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Focus on Product, Experience, and Logistics with Noah Chaimberg - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 177

Noah’s love of hot sauce began well before he founded HEATONIST. In fact, he’s loved spicy food for as long as he can remember. 

Growing up, Noah’s family joked that he got his love of spicy food from his mom’s mom. The family lived in Austin, Texas in the 50s and legend tells about a time his grandmother went to buy a garland of dried chilis for cooking. 

The grocer tried to talk her out of it, saying they were too hot for her, but she told him she knew what she was doing. 

He said if she ate one of the chilis right then and there, he'd pay for her whole basket of groceries. Groceries were on him that week! 

She and Noah are the only members of the family with red hair, and the only two to love spicy food. Coincidence, or connection? 

As he grew older, Noah found he enjoyed cooking after experimenting with his first grill. At 17, he interviewed for a job at an Outback Steakhouse that opened in town (South Burlington, Vermont). 

Most of his friends interviewing were made dishwashers or busboys, but somehow Noah was put on the line cooking. He loved the heat of it, and ended up working in kitchens for the next six years. 

While studying at Concordia University in Montreal, Noah had the chance to open his first food business: a breakfast and lunch counter inside of an MMA training facility. He named it Callaloo after the healthy Caribbean leafy green, and it was all about positive nutrition. 

It developed a real following with the trainers and their athlete clients. After graduating in 2007, Noah moved to New York City to get his business degree. 

After working in digital marketing for years, Noah began sharing his hot sauce passion with coworkers and friends, and the rest is history! 

He returned to his entrepreneurial and food-focused roots and launched the hot sauce tasting mobile in NYC in 2013 and opened the hot sauce tasting room in Brooklyn in 2015. 

Today, Noah splits time between Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Livingston Manor, NY, where he is working to establish the HEATONIST chili farm. Stay tuned for HEATONIST Catskills, coming soon! 

In This Conversation We Discuss: 

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [02:07] Where the idea of Heatonist started
  • [04:03] From a push cart to online, to brick and mortar
  • [04:43] When Noah went full-time into hot sauces
  • [05:42] How Noah got customers online
  • [06:59] Moving into warehouses after initial success
  • [07:51] The best investments to drive traffic
  • [08:10] Focus on experience vs growth
  • [08:41] Sourcing and producing hot sauces
  • [09:29] Where the Heatonist name started
  • [11:07] Hot sauce making is a great and loving community
  • [11:48] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [12:08] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
  • [12:52] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [14:18] Sponsor: BeProfit beprofit.co
  • [15:49] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [16:37] How Hot Ones came into the picture
  • [19:02] Learn to delegate early on
  • [19:53] Logistics can be difficult
  • [21:32] Why Heatonist stopped running their own warehouse
  • [22:12] When should a founder move to a 3PL?
  • [24:16] Partnering with the Shopify Fulfillment Network
  • [24:55] Which hot sauce would Noah recommend?

Resources:

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  Transcript:

Chase Clymer  

Before we get started, if you're enjoying this content, you can do us a favor by subscribing to our YouTube channel and ringing the bell.

That will let the algorithm know that you like this content and it will help us produce more.

Noah Chaimberg  

We never looked at traffic [and] we never looked at conversion rates. All we looked at was, are we getting orders out in full and on-time, are they arriving safely, and are people liking the products?

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating  real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. 

Today, I'm welcoming to the show, the founder of Heatonist: The world's most popular online destination for hot sauce, with brick and mortar locations in NYC as well --which I've actually walked by, I haven't gone in-- So I'll be honest about that. And I'll be going next time, I'm in town. 

But I'm welcoming to the show today, Noah Chaimberg. How are you doing?

Noah Chaimberg  

Chase, You got to come into the shops. 

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. Well, it's one of those things where I see the logo, and I was like, I know what that is. But I'm way across the street doing something else. 

Noah Chaimberg  

Mm- hmm. Yeah. 

No, I think you're a little afraid that if you come in, we're gonna make you try The Last Dab or something.

Chase Clymer  

I would 100% do that. I wish... You know what, I should have emailed you before this and said, "Send it to me. I'll do it on the show." And then you would have to talk for a minute.

