Amidst the pandemic, alumna makes shift from hot sauce to hand sanitizer

8.3.2020 Alumni News

By Elizabeth Dam-Regier

Lauren Rice Heald (‘06) has no regrets about her career path pivoting toward her family business, Hot Shots Distributing. But owning and running a wholesale and retail hot sauce company in the midst of a global pandemic required some creative problem solving and a complete shift in thinking about the business’s capabilities and products.  

Becoming a business major and business owner

While at Wake Forest, Heald was initially a Political Science major, with plans to go to Law School. Heald, a level-headed and practical person explains, “at the time it seemed like a safe, prescribed path.” A native to Thomasville, Wake Forest wasn’t far from home and she would spend summers working at her aunt and uncle’s hot sauce business in Charlotte. 

One summer, her uncle said “You don’t want to work for a bank – come let me teach you how to own your own business and be your own boss.” Her uncle’s offer was intriguing, and she decided to apply to the Calloway School of Business her sophomore year. 

With the encouragement of Jay Dominick (MBA ‘95), former Chief Information Office for Wake Forest, Heald applied for a small grant to launch a retail website for her aunt and uncle’s business. “I thought it would just be a fun project and didn’t anticipate my entire career going in that direction.” 

As graduation drew nearer, Heald had received an offer for a finance position and found herself wavering on what she saw for her future. Follow her friends into the traditional business world, or dive knee-deep into chiles while applying her new skill set to a beloved family business? 

Hot sauce and hand sanitizer

Started in the early 1990s, Hot Shots was a wholesale distribution business. Now as a wholesale and retail business, it has acquired, purchased, and created a variety of hot sauce brands. A bulk of Hot Shots clients are in the restaurant and retail industry and when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Heald and the company felt it. 

As the pandemic reached the United States and businesses began closing down, Heald and her husband were actually heading to Florida for a cruise. “One of our clients decided to have the annual vendor meeting on a cruise. We were driving down and I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe we are doing this,” but they were one of our biggest clients.” 

After getting on the boat and two hours before setting sail, the conference was cancelled and the passengers were quarantined on the cruise ship for five days. Once off the boat and with better internet access, emails from retailers started flooding her inbox. “They were all saying they were going to have to pull the hot sauces from their restaurant shelves. It was terrifying.” 

With this being one of the most challenging times for her company, Heald was quickly trying to figure out her next move. The saving grace came in the form of a call from one of her co-packers who said “I think I can make hand sanitizer, can you distribute it for me?” Heald said, “Sure, we’ll figure it out!” 

Hot Shots was able to quickly convert their FDA certified facilities to accommodate the production of hand sanitizer using the World Health Organization formula. Fortunately, Heald’s network of restaurants and retail stores provided a natural avenue for distribution. But this new venture has also opened additional markets. “It’s been really neat to see our model and network work for a product that is completely different from what we normally distribute.” 

Advice for entrepreneurs

After working with her aunt and uncle for many years, Heald and her husband, Matt, were given the opportunity to take over the thriving business in 2014 when Heald was only 30. “It’s been a lot of trial by fire. Being in charge at such a young age can be really challenging.”  

So, what is her best advice for young professionals and entrepreneurs? “Seek out experienced mentors, and always buy the best advice you can afford.” Heald encourages those wanting to own their own business to listen carefully and absorb all the information and advice you can, but have the confidence to make your own decisions.

Heald also emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining relationships. She explains that as a business owner “you serve so many people: your customers, employees, and vendors. And those relationships are absolutely the most important thing.” This has become especially pertinent during the pandemic – when hard decisions are being made, it is crucial to have solid relationships. 

What’s next for Hot Shots

If you’re a “chilehead” then you might know that although most peppers used in hot sauces are imported, the very hottest pepper currently in existence is the Carolina Reaper. Grown in Fort Mill, South Carolina, it is rated “exceptionally hot” on the Scoville scale, along with most law enforcement pepper spray. Having the ultimate chile so close to home is exciting for Heald. 

Healds future plans include building out the business with some form of manufacturing. “I would love to be able to create a product from start to finish. To be able to say, we planted those seeds, we harvested those peppers, we did it all from A-Z.” 

But Heald’s larger goal is to nourish and expand the “fiery foods industry” by supporting her fellow chileheads. “We have guided customers in starting and expanding their businesses, assisted start-ups in bringing their products to market, collaborated with long time industry veterans to expand their brands, and even provided retirees an exit strategy from the industry while keeping their legacies alive through their brands.” 

It’s Heald’s passion for helping others realize their own dreams of entrepreneurship that she considers the ultimate joy in life. 

Texas Pete: What say you? 

We couldn’t get through this spotlight without addressing an elephant in the room: Texas Pete, developed and manufactured in Winston-Salem. So, what are Heald’s thoughts on our go-to hot sauce? “We love Texas Pete! It’s the first hot sauce I tasted, it’s what I grew up with, eating Lexington-style barbecue with Texas Pete on top.” 

Learn more about Hot Shots Distributing, visit hotshots.inc.