Dave Hirschkop Interview
(Dave's Gourmet)

There’s another player in the billion dollar world of pasta sauce.
His name is Dave Hirschkop, Founder of Dave’s Gourmet.
Dave’s Gourmet actually makes many different products including Hot Sauce, Drink mixes, Spicy Snacks, and now pasta sauces.
For this interview, we are concentrating on the history of the co., Dave’s background and his newly launched pasta sauces.

Q – When did you decide to go into the pasta sauce business and why?
A – I think it was 2003. We’ve been in business since 1993 making Hot Sauces mostly. And, we’ve made lots of other condiments and snack items along the way. The Hot Sauces were kind of an accidental business. You probably know the story of my restaurant.

Q – I do.
A – So, what is the good and bad of Super Hot Sauce like that is, it’s attention-getting, it’s fun, it’s interesting, but, one bottle lasts you for 3 years. We didn’t view ourselves as a Hot Sauce co. We viewed ourselves as people that can make innovative items that are better than what’s out there. So, we said o.k. what else can we apply that to? Pasta Sauces were one of the groups we looked at. We looked at the category and said well, it’s great you use a jar up in one or two sittings. The category we thought was kind of staid. Everyone was making the same old stuff, all the same line-up of one to six sauces. That’s where we came up with the Heirloom Tomato, The Wild Mushroom, Butternut Squash. You know, we just thought we could do something different and special.

Q – I saw your pasta sauce on the shelf at Wegman’s. It was on an eye-level position. How did you get a big supermarket chain like Wegman’s to place your sauce in such a great position or didn’t you have anything to do with it?
A – Well, I mean, that’s luck, up to a point. Having the right distributor partner helps a lot. So, we really have a good distributor that does a great job. And then how much is the chain behind your items? How much do they think this is something special that they want showcased. On a store by store basis that is often made. So, Wegman’s is a great high quality chain and we’re glad they’re behind the item.

Q – You were probably aware of Wegman’s when you sat down with your distributor then?
A – No. Wegman’s is one of the five or six marquee names in the industry. Everyone wants to be in whole foods and Wegman’s and a couple others that are not just significantly sized, but they’re also high-quality, premium focused type of chains.

Q – I notice a jar of your sauce costs $8.99 on your website. That’s more expensive than Rao’s or Patsy’s. Do you have a hand in determining that price?
A – Well, we price on our website so that our prices are not lower than, and usually not the same as the shelf price. We purposely are not trying to compete with our retail partners. In the stores, I think it’s more often $7.99. Rao’s and Patsy’s on the West Coast are often over $9.00. In a lot of places we’re actually less expensive than they are. What always seems strange to us was sauces like those other brands are not organic and yet their prices are higher. Knowing what goes into them, they’re just making a boat load of money. With us, not only do we use premium ingredients, we’re organic which makes them more expensive. So, we had no choice. We have to be at that price point or we can’t make these items.

Q – Did you personally come up with the recipe for the pasta sauce?
A – It’s a team. The concepts are all my concepts then the team of us put together the actual recipes. It’s always a journey more than anything. The Butternut took, gosh, a year and a half I think to make. The Red Heirloom took I think a year. Just dozens of iterations of trial and error.  So, huge amounts of R and D (Research And Development) went into these projects.

Q – You sell something like 70 products. How do you manage a promotional campaign for all of these items?
A – Well, I mean you have to decide what is worth putting your weight behind. So, most of these items we don’t support very much. So, we don’t do very much for them at all. The pasta sauces and our main set of Hot Sauces are the two things that we really support and sell a lot for us.  The pasta sauces we certainly do different programs with than we do with the Hot Sauces. The people that buy them are slightly different groups of people. The Hot Sauces are skewed very highly male where the pasta sauces are more even. So, it’s a slightly different approach.

Q – So, you owned this restaurant Burrito Madness. What were you doing before that?
A – I was basically in college at that point. (Laughs). I started Burrito Madness when I was 22 or 23. I waited tables. I’d been a bartender so I’d been around restaurants a lot in my teen years. Then basically after college I lived briefly in California and I was from Virginia. When I went back to Virginia I sort of thought, wow! there is a whole other set of Mexican food that people eat that was not available by and large in the mid-Atlantic states. So, I said, we ought to bring this stuff out here and that’s why we started the restaurant. The restaurant spurred through messing with drunks interest in chilis and super-hot and all that and that sort of had a life of its own.

Q – Wasn’t it expensive to get into the restaurant business?
A – I guess it depends on what you compare it to. There are different types of ‘restaurant’ ventures for different budgets. A very limited budget you could start out doing some catering. You could start with a food cart. You could do a very limited type restaurant like we did.  Ours was a small place. It was in College Place Maryland which isn’t the most expensive place in the world to do business. It certainly wasn’t something I could put on a credit card, but, I got a couple people to invest and so it didn’t take hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think we all see these restaurants that take $8-$12 million dollars to put together, these mega restaurants and that’s sort of what we remember. You can certainly put together a restaurant for under $100,000, but, you have to be very savvy about doing it. Obviously if you take over an existing restaurant space that saves a lot of your cost. Then you can get people to co-sign notes and to a certain degree use credit cards. You can also do some of the work yourself. I remember where we had a Painting Party where my friends came in and we actually painted the restaurant. A couple of my friends were artists and could paint really great graphics. There’s a lot of ways to defer costs if you’re really committed and creative.

Q – And in return for the painting, you gave them some food?
A – Yeah.

Q – I’m catchin’ on to this stuff.
A – Sure. And gratitude. (Laughs).

Q – How big would you like to see Dave’s Gourmet get?
A – We certainly would like to see it get a lot bigger than it is now, not for just the sense of being big, but because we want out items to have impact. We want to make a difference and see the market change. So, that’s important to us. Then we’re just not going to be about pasta sauces from here on out. We’re probably gonna come out with some items too because we’re not a pasta sauce co. and we’re not a Hot Sauce Co. We’re by and large a food co. so we have lots of other ideas where we think we can make a difference.

Q – You could probably put out frozen pizzas next.
A – We could. We look at categories and we say, o.k. can we make a difference? I don’t want to launch an item and say well mine is 2% better than anything on the shelf. That’s a category we would reject. But, if we went into a category and said some of this in the category is tasty but everything’s unhealthy, so why can’t someone make something that’s both tasty and healthy? That’s something we would take a look at and then make sure it makes financial sense to do it. But, we just don’t want to jump in a category as a pure money play or we’ll full of ourselves, we can beat these guys. We really look at it as how can we re-think this whole category and do things differently. With pasta sauce I think people view it through this lens of traditional Italian pasta sauce is-----and they just sort of carry it along this tradition, whereas we don’t think of it that way at all. Pasta is a starch you put on your plate. Not many people really want to eat plain pasta. There’s not a flavor there. We view it as sauce is just something to make that pasta taste really good. The pasta is really the filler. It’s a substance. Italian style sauce is certainly; they have some good items, but, why be limited by what they’ve already thought of in that area? So, that’s why Butternut Squash and we have some other sauces coming out that are also not traditional pasta sauces. But, there are so many good flavors in the world that do pair well with pasta, but people haven’t really thought of it as a pasta sauce. That’s sort of where we’re coming from.

Official Website: DavesGourmet.com

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