I Am Because We Are
Tony Wilson, founder of the gourmet hot sauce brand Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce, says two pillars have always shaped his life. The first is the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which translates to “I am because we are”. It’s an ethical concept in which your sense of self is collectively shaped by your relationships with others. The other pillar is the importance of betting on yourself, a belief that has fueled Tony's entrepreneurial journey and a confidence that has been nurtured by the loved ones who surround him and the community that supports his business. These two pillars are what carried Tony through some of his most difficult moments. They’re what brought Tony to his hot sauce passion, and they make the unique foundation on which Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce was built.
Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce is a New Orleans-born West Seattle-based gourmet hot sauce purveyor bottling delicious family recipes made with fresh ingredients. The spicy endeavor began as a pandemic pivot, but Tony had no idea it would eventually grow into a hot sauce legacy. With 6 fiery, flavorful hot sauces and 2 delectable dry rubs, plus a sweet and sizzling strawberry-habanero jelly—Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce is blazing its way through the fiery food industry.
“My mom would tell you—I’ve always been hungry. Whether it was selling newspapers, garage sales, or selling hot dogs in front of the house. I’d love for Papa Tony’s to be a household name, but what I really dream of is a huge hot sauce estate where we can grow our own ingredients. A legacy I can pass down to my daughter that she’ll be proud of.”
A Role Model & Rhythm-Maker
Entrepreneurship wasn’t always in the cards for Tony. He grew up in Minneapolis where he experienced intense family tragedy and trauma throughout his childhood. Nevertheless, Tony’s self-determination and a deep sense of compassion led him to graduate with a degree in Sociology from Hamline University. His Ubuntu philosophy also motivated him to uplift his community whether it was supplying aid in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina or his work in youth leadership. Tony was driven to become the role model and leader he had wished for in his own youth.
Tony’s true passion lay in writing and performing music. In 2012, Tony’s rap and poetry brought him around the world, into the spotlight, and eventually introduced him to his wife, Guinnivere. The two learned how to self-promote Tony’s music and poetry. Everything from creating and printing collateral to distributing press kits and negotiating bookings. Most importantly, they were able to establish a community of supporters drawn to his craft. He would use these skills again when building Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce brand and its customer base. “We put a little money together and we'd go to Paris, we'd go to Amsterdam, we'd go to London to perform. We'd meet with these people who had big stages and like different cohorts. They would put us on stage in front of these big audiences. I developed a fan base or a support base off of that."
A Scorching Sign from the Universe
In 2021, the pandemic continued to have devastating consequences across the globe. Lockdowns placed a hard stop for many small businesses—but they opened the door for quite a few others. Tony had recently left his position as a social studies teacher and—like most of the world—was watching YouTube videos and experimenting with new dishes with his wife and daughter. While Tony didn’t consider himself a chef, he felt a connection to cooking. He and Guinnivere had taken several community cooking classes for couples. “I just cook for myself and my family. I never thought that it was something that could be real. But I realized, I wasn't tapping into all of me to even notice that like, damn, you've been doing this for so long.”
During one fateful trip to his local grocery store, Tony was purchasing ingredients for carne asada tacos when he saw a bag of vibrant habanero peppers. Tony says it was like a spiritual prophecy, a sign from the universe. It's what guided him to those peppers and placed them in his basket. “I fell in love with the videos of people processing peppers. And then I see all these beautiful habaneros on the wall. I just grabbed them, threw them in the car and my wife was like, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'I have no idea.”
Lightning in a Bottle
Unaware of the incredible entrepreneurial path he was about to embark on, Tony created what would become his signature Garlic Habanero hot sauce and the wildly popular Mango-Habanero hot sauce. Tony's gut told him there was something special about his new creations. He decided to post his recipe on social media. The reception was positive and immediate with some followers claiming it was the best hot sauce they’d ever tasted. “I'm like, whoa, hold on, I think I got something. And then a friend of mine who's a chef told me I had a million-dollar idea, right? And I thought I'm going to lean into this.” His wife created the logo and Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce was born. They ended up selling more than 300 bottles in its first month.
