Romancing the Sauce: One Woman's Star Start-Up Food Business

At 42, Linh Reilly quit a job as a benefits counselor to bottle her homemade Asian sauces. Just over a year later, they’re on everyone’s lips.

By Louisa Kasdon
Photograph: Photo: Jurgen Frank

Cooking Up a Business Plan

Close to 100 women were packed into Linh Reilly’s living room while she was in the kitchen, madly pounding stacks of chicken breasts seasoned with her own Tasty Tandoori spice mix before tossing them onto an assembly line of George Foreman grills. Everyone who had been invited to Reilly’s Asian Creations tasting party had arrived — and brought friends.

Now she couldn’t keep up with her guests, who were piling their plates with Asian barbecued pork, mango shrimp salad scooped into fried wonton cups, and Indonesian spicy beef. "It was a crazy scene," says Reilly, 43. She noticed something else when she started the pad thai cooking demonstration: No one was paying attention — they were too busy inhaling the food. "I knew that night my new business would make it," she says. "I sold out of everything — and took orders."

The Secret’s in the Sauce

Reilly is not an impulsive person. She says jokingly that the most daring thing she had done before launching her cooking-sauce-and-seasoning line was "blow $100 on a blouse." But by the time she threw that tasting party, she had spent more than $15,000 in savings to start Asian Creations while working full-time. "The fact that many small businesses fail in the first year didn’t worry me," she says. "I just assumed that if I did my homework and worked harder than anyone else, I’d do well."

Reilly had been giving friends bottles of her homemade peanut, teriyaki, mango, and lemongrass sauces as gifts for years. "No matter how often I gave them the recipes, they could never get the sauces right," she says. Her "aha!" moment came when she took jars of peanut and teriyaki sauce to her oldest daughter’s school Christmas fair and they sold out in an hour. One year she skipped the fair, and there was an uprising. "I had to spend nights and weekends filling orders," she says.

As word of Reilly’s sauces spread, she recruited her husband, Shawn, and daughters, Kelsey, 15, andMcKenna, 10, to test new recipes and — between work, school, and soccer practice — help supervise a kitchen full of pressure cookers. By late 2003, Reilly was essentially running a manufacturing business out of her house, delivering batches of fresh sauce to private homes and small businesses in her Upton, Massachusetts, community before and after work. She was sleeping only three hours a night. "I was still a full-time benefits consultant, dealing with the kinds of problems that had to be resolved not in a day but that second," she says. "Life was exhausting, but as my kids would say, ‘Mom is tough.’"

The Year of Magical Cooking

Reilly had already begun researching how to join full-time the ranks of the women-owned food manufacturing businesses in the country — 9,942 to be exact. She analyzed the crowded marketplace for Asian foods, buying every bottle of teriyaki and peanut sauce she could find for comparison taste-testing. She took classes in food processing, met with chemists at Cornell University, and hired consultants to refine her recipes so that her products would comply with FDA regulations. "I’m the kind of person who has to do everything exactly right or it keeps me up at night," she says. To make sure her sauces would stand out next to existing products with orange, black and red labeling, Reilly used bright pink, lavender, and green on her bottles. "I held every aspect of the business close to my heart," she says, "from painting the orchid logo to drafting the nutritional panels."

In April 2004, Reilly officially incorporated and launched Asian Creations with four cooking sauces — Marvelous Mango, Pad Thai Pizzazz, Peanut Passion, Tantalizing Teriyaki — and five dry-spice mixes — Cool Coconut, Fabulous Fried Rice, Luscious Lemongrass, Sassy Satay, and Tasty Tandoori. On weekends, she did in-store demonstrations and gathered more intelligence. "Customers even taught me how to improve my teriyaki sauce by making it much thicker," she says.

She still hadn’t quit her day job when, on the way to the office one fall morning in 2005, while fielding calls from her packager, Reilly realized that she had forgotten to send an important fax to a new wholesale account. She pulled over on the Massachusetts Turnpike and vomited from anxiety. When she arrived at work, an irate corporate vice president phoned about a benefits problem. "She called all day, asking, ‘Is it fixed yet?’ " Reilly says. "I thought, ‘I could be at home, faxing in my pajamas and making sure that my peanut sauce gets to New York on time.’" The next day, Reilly quit her job. "At the rate my business was expanding, I could surpass my salary in a few years," she says. "I figured, ‘If not now, when?’"

Cooking as Passion, Hobby, and Career

Reilly’s path to culinary success was convoluted. As the oldest daughter in a privileged Vietnamese family, she may well have been expected to manage a staff of chefs someday. But her childhood was ruptured when her family was forced to leave Saigon, fleeing the day before the government fell in 1975. "We floated at sea for weeks on a ship crammed with refugees," Reilly says. "I remember being hungry, writing ‘woe is me’ entries in my diary. Dinner was a ball of cold, greasy rice rationed out by the ship’s cook."

The family settled in Laguna Hills, California, where Reilly’s father was able to get a job as a marine biologist; her mother went to work cleaning people’s homes. Reilly’s talents as a chef emerged when, at 12, she began to be asked regularly to cook dinner, learning by trial and error how a pinch of chili paste or an extra clove of garlic could transform a sauce. "Cooking became my passion," she says. "When we went out to eat, I’d interrogate chefs about seasonings and techniques because my father liked to challenge me to copy dishes at home."

On a trip to Bali years later with her sister, Loann, who handles the company’s Internet orders part-time, she discovered peanut sauce. "The flavor just locked onto my lips," she says. "It is now my signature sauce — hot and sweet, like the one from Bali."

That Peanut Passion sauce is what got Asian Creations into Whole Foods last summer when Reilly did a tasting for the company’s chefs and executives in the Northeast. For a food manufacturer, placing your product in Whole Foods is like winning the lottery. "I had to ask my distributor if I’d heard correctly when the regional vice president said he loved my sauces," she says. "In my mind, I still saw myself as that timid refugee kid who had to practice saying the word little without a Vietnamese accent." Five months later, Reilly’s Tantalizing Teriyaki sauce beat out thousands of other new products to receive the 2006 Best in Aisle award from Gourmet Retailer magazine at the New York Fancy Food Show.

Reilly’s husband, who assumed the sauce business would be another passing hobby for her, like gardening or a stint with kitchen design, is also impressed. It usually takes three to five years for a new product to get supermarket placement; Reilly did it in eight months. "I always knew Linh was too creative to sit in an office," he says. "But now that she’s grown from selling a few cases to thousands, I realize that she’s really going to pull this off."

With two national chains asking her to do private-label sauces for them and a home shopping network reviewing samples, 2007 is shaping up to be Reilly’s year. She recently signed with a larger packager to meet growing demand, and she’s expecting to draw a profit equal to her old six-figure salary by next year. "My goal in 2007 is to expand my wholesale business to include restaurants," says Reilly, "and have products on retail shelves nationwide."

Although her mother says that Reilly "works too hard and should have kept her old career," the entrepreneur has no regrets. "I love my job 300 out of 365 days," she says. "And even on those other days, I revel in the fact that I can make my own hours — and have time to be a soccer mom." Reilly is clear on one other thing: With four refrigerators at home fully stocked with food, she will never be hungry again.

Running the Numbers

18 months spent running Asian Creations while also working as a benefits consultant

$4.99 retail price for a bottle of sauce

1,000 cases of sauce bottled per year

10,000 cans of coconut milk needed to make 300 cases (12 bottles per case) of Peanut Passion sauce

4,000 plastic forks used at food shows

30,000 miles Reilly logged in her SUV delivering products in 2006

$185,000 spent to launch Asian Creations


Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:21

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