Noah Chaimberg  

Well reach under your chair Chase, we got a surprise for you. 

Chase Clymer  

Oh no! (laughs) Awesome. So welcome to the show. I think a lot of our audience probably knows [you] because you guys just produced just amazing content. 

You guys are wonderful about that. And I can't wait to get in and talk a little bit more about that. Because it's just really curious to me. 

But where I'd like to start is just [taking] me back in time. What was going on in your life? Where did this idea come from that you wanted to sell hot sauces on the internet?

Noah Chaimberg  

Well actually, when I first started, it wasn't about the internet at all. I started... I've always loved hot sauce. And I came across this subculture of small batch makers. 

And it was all these people who were making hot sauce and selling it at farmer's markets and things like that. 

And there might be somebody who's making an awesome product. But you'd never find it if you were more than 20 miles away from where they were cooking it up. Because nothing was online. It was all just local and small markets. 

And I thought, "Jeez, I wonder if there's an opportunity to bring some of these together." So I started putting together a curated collection of them and launched here in Brooklyn with a pushcart, actually. 

I had a pushcart in my apartment in Greenpoint. And I'd bring it out and push it through the streets to different pop up markets and concerts and things like that, and sell hot sauce one bottle at a time. And let people try before you buy and people just went nuts for it.

Chase Clymer  

That's fantastic. I have a lot of founders here and they talk about you gotta do things that don't scale. 

And that might be the perfect most perfect example of when you're getting a business started, doing the things that don't scale - which is taking a cart full of hot sauce out there, letting people try it, and just getting feedback.

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah, I think a lot of people get wrapped up in their ideas and think that they need to go from 0 to 100 with it, but I'm a big advocate of "Prove it first. Test it." 

So here I was able to take... I built the pushcart myself. It probably cost about $3000. And I was able to see right there on the first night that yes, people are into this idea. 

I think we sold about $1,000 of hot sauce that first night.

Chase Clymer  

Oh, that's gonna feel validating. You're like "This cart's a third of the way paid off."

Noah Chaimberg  

So it was really that first night I was at a concert, okay, and the other vendors and everything else set up. 

And when the doors opened, and the fans started coming in just the first people right in the door, pointed a finger and said "Hot sauce? That's awesome!" I was like, "Alright, there's something here."

Chase Clymer  

Oh, that's amazing. So how long did it take to go from cart bopping around all these events? Was the next step online? Or was it going more towards a more traditional brick and mortar location? 

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah, the next step was online. So started the push cart in 2013. And then in 2014, launched online. 

And I of course still had a 9 to 5 corporate job and I would wake up early in the morning and pack up Ecommerce orders on my coffee table and walk by the post office on the way to work, put a handwritten note in each one and then open our first brick and mortar location in 2015.

Chase Clymer  

How long were you doing the dual personality, dual job thing, like actually still having your old job and doing this on the side before it really clicked that [you were] like, "I gotta go full time with this."

Noah Chaimberg  

It was the first few years. So I had the push cart for a couple of years, and then had the store open here, but I was still consulting full-time. 

And then finally, in December 2016, I was able to say hot sauce is paying the rent. I never thought it would happen, but it's happened.

Chase Clymer  

Well, that is amazing. So let's talk about getting online, obviously, when you are going to events with your products. 

And obviously, you had more of an experiential thing going on with the tastings, it's definitely easy to get conversation started and to acquire customers. 

How did you get the customers online? That's a completely different realm. You can't really take your cart to the metaverse just yet.

Noah Chaimberg  

Digital cart, no. Thankfully, being here in NYC, you get a lot of people coming in from around the world. So there were a lot of people who were exposed to us and wanted to make a way for them to keep engaging with us after they went back to wherever they were from. 

So for us it is mostly back then social media, organic, and yeah, just re-engaging with people that we've met in person online, It wasn't a big part of the business back then. And slowly took time and slowly ramped up and ramped up. 

And went from packing the orders on my coffee table once a week to then when we had the shop open, we'd take sometimes an hour at the end of the day to pack up orders on our shop table there. 

