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

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."

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