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Savory sauces win their way from volleyball court to supermarket

by Jonathan Eisenthal

Listen to a radio segment on Lucky’s

Mark Porisch never dreamed that when he reached 60 he’d be making Louisiana-style hot sauces for a living, but he thinks that one of these days his creations, sold under the brand Lucky’s Popcorn Dressing, might cover all the bills. Until then, he’s having a lot of fun helping a steadily growing Minnesota audience discover the joy of bringing the heat!

The story began almost two decades ago when Porisch started making hot sauces for friends on his co-ed volleyball team. One couple on the team came back from a trip to Mexico and asked Porisch if he had ever put Tabasco sauce on popcorn?

“We all liked spicy wings, and the question came up, ‘How do you make hot sauce?’” Porisch recalls. He decided to experiment with different recipes using ingredients grown in his own garden.

When he’d perfected his recipe, the team became his first focus group. Pretty quickly they were telling him, “We’d buy this in a store.”

The volleyball players urged Porisch to market his hot sauce to the bar that sponsored the team. Once again, the spicy flavorings were a hit. At this same bar, the team members discovered a delicious honey mustard offered to the patrons as a condiment for wings and other food. They liked the honey mustard so well they started taking it home to use on sandwiches during the week. When the bar changed suppliers, the new mustard fell flat, and Porisch’s teammates asked him to come up with honey mustard like the one they knew and loved. Once again, he scored a hit.

Porisch credits his extremely patient mother for his love of cooking. She introduced him to the kitchen when he was a child. The lifelong interest and hobby became something more when he was laid off from his job with a Japanese electronics firm in 2008.

“I thought if my friends are willing to pay for my hot sauce, then maybe other people would, too,” says Porisch.

Word of mouth connects entrepreneur to AURI services

Porisch reached a point where all his friends were willing to buy his mouthwatering concoctions, but he didn’t know the next step. What he did know was that he needed to get nutritional labeling in order to offer a food product to the public. He looked online and found various services that could produce the necessary information, but at a cost ranging into hundreds of dollars.

When he was at the local farmers market, Porisch met a man from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture who told him about AURI’s Food Lab in Crookston, where Minnesota entrepreneurs are assisted for free with items needed to meet Food and Drug Administration requirements such as labeling, nutritional panels, and the weights and aspects of packaging.

AURI Senior Scientist of Food and Nutrition Charan Wadhawan assisted Porisch in standardizing recipes, testing and creating camera-ready nutritional facts to be in compliance with FDA’s regulations.

“AURI research is an invaluable tool for startups like mine,” says Porisch. “I think this is an excellent use of Minnesota tax dollars, though I guess you could say I am biased. AURI is a great resource for folks like me, doing what I am trying to do, trying to get off the ground without larger cash outlays.”

Salting away more dough with a free sodium analysis

One key nutritional component that every food producer must test is sodium content, and here again AURI provides this service free to Minnesota entrepreneurs who are creating value-added products from things raised on the farm.

Lucky’s Popcorn Dressing hot sauces and honey mustards arrived at AURI’s Marshall lab and were taken in hand by analytical chemist Ranae Jorgenson.

To determine the amount of sodium, a sample of the popcorn dressing is dried and turned into ash in a lab furnace at 550 degrees centigrade.  The resulting ash is prepared for sodium analysis by dissolving in concentrated nitric acid.  The amount of sodium is determined using an instrument called an Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer.

This delivers a result of milligrams of sodium per gram of product, and that information is sent along to Wadhawan at the Crookston lab and included in the information for the nutritional panel that will go on the product label.

Jorgenson has worked for AURI for the past seven years and enjoys the wide variety of testing handled at AURI’s Marshall lab—everything from testing food products like Lucky’s Popcorn Dressing to coproducts for agriculture-based industries like ethanol and biodiesel. The diversity of value-added agricultural business helps to make agriculture one of Minnesota’s strongest economic sectors.

Finding success

Porisch found that there was indeed a market for his products—so much so that he’s had to give up the gardening aspect and now sources his vegetables and herbs with local growers. Lucky’s Popcorn Dressing has expanded into a line of five flavors of honey mustard, and 10 flavors of Louisiana-style hot sauce. Not only do the bottles fly off the shelf at his farmers’ market stands, but a handful of Twin Cities supermarket venues now also carry his products, including Kowalski’s, Whole Foods and Coastal Seafoods.

“Lucky’s goes on steak and seafood and just about anything, even popcorn, so it’s the one sauce you’ll be constantly reaching into the refrigerator door for,” says Porisch. “My recipes are gluten- and corn syrup-free for people who have sensitivities and allergies, so everyone can enjoy them.”

He sees Lucky’s Popcorn Dressing fitting in with the surge of interest in locally-produced food.

“You see that [interest in local food] in the expansion of the local craft brewing, and in all the restaurants that promote local ingredients in their menu,” Porisch believes. “Many people are realizing that if you have a chance to talk to the person who is producing your lettuce or your breakfast cereal, you can find out how they do it and why they do it. People like that connection.”

Recently, Porisch earned awards at the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in New Iberia, La. He won first place for Best Jalapeno Hot Sauce and second place for Best Louisiana Style Hot Sauce. Both sauces are from peppers grown in Minnesota.

In Porisch’s first year in business, he had a couple thousand dollars in sales, which has grown over the past five years into to support his house and car payments. Looking ahead, he’ll have to decide how much to grow the business and whether to bring on full-time help, but for now he’s enjoying opening up taste buds, one customer at a time.

“This is a career path I began late in life—if I knew I was going to have this much fun, I would have started this a lot earlier,” says Porisch.