Austin Slow Burn – A Conversation with Kevin Lewis About Peace Love & Chiles
Kevin, tell me about the early days. Just when did the idea pop into your head to make a product and what were the first 3 steps you took after that thought?
The story began when I was working at Chuy’s and Mike Young, one of the owner’s at the time, said he didn’t like the salsa they served at the restaurant, but he really liked the roasted tomato salsa at La Fogata down in San Antonio. My late wife, Jill, and I made one at home and put carrots, onions, habaneros and roasted tomatoes in it and brought him a sample. He said “No, that’s too hot”. We still liked it though and started making it for friends and family. It quickly became a hit!
The first step we took was to take the acidified foods course offered at Texas A&M by Dr. Al Wanger, who also did the lab work. By taking this course, we were able to do our own manufacturing. Our next step was to make a label. We came up with a couple of versions of labels for the Salsa Habanero and placed them on the shelf at the Slaughter HEB to see how they would stand out. That was back in the day when generic labels were in. Our label wasn’t fancy, but it stood out amongst the black and white.
Finally, we were trying to figure out where we were going to make the salsas. There was
a restaurant we often went to that sold breakfast tacos. We asked the owner if we could use
their kitchen in the evenings since they only served breakfast and lunch and they said yes. So, we started in an 8-gallon pot at 3 pm most afternoons at Pica Café in the early 1990s. Eventually, we began using the Chuy’s kitchen on 183 and Duval starting at 2 am. We’d be
cleaned up and gone by the time the staff showed up in the morning. Those were some long
days for us!
Did you already know which retailers you thought would be good partners for your products?
Our first client was a Texas gift shop on 183. We sold them our first case for $35. My wife
walked around with a jar of salsa and a bag of chips letting people taste both the red and green. Next was Central Market. She just walked in the front door and asked for whoever was in charge. She closed the deal right then and there. We were in the Central Markets in Austin & San Antonio for a while and then Wheatsville Co-op. Eventually, we launched in HEB. Sometimes we’d get into a new store due to a manager, who liked us and who we’d established a relationship with, who transferred to a newstore and would invite us over to the new location. We always made sure to keep in touch with them if they moved around. At this time, we were selling our salsas, habanero jelly and jerk marinade.
The inspiration for the jerk marinade came because we loved the ribs at the Majestic Diner on Barton Springs made by Chef Mick Van. He marinated them in a jerk sauce and they were delicious. He was a chef, horticulturist and writer… very talented. I started researching what
was in jerk marinade and realized there’s a lot of stuff going on in this sauce and I came up with a version I really liked. We started selling the marinade to Torchy’s Tacos and they still use it by the gallon on their brush fire taco recipe. It works great as a fajita marinade on poultry, meat, fish & seafood. I became “famous” over the years for the jerk ribs I made at our New Years Day party for friends and associates. Later, our Green Chile Jam came about as a result of a request from the manager at Central Market Westgate who was running the Hatch Chile Festival. We had one ready by the next morning. If someone had a request, we said “Sure!” and we’d be prepared to sell them 150-200 cases pretty quickly.
How has the industry changed in Austin over the years compared to when you first launched?
What’s really changed is ….you can no longer just walk into a store, find a General Manager and say “Hey, you wanna sell this?” There are so many more channels to go thru. The vetting
process is more difficult. No more, “Hey, I love this stuff. Let’s get it on the shelf!” Instead, it’s “How much can you make at once, where is your production facility, who is your distributor, do you have a marketing team and what is the price point?” right off the bat.
Who opened some of the doors for you that had a significant impact on your success?
John Zapp & Mike Young of Chuy’s by challenging us in the first place to make a salsa for the
restaurant and then not wanting it in the end. It helped us realize we could actually do this. The Pica Café owner for letting us get our permits out of his kitchen and Faye Greenberg, the Food Buyer for Central Market at the time. Stephen Shallcross for leasing us space at To Dine For Catering and Jim Murphy of Swedish Hill Bakery for leasing us space at his wholesale operation.
We really credit the Texas Department of Agriculture as well and their Go Texas program. They were putting together a container to go over to Germany for a promotion and wanted to include some of our jellies. It turned out to be about a ton of jelly…three flavors. We strapped it down on a flatbed trailer, delivered it to Fisher & Weiser in Fredericksburg who coordinated the fulfillment efforts for the Dept of Agriculture. We were so proud! We also credit Patrick Timpone (of Rose’s Salsa and Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce). He had a small kitchen behind what is now ABGB on the railroad tracks. He gave us lots of good advice. Virginia Wood of the Austin Chronicle was a constant supporter of our brand. So were the Les Dames d’Escoffier of which Jill was one of the first members. We had such support from that group of women. They even made me an honorary Les Dude!
What would you do differently if you were to start over again today?
Well, I can tell you what advice my wife, Jill, started giving people who asked about entering the food CPG industry after running Austin Slow Burn for over 10 years. She’d say, “Take all your money, go dig a hole in your backyard, bury it, and at least it’ll still be there in 10 years”. Running a food business was an expensive hobby to have back then. Now, it’s just an
expensive industry in which to operate. We would even drive down to San Antonio ourselves in my Ford Ranger to the glass jar manufacturer to pick up our 35 cases of 12-oz jars.
Can you tell us how daunting the food safety certification process is? Any advice for a brand who is about to take on the next level certifications for their food business?
My advice is to hire an expert. It’s a lot of paperwork and the traceability process is intense
from beginning to end. You’ll need to know where your raw materials come from and an
extensive HACCP plan. We have spent months creating stacks of manuals on how we do
things. We started on a shoestring budget and our first check was $35. We had our day jobs
for a long time. Jill was always in the stores demoing…FIVE days a week. She was able to quit her job first and then eventually I was able to but we had a lot of help from friends along the way.
What have you enjoyed most about being an Austin Legacy Food Brand?
The people I’ve met along the way. My favorite parts of any day were when I was restocking
the grocery shelves and someone would come up and ask me about the product or pick one up saying it was their favorite and find out I was the owner. They would be so excited to meet me and be quick to say “I’ve been buying your stuff forever!”. We made a lot of friends along the way.
Austin Slow Burn’s products included 3 salsas, 3 quesos, pimento cheese, food service jerk
marinade, 6 pepper jams and a southwest pasta sauce. What a legacy they have created and
Austin Slow Burn is still going strong. The quesos and pimento cheese can be found around
Austin, and other cities in Texas, such as HEB, Central Market, Whole Foods, Royal Blue Grocery, Eataly in Dallas, Bayside Fresh Market in Horseshoe Bay, Wheatsville Co-ops and Fresh Plus Markets.