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From c-suite to ‘sauce boss’

After a career as a big-company executive, Debra Sandler is bringing Caribbean flavors to US tables

Bazodee products.

Bazodee products. – AARON HOUSTON

She goes by the title Sauce Boss, but when it comes to her product, she answers to Aunt Mavis.

Debra Sandler, a seasoned corporate executive at PepsiCo and Johnson & Johnson, and most recently Mars’ chief health and wellbeing officer, has had integral roles in the launch of some of the country’s most well-known products. At Johnson & Johnson, she brought us Splenda; at Mars, she brought us pretzel M&Ms. Earlier on in her career, she was in charge of the team that rebranded the dying Pepsi Free brand to Caffeine-Free Pepsi, still on shelves now more than 30 years later.

Aunt Mavis, though? She’s the chief inspiration officer, and no sauce moves to market without Mavis’s seal of approval.

Sandler, her Aunt Mavis, and her daughter Kiah are the three generations that make up Bazodee, the Morristown-based, Caribbean-inspired line of sauces born out of Aunt Mavis’ home kitchen and Sandler’s passion for innovation.

Aunt Mavis had been making sauces and marinades and giving them away to friends for some time. Sandler, looking for post-retirement purpose beyond obvious executive board membership – she’s on five, including a recent appointment as a director at Dollar General – saw promise in her sauces and sought to reproduce the recipes in a commercial kitchen for sale beyond Mavis’ social circle.

It wasn’t so simple. Mavis didn’t have a written recipe, measuring cups, or measuring spoons. She didn’t have a scale, and she changed her ingredients a little each time.

“Tying it down to something that could be repeated was … chefs are not like us. They understand food and what they’re going to do with it. They’re not measuring anything,” Sandler said.

She began filming her – “that was the breakthrough,” she said – and between ingredients stopped her to measure. Mavis called for a pinch of salt, but what was it, really? A tablespoon, a teaspoon, something different?

“It was painful for both of us at some points, I think. But if we just got through it, we could send it to a commercial kitchen,” Sandler said.

Sending the recipe to a commercial kitchen brought additional trials. The first recipe had 24 ingredients, pretty unmarketable to the consumers looking to buy non-corporatized marinade or hot sauce. Having all those ingredients drove the cost up high, and while the original plan was fresh ingredients only, that created risk for salmonella.

Sandler wondered, “Why didn’t I think about that?”

Debra Sandler, founder, and her daughter Kiah Sandler, chief marketing officer, Bazodee.

Debra Sandler, founder, and her daughter Kiah Sandler, chief marketing officer, Bazodee. – AARON HOUSTON

They went with IQF, or individually quick frozen ingredients, because it fixed the salmonella issue. And while they cut the ingredients down to 14, cutting more was too much . “I thought I would be compromising what we set out to do,” Sandler said. “I didn’t just want to make a marinade. I wanted to make hers.”

Without a set launch date, building Bazodee’s three sauces wasn’t like working at Pepsi or Mars. On their own schedule, they could wait to get the product they wanted, and if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t launch it.

All in, it took two years. Now, their products are available online, and Sandler is exploring selling the sauces on QVC and HSN.

“It made me proud, and her proud, that we really were in fact true to her recipes,” Sandler said.

She doesn’t see it as a mass market product—they’d need to cut more ingredients to cheapen the product, and that wasn’t the point of commercializing it in the first place—but with America’s growing interest in global flavors, she knows it has potential.

“[America’s interest] started in Mexican flavors and foods, but it’s really grown beyond that. If you walk down the [grocery] aisle, you’ll see many different flavors. Siracha is the one that comes to mind. Who knew what Sriracha was three years ago? Now, you can get it at Wendy’s. That points to an interest in ‘how do I flavor things a little bit more?,’” Sandler said.

Caribbean food isn’t really on the map yet, she said. But Sandler, named to Black Enterprise’s 2010 list of 75 Most Powerful Women in Business, is a self-proclaimed “glass-half full kind of gal,” and sees this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

“’Caribbean’ is not what turns some people off. If they’re not totally in love with the idea of it, it’s really because they think it’s too hot,” she said.

So their sauces are tiered, and Marvelous Marinade is herbaceous rather than spicy.

Soca Sauce, however, was recently awarded first place champion in the Mild Medium Wing Sauce Division at the 2019 World Hot Sauce Awards, and Hot Hot Soca Sauce was awarded third place in the X-Hot Division.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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