My Sichuan chili sauce went viral on Kickstarter, but producing it was harder than I ever expected

The secret sauce.
The secret sauce.
Image: Jenny Gao
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Back in July, I launched a pre-order campaign for my Sichuan Chili Crisp, the first 100% all-natural Sichuan chili sauce to hit the market. I wanted to bring the deep and complex flavors of China’s culinary heritage to the world using top-quality ingredients, and redefine perceptions of Chinese food in the West. It became one of the highest-backed food projects on Kickstarter, with over 1,600 backers helping me exceed my funding goal by 350% in four weeks. I was finally ready to scale up production of the sauces I had been making out of my kitchen.

That might sound triumphant and glamorous. It was anything but. I spent most of my waking hours in August and September at a factory in rural Sichuan coordinating production and resolving the numerous issues that kept arising. No sooner were small wins gained before another obstacle appeared, threatening to teeter me over the edge of sanity.

After a harrowing journey, four tons of sauce — 19,000 jars — were packed, palletized, and set to embark on a container ship to the US. In the short break between when they arrive and when I start fulfillment, I thought I would share some of what I learned from my first time producing sauces on a large scale.

1. No one will demand excellence from your product except you

When I first brought my formulas to the factory’s test kitchens, it surprised me — even in testing small batches using the exact same measurements — how different the results tasted compared with my homemade version. The factory was known for its research and development expertise, had stringent ingredient standards, and was much more expensive than others in the industry (read my essay on Cleaver Quarterly for tales of my previous mishaps in manufacturing in China), so I trusted that they were using the best available ingredients on the market.

The ingredients they sourced were good enough for — even better than — what most of their clients demanded. But the flavor profile that made my sauce stand out had been taken away. Through a long and slow process of elimination, I tested and changed the source of almost every single ingredient in the formula to better meet my demands of the product: deep umami, fragrance, luster, texture, and mouthfeel, all without the addition of any natural or artificial flavorings and extracts.

I was met with a lot of resistance from the operational team at the factory; they didn’t want to upend their existing processes just for my little chunk of business. The changes also increased my ingredient cost considerably. But since tasting the results, I haven’t looked back. The flavor differences are subtle and probably indiscernible to most, but it took the sauces from a nice-enough “Oh yes, this is really good” to eyes-bulging-out-of-sockets “What is that?!” When it’s right, you just know. These were some of the key changes:

  • Chili. I found a supplier who stone-ground dried chilis the traditional way rather than by machine, which retained the luster, natural oils, and bright red color I needed the sauce to have.
  • Sichuan pepper. The factory was using some from the same region as the tribute pepper I prefer, but it wasn’t the premium kind I normally use. There truly is no comparison, and I had to upgrade.
  • Fermented black beans. I took these for granted before. How different can fermented black beans be from one another? The answer is: a lot. The first beans used were dry, noticeably underdeveloped in fermentation, and lacked the guttural punch and umami that I like. I’ve realized this little ingredient is actually the single-most flavor-altering agent to affect the sauce over its lifespan, as it continues to deepen and infuse its surroundings with time.

There were more ingredient changes, and I’ll share them with you if we ever sit down over a cup of tea. I knew my insistence was the right decision, though, because no other product on the market would taste like it. The version I’m shipping is even better than the original that set me down this path when I cooked it up in my kitchen two years ago, and that makes it all worth it.

2. Militant precision pays off

One of the reasons the factory was so resistant to changing suppliers was their stringent process of ingredient approval. It takes upwards of two weeks to approve a single new ingredient because the factory needs to run it through lab tests and request stacks of documentation from its supplier before allowing it in their products. Chinese law states that a manufacturer is liable for any issue with the product even if the blame lies with a third party, and the factory was not about to take a risk. Food-safety scares occur enough in China (and everywhere for that matter) to warrant extra caution, as even established suppliers have sometimes sent ingredients that contained impurities.

This meant my ingredient switching was a constant source of headaches for them, as well as frustration for me because I could not understand why they were so slow to implement my requests. But in the end, their slow and steady approach paid off. I know we’ve done everything we could have to eliminate potential points of risk. I’m confident we’re working only with suppliers who have the same high standards that we hold ourselves to.

The labels were another painful lesson for me. I worked with a designer I’ve adored for years to shape my logo and brand identity for Fly By Jing and at my restaurant, Baoism, in Shanghai before that. I love the bold colors and eye-catching gradients in the labels he designed for the sauces, but they proved incredibly difficult to replicate in print. I found that printers in China weren’t quite as sophisticated as the design demanded; a lot of them didn’t even know what a Pantone swatch was.

Plus, I had become enamored with the label’s rare neon colors that don’t exist in standard Pantone books anyway. I think I called every printer in China in my search, and every single one suggested using digital printing to achieve an approximation of what I was looking for rather than have them put in the time and effort to create plates, color match to exact swatches, and run tests to blend the gradients.

