, have transformed a simple pantry staple into a sizzling cult favorite.
(Right) Between Red Clay founder Geoff Rhyne’s culinary talent and CEO Molly Fienning’s business sense, the hot sauce company has expanded into the national market with new product lines. (Left) A small group of investors, employees, and friends has been invited to dinner at the Fiennings’ South of Broad home, where Geoff, the company’s culinary director, is cooking the meal.
“At FIG, there was always a drive towards sustainability and making things from scratch. And chefs always think they can make something better,” recalls Geoff of his time at the award-winning institution. “Everybody in the world was trying to make a hot sauce that would light your mouth on fire—what an asinine approach.” In pursuit of the perfect oyster complement while working at The Ordinary, Geoff followed a more cerebral process. Taking cues from the wine industry, he fermented mild Fresno peppers, giving them a salt and white wine vinegar nudge before cold-pressing the final product. The absence of cooking gives weight to each flavorful component, allowing them to shine in their own right while also lifting up the whole. “When you only have three ingredients, everything better be stand-alone delicious,” he says.
Response in the restaurant was overwhelming, with customers pocketing mini bottles right off the tables. “They’d come in for a $200 meal and steal an ounce and a half of hot sauce,” laughs Geoff, who carried the recipe with him to Leon’s. With a stripped-down umami essence, his not-so-hot original has won over the taste buds of even the most stubborn anti-hot saucers, including Molly.
The serial entrepreneur never liked the spicy condiment, which she finds hilarious, given that she’s now CEO of one of the hottest hot sauce companies in the market. But a date at The Ordinary made her a convert. One fateful night in 2014, Molly and Ted, the savvy couple behind high-flying children’s sunglasses line Babiators, sat down at the raw bar for oysters and martinis. After the waiter convinced her to try the barrel-aged Fresno sauce, she turned to her husband and said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. You need to go in the kitchen and shake that man’s hand.” A few months after Ted introduced himself to the chef and offered advice on the consumer product industry, the Fiennings had invested in cofounding a bottled hot sauce biz.
During the first four years of Red Clay, named for the “soul-staining” acidic soil of his native state, Geoff handled the heavy lifting, leaning on his partners for guidance as he launched and built the business. By 2018, the chef had established a regionally loved line of three sauces with a small but dedicated fan base. “In those early years, we were busy with our own brand and our own babies,” explains Molly, whose sons are now eight and four. “As Babiators grew into a teenager, though, the company didn’t need me in the same way.” Craving “the chaos of the newborn business days” and inspired by the rumored $140-million sale of a hand-batched ketchup company, the Harvard tech grad pitched a rebrand to her chef partner, who said he’d agree if she would lead as CEO. And with that, Red Clay began blazing its trail into the national craft condiment industry.
In the same way that Red Clay’s Verde sauce balances zesty Serrano peppers with cilantro and fennel, the brand plays to each partner’s strengths. “I like to call us the odd couple,” jokes Molly. “I’m a very intense New York City girl, and he’s a sweet, charming Georgia boy, the grandson of a watermelon farmer.” Together, they’re a fiery force.
To promote their national push, the duo took to the road in fall 2018, quickly gaining sales momentum with shelf space at grocery giant Fresh Market, plus a presence on Amazon. Their previous earnings tripled the following year, and in 2020, the business hit the million-dollar mark, with revenue projections near $2.4-million by 2021.
With energetic sales, however, comes the need for a rapid scale. “When I stepped in as CEO, Geoff was still touching every bottle. We wanted to keep that handcrafted authenticity but needed to provide tens of thousands of bottles,” says Molly.
The difference between Red Clay and nearly every other hot sauce lies in the heat—not just spiciness, but process, too. “This is a live, bubbling sauce fermenting with plant nutrients and probiotic enzymes. Cold-pressing preserves those health benefits and its distinct flavor,” explains the chief exec, who refused to sacrifice quality for quantity. “We called every single hot sauce co-manufacturer in the country, but they all used heat processing.” The team had reached the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, when some creative thinking led them to a kombucha factory familiar with juicing and fermentation.
Since going national, the team has more than doubled their offerings, expanding from the initial trio (Original, Carolina, and Verde) to an eight-sku suite of products that pay homage to the chef’s roots. Their Hot Honey and Hot-Hot Honey kick up raw wildflower honey with the dried pepper mash that remains after cold-pressing their Habanero sauce, while a seasonal pepper jelly, set to debut just before the holidays, puts a new spin on the Southern classic.
(Left) Quincie Bardsley tops her oyster with Red Clay’s Original formula. (Right) Blood oranges, grapefruits, tangelos, and a Habanero hot sauce vinaigrette deliver tang and vibrancy to the salad course.
The Hot Seat
Much like dried Carolina Reaper peppers turn up the burn on the brand’s Carolina sauce, an ability to think on their toes has allowed the Red Clay team to grow their business even in the face of a sharp downturn in the hospitality industry. “Two weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, we rolled out at Whole Foods,” recalls Molly, adding that, at the time, a third of their revenue came from restaurants, hotels, and wedding gift baskets—all of which were on hold.
To compensate, they trimmed expenses and leaned hard into their digital presence. One Friday morning in May, Molly could hear endless pinging in the background of a virtual meeting with their sales director. “He shouted, ‘There are 800 people on our website right now!’ It had to be TV.” Sure enough, days after mailing a marketing package to Jenna Bush Hager, the Today Show influencer held up two bottles for the world to see, declaring them among her favorite things. “We sold $30,000 of product in two days,” says the awed CEO. “Things went from work, work, work because we’re going to fold to work, work, work because we can’t keep up.”
The team recognizes that Red Clay’s skyrocket coincides with friends and partners in the food and beverage industry being hit hard by the pandemic and at a time when racial tensions are bubbling over. In response, the company has joined forces with Pay It Forward Charleston, a group funding local farm food bags for out-of-work restaurant workers, and Black Food Fridays, a project to support Black-owned businesses in the F&B industry.
“When I feel powerless, I’m that person who needs to act. I can’t sit and stew,” explains Molly. Putting their money where their mouths are, Red Clay donated 15 percent of online sales to these efforts throughout the summer. They’ve also added a social sustainability consultant, Quincie Bardsley, to the team.
For this evening’s get-together, a spirited fusion of foodie friends and colleagues, Geoff has prepared an eclectic menu, with each dish featuring at least one Red Clay product. While guests mingle and nosh on herb-buttered oysters topped with the OG Original sauce, the chef introduces his newest concoctions—an array of dried spice blends that will be released during the first half of 2021. There’s the pure Fresno mash plus an olive-laden Mediterranean blend, an “everything” mix, and a Bloody Mary salt. “This one tastes like a modern take on Old Bay,” buzzes friend and local designer Hanna Seabrook, an early investor in Red Clay along with her husband, Nelson.
After the party makes its way to dinner on the front porch, a vibrant citrus salad dressed in Habanero vinaigrette is passed. Plates get piled with field peas, twice-baked sweet potatoes, and slices of juicy roast pork dressed in mint gremolata. As a perk, Geoff hands over another upcoming Red Clay release—the limited-edition spicy pepper jelly. “When you can craft something thoughtfully, make it delicious, and serve it to somebody else, that’s a great feeling,” muses the chef. “Let’s get around the table and break bread. That’s where the magic happens.”
Recipes edited by Marion Sullivan