Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Molly Fienning launched Babiators – yes, an aviators-for-babies brand – before switching gears to scale a local Charleston hot sauce company nationally. If you’re searching for an underlying thread between these brands, there isn’t much of one – besides the fact that Molly was bold enough to take on both and infuse each with an exceptional customer experience and top-notch branding.
I had the opportunity to learn more about Molly’s newer venture, Red Clay Hot Sauce, fresh off of the brand’s first $100K month. With an emphasis on honoring the land, supporting community, and prioritizing flavor (always), Red Clay leans into its Southern-favorite roots to capture a share of the highly-fragmented and local $1B hot sauce industry. In this interview, Molly shares her unconventional career journey, how a date night landed her a role as Red Clay’s CEO, plus where she sees the company expanding next (hint: in a pretty sweet – and salty – direction).
I’d love to learn more about your background. What led you to where you are today?
MF: I grew up in New York City and went to college to study technology. I ended up moving to DC for a job in international security and technology when I met my husband while he was a Marine fighter pilot out of Mississippi. We were engaged four months later, and I went from working in intelligence to becoming a military fiance in rural Mississippi. That journey really created the drive for entrepreneurship in me.
My first business was Babiators Sunglasses (we just celebrated our 10th birthday). Then, I got into Red Clay because we moved to Charleston: during my pregnancy with my second son Fox, all I wanted was oysters and martinis, and I could have neither. On our first post-pregnancy date, we went to an oyster bar, and ironically, I wasn't a hot sauce person. Thankfully the bartender encouraged me to try it – it was the best thing I ever had. We went back in the kitchen and met Geoff, the chef, and were invested in the company a week later. Four years later, in 2018, I stepped in as CEO of Red Clay to take it from a beautiful artisan Charleston hot sauce and scale it nationally.
You launched Babiators as a DTC company in 2011, making you super early to the space. How has the DTC world evolved since then, and what advice do you have on building a business with longevity?
MF: I get so much joy from thinking about telling a brand’s story directly to the consumer. I love being involved with everything from the color palette to the font, copy, language, and audience. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you can't sell something to everyone. If you try to reach everybody, you're going to reach nobody. You really need to find your tribe, find your niche, and grow, listen, and share with them.
We launched Babiators thinking it was only going to be direct to consumer. This was 10 years ago, so we were early in that wave. After getting some early buzz, we received several wholesale inquiries and began selling through retail, though we’ve seen a shift back towards direct in the past few years. Part of the growth of entrepreneurship and being a small business owner is trying a bunch of things, throwing them at the wall, and seeing what sticks. It’s so important to have an open dialogue with the consumer so you can understand what they want from you.
It’s interesting to me that you’ve taken on two completely separate and unrelated ventures with Babiators and Red Clay. Were there elements of Babiators that you were able to infuse into growing Red Clay, or were you starting from zero again?
MF: Something I've learned building companies in two different industries is that nobody knows anything when they start. It's just a question of being willing to dive into the pool to start learning how to swim. That first jump gets other things going. Big businesses are grown through baby steps each day.
I had some key best practices from Babiators, mostly on the technology side. On the brand-facing side, it came down to thinking the way a customer would. I like knowing that I'm supporting humans and not just big corporations, so I started thinking about sharing the story, the heart, the person behind the brand: my partner Geoff is this Georgia boy who grew up on a watermelon farm outside of Atlanta and named Red Clay after his grandfather who raised him. We’ve been able to share this story with really handsome, gorgeous branding. By elevating the brand experience, we’re inviting a customer to try one product, and then we trust that they’ll buy it again a second, third, fourth time if it's good and lives up to its promises.
There are a lot of small players in the hot sauce industry as opposed to a product like ketchup that has one or two big brands. Are you aiming to be a sort of Heinz of the hot sauce industry? What sets Red Clay apart from the myriad of other hot sauce brands?
MF: Totally. I think hot sauce is the fastest growing condiment in grocery today, it’s a $1B industry. Even the biggest names like Tobasco only make up 12-14% of the industry. In contrast, Heinz claims 70% of the ketchup market. We know we can create our niche and offer a way to differentiate.
Most hot sauces go one of two ways: either the kill-your-face with heat route, or the quirky character path. We’re aiming to be a best-in-class, elevated hot sauce that’s rooted in the South, with a modern approach. Beyond the branding, we’re about premium ingredients, elevated flavor profiles, and leading with taste. We’re about balancing the notes on a plate: the sweetness from the pepper, the acidic notes from the French White Wine Vinegar that we import directly from France, the saltiness from the salt and fermentation, and umami from the fermented process. All of this comes together in a condiment and we know no one else is doing in this category.
Additionally, we honor the flavor by using a cold pressing method. Other hot sauces boil their peppers to kill bacteria through heat. Geoff presses it the way you'd fresh press vegetables in a juice, and then we age them the way you'd age kombucha or a fermented food. We’re the only hot sauce company that partners with a kombucha maker on manufacturing because while we needed to scale, we weren’t willing to sacrifice on our process.
As you continue to grow and scale Red Clay, what opportunities are you excited to lean into?
MF: After we pressed the juice through for our sauce, we were left with this beautiful fermented pepper mash. It was a fermented gold that we didn’t want to waste, so we infused it into a local Georgian wildflower honey. It became one of our best sellers and a huge hit. We definitely have an opportunity to expand into different flavored honeys.
We also came out with spicy drink salts – we dehydrated some of our pepper mash and created specialty salts and seasonings. The margarita salt was a huge runaway hit. Next month we're coming out with a spicy coconut sugar, and I’m also super excited about the cocktail sauce we’re releasing early this year. We really wanted to do a fresher version with a little bit of a heat – a delicious, fresh cocktail sauce for seafood. The common thread in all of this is taking the flavors of the South in a thoughtful, chefy way, and bringing them nationally, with a modern spin.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Have a founder you’d like us to interview next? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.