Sichuan Chili Crisp Jenny Gao
The final product.
Image: Jenny Gao

After almost two months of running in circles, we found a printer in Hong Kong with the deep level of expertise needed to do the job. The bad news was that high-quality color printing is expensive, and — because this printer could only print in flat sheets — the stickers had to be applied by hand to each bottle instead of being fed through a machine. This added extra cost to bottling, but time was running out, so I bit the bullet and resolved to find another solution for the next run. The good news is that the labels look beautiful and are basically non-replicable — anyone who tries would have to be insane.

3. It’s better to have a soft touch than a hard elbow

I was lucky early on to meet an elderly executive named Mr. T who acted as the right hand of the factory boss. He understood my mission, took a liking to me, and has been my guardian angel throughout this whole process. Without him in my corner, I don’t think I could have pulled off any of this.

The factory I am working with has been growing at such a rapid pace that bureaucracy and processes are beginning to threaten efficiency and timeliness. Because of the complexity of what I was doing — introducing brand new products, changing formulations, and exporting to the US— I found myself running around to every department, from research and development to operations to finance and sales. As with my early days working as a brand manager at P&G, I had to corral and mobilize all the departments in order to achieve my mission, except this time, I wasn’t working on a billion-dollar brand that everyone was paid to help with. I hated not being able to take things into my own hands, especially as promises to deliver on projects regularly ballooned from days into weeks and sometimes deflated altogether.

I found it hard to hide my frustration and impatience. More than a few times, Mr. T told me that my approach was too direct, too “American,” and that things just didn’t work that way in China. Things there are implied rather than said; a negotiation is more like a dance. And sometimes you need the help of a gift here and there. Mr. T had to dig me out of more than one hole and use his own social capital to help push my project through. I realized that while attuning myself to the needs and constraints of my collaborators was frustratingly slow in the short term, it would help me accomplish far more than I could ever do on my own in the long run.

4. Respect the human element of food manufacturing

When I initially thought about producing my sauces at scale, the picture in my mind was of a well-oiled assembly line, an infinite-snaking conveyor belt of glass jars with the perfect amount of chili crisp dispensed from magical spouts. I was going to make my riches from the millions of jars and single-serve pouches I could produce at the drop of a hat.

I was brought back to reality when the factory told me there was no way either the jars or the single-serve pouches I had dreamt up could be machine-filled. I didn’t understand because so many sauces and beverages are machine-filled. Heinz has single-serve packets, so why couldn’t I? It turned out my Sichuan Chili Crisp was too chunky for the small spouts on the machines and would clog them too easily.

I thought of alternatives: Maybe I could puree the contents and make it a slurry. That would work in the machines, but the distribution of flavors in each bite would be off, and the sauce would lose all its texture, the crunchy bits, the deep umami of fermented black beans—the stuff that makes it so special.

Sichuan Chili Crisp Jenny Gao
Packets of the chili sauce.
Image: Jenny Gao

Around this same time, I met someone who had taken a tour of the revered Lao Gan Ma factory in Guizhou. He told me something that shocked me: Not only is every bottle of Lao Gan Ma hand-filled, but every batch of chili sauce is fried by hand in cast-iron woks instead of industrial stainless steel drums to prevent the fermented black beans from breaking.

I realized then why Lao Gan Ma has such a strong hold on the market — no other company in its right mind would invest in so much sheer unscalable manpower in the name of product integrity. The Guizhou countryside may be the only place in the world where the cheap labor and land will allow for this business model, but that is the level of dedication necessary for world domination.

And if that’s what it took for the OG player in the game, that’s what it was going to take for me. Even so, this proved difficult for the one-ounce single-serve packets I’d insisted on producing, and they weren’t able to fill everything I ordered on time for this shipment. At the end of the day, though, I’m glad I didn’t compromise quality for quantity. In a time when disregard for the experience of food has become the norm and is even celebrated — I’m looking at you, Soylent and all the sandy-textured protein bars out there — insistence on the human element in food production is more important than ever.

5. There is always a way

I have been told “no” about a hundred times during this process. Factories refused to work with me. I was told my process couldn’t be scaled, that my sauces couldn’t be bottled, that my labels couldn’t be printed. It took over a year just to find a factory with legitimate documents to export to the US instead of just promises to deliver through “underground” channels. Even the (very reputable) US fulfillment company I had signed an agreement with said suddenly and without explanation they were no longer able to ship my orders, sending me scrambling to find a new fulfillment partner at the last minute.

Sichuan Chili Crisp Jenny Gao
The final touches.
Image: Jenny Gao

Every time I came back to square one, I found that there was another and better way. There is no roadmap to success when you go down a path that hasn’t been tread before. But when the vision is clear — creating and bringing the first all-natural line of authentic and deeply flavorful Chinese condiments to the US market, redefining perceptions of Chinese food in the process— you just keep trying every door until one leads you a little bit closer.

This story originally appeared on Medium.