And then eventually, we had to set up in our store room downstairs, a packing station. And somebody would take the last few hours of the day to go down there and pack orders. And then I just remember it was... 

I think it was yeah, the holidays 2016 where our backroom was just so overwhelmed with packages and the mail carrier, Reggie, walked in to pick up our daily pickup and he looked around the room and was just like, "I'm gonna need to get another truck." It was just like, "Wow, this is working. At last."

Chase Clymer  

Did you guys have to move into a more traditional warehousing situation after that?

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah. So we went from... We got our first warehouse up in Greenpoint, so just less than a mile from where the shop is. 

And we were looking, deciding between 2 warehouse spaces in the same building. One was 500 square feet, which we thought was the perfect size for us. And the other one was about 1000. 

But the second one, the suite number was 218. And 18 is my lucky number. 

So I said "Let's go with that one. We'll have a little extra space. But maybe we can sublet some of it." 

Or we joked "If we ever get a pallet delivered, this is where we'll put it over here." And we thought that was the funniest thing. And it was within... 

It was less than 3 months from when we rented that space, we thought it was way too big that we went back and also rented the other space because we had overflowed the first one.

Chase Clymer  

That's a great problem to have. 

So you guys obviously had a lot of success on the online side of things over those couple years, moving all that product, what would you say were the best kind of investments of your time to really drive that traffic for the business?

Noah Chaimberg  

It was focusing on the product and the experience. So we didn't worry about growth at all back then. We were just worried about how to make the best product possible? How do we make an experience that lives up to the product? 

And then we'll let the customers do all the marketing for us. So we never looked at growth metrics. We never looked at traffic. We never looked at conversion rates. 

All we looked at was "Are we getting the orders out in full and on time? Are they arriving safely? And are people liking the products?"

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And now you guys... One, you're producing your own products, but then you're also sourcing products that you believe that need a larger scale and let people experience them.

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah, we are firm believers in better hot sauce. 

And that takes a lot of different colors. And for us that means things that we develop, things that our great friends and partners create. Yeah. We just... 

We love all things spicy and flavor and we just want to share that love with the world.

Chase Clymer  

And I couldn't agree more. You got some amazing hot sauces on your website. As he alluded to earlier, The Last Dab is probably one of their most famous hot sauces. 

What year did you guys actually get into producing hot sauces?

Noah Chaimberg  

Well, it's actually 2016 when we did our first collab one. It was the shop had been open for…  It was coming up on the one year anniversary and we thought wouldn't it be fun to create a sauce to mark the occasion? 

And we had just had our holiday dinner at a famous Szechuan Chinese restaurant here in New York. And they loaded us up on Szechuan peppercorns because they heard that we were the spice people and for them that meant Szechuan spice. 

So we had an outrageous dinner and we thought, wouldn't it be cool to use that experience and turn it into a hot sauce. So we partnered with our good friend Brodie Dawson from Dawson’s Hot Sauce and made... It was called HEATONIST No. 1, to celebrate the first anniversary of the shop being open. 

And the sauce was a total hit and remains so to this day. But that was really the first time we put the Heatonist name on a label and really created something that had come from our brains. 

And, and we thought, "Wow, there's really something to this. Here we are in New York City exposed to a ton of great flavors. And we have thousands of people walking through the doors of the shop every year telling us exactly what they're looking for in a hot sauce." 

It's like "Maybe we can put these two things together and come up with unique products." So that was really the start of it. And now, I'd say probably about 90% of what we sell is exclusive to Heatonist.

Chase Clymer  

And with launching your own products. I know from having previous guests on the show that anything, anytime you're dealing with a food product, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Are you still using that same partner to this day?

Noah Chaimberg  

Dawson's? 

Chase Clymer  

Yes.

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah, sure. They're great friends to this day. Their daughter who was born during the pandemic knows me as "Uncle Noah". Yeah, this... 

Hot sauce [making] is a community and it's a community of people that make this stuff and they're just obsessed with growing the highest quality peppers, and produce, and getting in the kitchen with the gas mask on and cook it up the best products in the community of people that love eating it and who support everything that happens in people following their passion. 

