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.

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