Two years after Eastern Market setback, Uncle Brutha hot sauce business could be heating up again

By Vickie Elmer
Monday, May 17, 2010; 13

Brennan Proctor has cooled his spending, given up cable television and sold his car so his hot sauce company will keep going and growing.

He says he doesn't date -- he can't afford it -- and he seldom dines out unless a friend is feeling generous or it's tied to promoting his Uncle Brutha Gourmet Foods. He said his frugality is necessary as he rebuilds the company after closing its only store near Eastern Market two years ago after a fire in the area reduced foot traffic.

The store, Uncle Brutha's Hot Sauce Emporium, had fans in the community but not enough customers.

"I let it go, I'm doing everything in my power to turn this company around, and it's headed in a positive direction" now, Proctor said. The closing took a toll, but also forced him to take stock of himself and his company.

"The sauces were always the basis of my business," he said of his concoctions flavored with chilies, garlic and ginger. So he focused on selling his red and green hot sauce to restaurants and grocery stores around the Beltway and on running a "leaner, meaner" business managed from his home.

Keeping the store going produced a lot of stress and worry, and added almost 30 extra pounds to his waistline. So Proctor, 47, started walking, doing yoga and lifting weights. "I will never be able to fix this business if I don't start with fixing me first," he recalls thinking. He's healthier now, and has lost weight and a lot of the stress.

Uncle Brutha still is paying off debts from the store and its closing. Yet Proctor feels good about getting past the roughest patches when friends and others suggested he close the hot sauce business. His mother, Colette, encouraged him to hang in there; she worked with him in the store, and still helps with mailings and office tasks.

He's trying to be patient with the slow pace of his comeback and embrace the opportunities as they pop up.

Proctor grew up in the District and recalls the first book he ordered from a school book club was a cookbook. "All the men in my family cooked," he said. Yet he was determined to be a musician and headed to Los Angeles to try his luck. There he developed a career mixing sound and helping produce music videos. He created a hot wings recipe for friends "when we couldn't find any we liked," he recalled. That led to 10 years of experimentation with an array of chilies and hot sauces. Friends asked for the sauce and then people wanted to buy it, Proctor said. Meanwhile, the music video business was downsizing, and he started thinking of his hot sauce as a way to supplement his income.

He sold his California house for seed money for Uncle Brutha and moved back to D.C., launching the business in January 2004. He recalls grocers and wholesalers often telling him, "No, we've got tons of hot sauces. We don't need another." Instead, several local businesses carried it, starting with the Takoma Park Food Co-op in his neighborhood. Sales soared when he staged taste testings.

The hot sauces have won numerous awards, and some key support. Chef "Rock" Harper brought Uncle Brutha's sauces to Ben's Chili Bowl to create some "amazing spicy wings," said Ben's General Manager Nizam Ali. "The wings are very popular," and Ben's gift shop and online store also carry the hot sauce.

Other restaurants and chefs have signed on, creating a market for gallons of Uncle Brutha's sauces.

Recently, Uncle Brutha switched production from a place in Lancaster, Pa., to a producer in Alexandria that offers better quality, consistency and smaller batches -- as well as a local connection. "If we have to make 25-gallon batches all night long, that is what we're going to be doing," Proctor said, adding "I'm really particular how each batch comes out."

He's working with a farmer in Olney to grow chilies and now can "proudly say we're locally produced." He hopes to test market a new product this summer. He won't divulge details yet but said it "ties into a D.C. tradition that many people are familiar with."

Proctor is meeting more chefs who want his sauces and sees another encouraging sign. After years of running after business and sales, "I'm starting to be approached by potential customers." He's feeling healthier and more optimistic of his turnaround. "It's definitely picking up momentum."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company