That wasn’t the only sign that Tony was given. After a few months of slower-than-expected turnouts at New Orleans farmer's markets, the couple decided to move their family to Washington, Guinnivere home state. Tony decided to dive fully into cooking and things began to heat up. A friend reached out about an open position at a commissary kitchen for Mamnoon and asked Tony to come to work with him. Another connection at Homestreet Bank connected Tony with the West Seattle Junction, the Chamber of Commerce, and Neighborhood Farmers Markets. These support networks helped him get into the West Seattle Farmers Market. Once again, Tony’s pillars of philosophy helped him stay true to himself and led him to success.
“For me, everything has been about the ethics and morals behind it. I want to be in control of my own narrative and my story resonates with people. I tell them, if you want to start a business, make sure it’s authentic and it aligns with your values. There's a way to get what you want without taking advantage of people or betraying yourself and your morals.”
Turning Up the Heat
In 2022, Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce earned a dedicated, growing following and started to gain notoriety at farmer's markets. Tony knew the next step was placement in stores and took part in the 2022 Peace Peloton Business Accelerator Program. That helped put Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce in all 16 PCC Community Markets, as well as nearly a dozen stores across the state. “I pitched to PCC in May and heard back in August that I was in all 16 stores. She said to bring four cases to each store and that was it. It was another crazy spiritual connection that came from making a good product and working with good people.”
Bootstrapping Towards Business Success
With hopes of scaling the business, Tony reached out to the Food Business Resource Center at Business Impact NW. He was in need of guidance on accessing capital to expand into more markets and increase staffing and inventory. Business coach Maya Rose worked closely with Tony, focusing on financial forecasting and cash flow projections. His patience, persistence, as well as his knowledge of business numbers and historical data were critical in creating a solid basis for projections. Maya was later able to meet Tony at the Good Food Mercantile in Portland after he secured a vendor scholarship, sponsored by Business Impact NW.
“Tony is an incredibly hard worker. He’s been bootstrapping all the way and I'm constantly impressed. No matter how much he is juggling, Tony remains calm, focused, and goal-oriented. Small business owners wear many hats, but one of the most important ones is that of the strategic leader. When so much is happening on the ground, it can be easy to forget. As the owner, you are the one crafting the roadmap. Tony has been doing an amazing job of maintaining vision through it all!”
Maya also praises Tony for his incentive-based management style which stays true to his Ubuntu philosophy.
“He speaks about his employees with respect and has been incorporating the positive aspects of other workplaces while thoughtfully leaving out the negative ones that he had experienced before. I'm excited to see his team grow, and I foresee his employee structure becoming a model for other small businesses.”
From Flames to Fame
In less than two years, Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce has scaled from a single recipe shared on social media into an award-winning brand. What started as 300 bottles has grown into more than 14,000 bottles. Tony and his story have earned press coverage on a variety of media outlets, including King 5, Westside Seattle, and The Daily UW. Most recently, Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce won the 2023 Best Emerging Business from the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce. “It's not just one sailing ship on their own. It's a multitude of sailing ships. Going towards their versions of victory that we achieved by building together and not tearing each other down.”
Tony's philosophy pillars of Ubuntu and betting on yourself guided him through difficult times and to a path of hot sauce success. He continues to source locally and he and his team attend all local events and farmers’ markets. He sees them as opportunities to grow and connect with the community. Most importantly, Tony credits all of Papa Tony’s Hot Sauce’s success to the love, support, and involvement of his family.
“Everybody’s got their roles. I’m head chef and head of sales. My mom is our product quality manager. My wife is lead consultant. The legacy we’re creating is from the heart. I want my daughter to see that she can create something from her hands, from her brain, and succeed.”
About the author
Janelle is a storyteller through and through. She was raised in a family of entrepreneurs who owned and managed a series of small businesses, including a Hawaiian restaurant, a video store, and several real estate properties. Growing up in a low-income community but attending schools as a minority in affluent areas, she struggled with the inequities she faced each day. As a Bay Area native, Janelle has witnessed the rise and fall of countless startups and small businesses. She has worked for a number of nonprofits and has remained steadfast in her commitment to using her craft to support the missions of each organization, and uplift underserved communities throughout the Bay Area.
Janelle graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, specializing in screenwriting and playwriting. She worked as a copywriter for companies such as Coldwell Banker, Callisto Media, a publisher of nonfiction and self-help books, and Artslandia magazine, a premier publisher of performing arts playbills throughout the Portland metro area. In a leap of faith, Janelle moved her family to Seattle in 2021 and worked with Committee for Children, an educational nonprofit committed to supporting the well-being of children through social-emotional learning.