So it's, as I like to say, nobody gets into this business for the wrong reasons. And there's a whole lot of love going around.

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Chase Clymer  

Now, I kind of address one of the reasons why most people know about Heatonist which is the Hot Ones show. How long was that on your guy's mind? And where'd that all come from?

Noah Chaimberg  

Well, it was created by Chris Schonberger and Sean Evans there, you know, had the idea for an interview show that would kind of break the mold. 

And sort of it was Tony Yayo was the first guest where he was doing an interview at Complex where they work and, and they said, “Hey, would you do this thing?” 

And he said, “Yeah, sure.” And they sat down to interview Tony Yayo and they were gonna have him eating spicy wings. 

And he said, Tony said to Sean, “Hey if I'm going to do this, you gotta do it with me.” And Sean said, “Okay,” and that was the first episode. That's how Hot Ones was born. 

And they were probably about six or seven episodes deep when we got a call at the shop. And it was Chris, who created Hot Ones, and Sarah Honda, the producer, said, "Hey, we have this show. We got celebrities eating hot sauce and we think it'd be really cool if we had our own hot sauce." 

And we went and checked it out. And they had 30,000 views or something at the time. We're like, "This is actually really cool. So let's do this." And now, we've been partners for --coming up on-- 7 years.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And you guys keep reinventing The Last Dab with every every couple of seasons. 

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah, we... So when we came out with The Last Dab, we knew it had to be something really special. And so I talked to my great friend, “Smokin” Ed Currie, who's in the Guinness Book of World Records for breeding the world's hottest peppers, and I said, "Look, we're working on something super cool with our friends at Hot Ones. They do this awesome show." 

And I said, "I know you've got something hotter than the Carolina Reaper." And I said, "Let's do it for this." And Ed saw the vision right away and [became] our most amazing partner. 

And yeah, so we came out with Pepper X in The Last Dab. It wasn't going to be called Pepper X at first, but when we were working on the labels, we needed to put the name down. 

And Ed said, "Well, the trademark folks are still working on registering the name." I said, "Okay, we'll just put Pepper X as a placeholder for now." 

And we ended up going to print with that and the name stuck. (laughs)

Chase Clymer  

Oh, that's amazing. Now, is there anything that you remember from your history of growing this business, any mistakes that you made along the way that you may want to point out to any aspiring entrepreneurs out there to potentially avoid or help save them a headache?

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah. Lots, we're going to need a whole another podcast for that. The number one I'd say is that, for me, I wish I had learned how to delegate more early on. I held the reins very close. 

And as a creative endeavor, you can understand [that] this is really my baby. But I think I would have benefited from trusting more people with more stuff early on, because then I'd be good at it by now [laughs] as opposed to still learning.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, is there anything that I forgot to ask you about that you think would resonate with the audience?

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah, definitely. Logistics

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. 

Noah Chaimberg  

Any person who is actually operating a business in Ecommerce that involves physical fulfillment, that's going to be the number one thing on their mind: This actual freakin' logistics. 

Once I was doing an interview for Forbes, I think. It was about doing business in New York City. And they said, "What's one thing that people wouldn't think about that's, you know, tough about doing business in New York City?" 

And I said, "All the freaking garbage." But literally garbage in terms of just getting someone to haul away the actual physical trash is such a nightmare to deal with. That's one small thing. 

You can imagine the logistics of trying to get thousands of bottles of hot sauce a day where they need to be. Whether it's in stores, or warehouses, delivered to people's front porches, that are unbroken with the right product, and the right time... 

And warehouse shelves full and getting people showing up for shifts, just trucks moving every which way... 

There's so much logistics involved in actually scaling a business. It's so much easier when you're shipping out 10 packages a day, and you're doing them yourself, and you know exactly what's in each one. 

But now, the complexity grows infinitely as the business scales. But thankfully, there are a lot of good people out there who can help you. But there's also a lot of challenges waiting for you.

Chase Clymer  

And now with those challenges, you guys are running your own warehouse yourself, I'm assuming?

