Vaughn Weitzman and Matthew Steinberg are all about food quality, especially when it comes to condiments.
After Weitzman honed the product on his food truck before the sauce had a name, the duo launched their new line of Secret Sauce Co. ketchup by — what else? — serving it to people. They hosted a pop-up diner at the southwest corner of Charles Street and Lafayette Avenue in downtown Baltimore. From mid-October until Thanksgiving Day, they sold french fries and burgers with the sole purpose of getting customers to taste their expertly crafted ketchup before it hits the shelves.
“The thing about our ketchup is you actually taste tomatoes in it. There is no high fructose corn syrup. The flavor profile has garlic, onions and celery,” said Steinberg, 30. “Basically, it’s just a well-rounded ketchup. Americans are so convinced that ketchup just tastes like Heinz. When really our recipe is much more of a farm-to- table product.”
The Secret Sauce Co. owners have known each other for 10 years, having met in Steinberg’s hometown of Los Angeles when Weitzman came to visit a mutual friend. While they haven’t always been on the same coast, they stayed in touch and even lived together in New York City, where they both worked in the hospitality industry. It was there, Weitzman said, that they became interested in the farm-to- table hospitality concept and dreamed of starting a business together.
In 2015, Weitzman, 31, began his first business, the food truck Farm to Charm, which operates with the farm-to-table concept and sources most of it materials locally. Since Secret Sauce Co.’s launch, Weitzman has been balancing his two businesses. Although the truck is where he developed his recipe for Secret Sauce Co. ketchup, the production, bottling and selling of the condiment is done separately.
“The food trucking business has been a great way, almost without trying, to brand and display this product for thousands of people across the state,” said Weitzman. “Everywhere we go, people love the ketchup. We’ve always said, ‘Here’s our house-made ketchup,’ but now we can say, ‘Here’s our Secret Sauce ketchup.’”
On Dec. 17, Weitzman was in the middle of cooking the largest quantity of ketchup one might ever see. The “run” encompassed 10 batches — close to 200 gallons — of ketchup, which was then portioned, capped and sealed by hand into approximately 1,300 bottles and placed into dozen-boxes. Each part of the production is fairly time-consuming.
At 6 p.m., Weitzman, who had already been working for six hours, estimated he was only halfway finished that day’s work. He had worked late into the evening the previous night, finishing three batches of ketchup. He would complete another three by the end of the day and cook, bottle and box the final four batches over the next one or two days. He had the help of only one of his food truck employees to wash dishes and portion the sauce.
After that comes Steinberg’s part of the operation: delivering orders to customers and meeting with potential clients to pitch the idea of selling the sauce at retail stores, supplying the sauce at restaurants and hotels, and even using it as part of a recipe in kitchens.
Steinberg calls Weitzman “the mastermind,” while he is the salesman who also runs the brand’s website and social media pages. His efforts, thus far, have been successful. Secret Sauce Co. ketchup is for sale at the Baltimore Museum of Art gift shop and Trohv in Hampden and served at restaurants such as the Union Craft Brewing tap room, Café Hon and Gertrude’s, which uses the ketchup in its specialty BBQ Fries.
The owners have big plans for the brand, but operate by taking small, realistic steps. Next up is the purchase of a kettle to facilitate cooking larger quantities while cutting down on prep time by mixing ingredients and cooking the sauce in the same vessel. Such streamlining, they hope, will lead to more sales, which will then lead to opening their own facility.
The facility would be similar to B-More Kitchen, a shared kitchen food incubator in the Govans neighborhood of Baltimore where they currently make their ketchup. Weitzman believes the food industry “isn’t set up for the little guy, and that should change.”
“We’re really excited about the prospect of the facility,” said Weitzman. “Of course, it’s going to be good for us, but everywhere we go we meet people just like us who are trying to get their sauce in a bottle. And it’s been hard to get even where we are. It took a lot of research. It took us quite some time to determine how it needed to be done.”
Once they’ve moved to their own facility, Steinberg said a kosher certification will be one of their first pursuits. In the meantime, customers can expect a Secret Sauce Co. cocktail sauce in the near future, but as always, it is one step at a time.
“As far as short-term goals, we’re going to make another batch of ketchup and get the idea out there,” said Steinberg. “We want to make sure this product is very successful before we move on to the next one.”