Noah Chaimberg  

No, we stopped running our own warehouse back in 20... I think it was like the end of 2017. We started different 3PLs

We've had a number of experiences of varying degrees of success and failure. And now for the last couple of years, we've partnered... 

Or [on] our last few years, we've partnered with Shopify’s Fulfillment Network. And that's been a really great partnership. We work very closely with the team there and our customers are pleased with the results.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, I was gonna ask. I think that's something in a scaling business's mind that takes a lot of weight on a founder is "When is the right time to move to a 3PL?" Do you have any kind of insight on that journey?

Noah Chaimberg  

I think you'll know when (laughs) when the time is. And it [also depends] on the complexity of your business. The simpler you can make things and the simpler it will be to pass that off to someone else. It's like, what do you want to spend your mind on? [With] your attention? 

For so many years, that was our biggest concern. We didn't think about customer acquisition, marketing, [or] any of that stuff because I said "It would be irresponsible of us to bring more customers into this if we're not shipping the orders out properly. And we're not shipping them out when we want to." 

So we didn't think about that at all until we could properly scale. We worked with a few different 3PLs and nothing really fit. 

And I was saying to Tyler, who's our COO now, saying, "I think we might need to open a warehouse back up again." 

I said, "We don't grow our own peppers. Because we have great farming partners who are super passionate about farming who grow grape peppers. We don't have our own kitchen, because we have great manufacturing partners who have kitchens and who are super passionate about making hot sauce." 

I said "There's no way we're gonna find somebody who's super passionate about putting bottles into boxes and slapping a label on them and shipping them out."

What we ended up finding in Shopify Fulfillment is people that are super passionate about helping entrepreneurs succeed. And knowing that it's not going to be perfect all the time. 

No one's perfect at 3PL. But there are smart people who really care on the other end of that phone when things are not going well so that you can work through it together. That was the most important thing.

Chase Clymer  

That's fantastic. Because actually, you're one of the first people I've spoken to that actually used the Shopify Fulfillment Network after they announced it. 

Man, I was at Unite a few years ago when they announced it and we're like, "Oh, this is gonna be really cool." And then the pandemic hit and we're like, "Whoa."

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah. We were one of the first partners. We worked with them very closely. For us, we weren't... Pardon my french, we weren't dicking around when it came to 3PL because we had already had a couple of failures. 

So we went to visit each of the warehouses to stand on the floor to see "Okay, when someone's packing the boxes, what's it look like? What's the lighting? Where are the windows and their air conditioning? How are the trucks getting here from the highway? How far is it to the distribution center from the post office?" 

We went to Shopify Headquarters in Ottawa to meet with the teams and the developers to see what the product was gonna like. We kicked the tires really hard to make sure that this was going to work. 

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. 

Noah Chaimberg  

And I'm glad that we did because it's been a really fruitful relationship since then.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. And I'm sure that they're gonna be very, very pleased to hear that. I'm gonna share this over with some people that I know over there once the episode comes out. 

Noah, I can't thank you enough for coming on the show. We've been talking so much about the amazing products that you guys are producing. If so, what's your recommendation of the week? 

Not your favorite. What's top of mind for the product on the site for people to go check out.

Noah Chaimberg  

So I talked about HEATONIST No. 1, our first anniversary sauce. 

And actually just last week, we launched HEATONIST No. Seven, celebrating the 7-year anniversary of the shop being open. 

And each year when we do these --since that first one with the Sichuan peppercorns-- each year, we make the anniversary sauce with an ingredient that's never been used in hot sauce before. So the new one is pomegranate, pistachio, caraway and lemon. 

Chase Clymer  

That's an interesting flavor set. And I look forward to trying it.

Noah Chaimberg  

Oh yeah. So that's HEATONIST No. Seven. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome.

Noah Chaimberg  

Really beautiful, interesting flavors.

Chase Clymer  

Cool. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today. 

Noah Chaimberg  

Yeah. Absolutely, Chase. Thanks for having me. It's a lot of fun.

Chase Clymer  

Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. 

We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have.
Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.