Today we’d like to introduce you to Jon Meyer.
Jon, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
Growing up in Colorado, I constantly complained about my parents cooking, so as a way to shut me up, they made me start cooking family meals pretty early on in life, so I knew my way around the kitchen pretty well. I developed a true affinity for spicy food during my college days thanks to my roommates, but after moving to Utah for graduate school, I quickly realized Utahans believed black pepper was spicy and I wasn’t going to find many options to fuel my spicy food addiction. I was introduced to homemade hot sauce from a fellow graduate student, and I started developing recipes purely out of necessity.
For five years, I cooked sauces at home and shared them with friends. We all sort of went down the rabbit hole together and my passion for spicy sauces was forged. I was known for always carrying a case of sauce bottles with me to share with anyone who would listen to me rant about ingredients, pepper flavors, and food pairings. Selling my sauces commercially was never on my radar until several friends suggested that I consider selling at the local farmers market and even then, I was pretty risk averse, so it took a couple of years of persuasion before I took them seriously. Ironically, I met my first business partner, Lev, randomly at a backyard BBQ (our Bingham Brushfire Honey Chipotle BBQ sauce is named in honor of the Binghams, who hosted that BBQ). Within a few days of exchanging bottles of homemade sauce and phone numbers, we decided to start Bear River Bottling. We started small, and having no prior knowledge of the food industry, or commercial kitchens, we felt our way through the early years. In our second year, we were contacted by Roger Damptz, the owner of Burn Your Tongue Hot Sauce located in Ogden, Utah. Roger was Utah’s biggest hot sauce retailer and had been a reseller of the nation’s craft hot sauce for over a decade. I like to joke that if I had known of Roger’s stores, I probably would never have started making my own sauces. Roger really took me under his wing and was our first true advocate. If our sauces were the fuel, his connections and knowledge of the industry was in many ways the engine that propelled us into the craft hot sauce scene outside of our local bubble.
Covid-19 arrived right as we were planning to expand, and the collection of business-related pressure really undercut the plans we had just begun to put in motion. Eventually, my first partner stepped away to focus on his other thriving business. I took on three new partners, who were close friends and had in many ways been an integral part of the sauce adventure from the early days. Our first group goal was to attend the National Fiery Foods Festival in Albuquerque, NM. An overnight, 600-mile road trip with a trailer full of sauce and we were introduced to a life-changing experience where 30,000 chileheads gathered in one place to sample sauces from over 100 national craft hot sauce makers. We were absolutely blown away by the level of passion and camaraderie that existed in the industry. That event proved to be a watershed moment for me and Bear River Bottling. As a result of the friendships and connections we made at the event, Bear River Bottling has expanded to retail presence in a dozen states across the country. Today, we still love our farmers’ market booths and the ability to interact directly with Utah communities. You can find us most Saturdays operating booths in the Cache Valley, Ogden, and Salt Lake City farmers’ markets. We plan to continue to expand across the state and country in order to share our passion for quality sauces from mild to wild. We are now two years into growing many of our own super-hot varieties of peppers, which we start from seed in late January and tend to for over eight months of the year before harvest. “From seed to sauce” is a goal of ours and we love the gardening experience.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Ignoring the systematic pressure covid-19 put on the entire food industry, I would not say our business experience has been a smooth road. Making great sauce recipes at home is one thing, but the challenges of scaling a recipe up without sacrificing that small-batch quality was a hurdle we quickly had to overcome. Specifically, sourcing bulk quality peppers that weren’t available in local grocery stores as well as other ingredients we needed was an early challenge. However, I would say we enjoyed working out the solutions for the logistical challenges that came with scaling up the processing and packaging hurdles. Having no commercial kitchen experience, even learning of the tools and equipment we would need was something we had to overcome. I think one of the biggest challenges we’ve collectively faced is that Bear River Bottling has always been the “side project”, with every one of us keeping a regular day job. In my case, I am the assistant state climatologist for Utah, which is a 60+ hour a week job on its own. Bear River Bottling commitments have always been spent burning the midnight oil. We work our day jobs Monday-Friday and spend nighttime and weekend hours devoted to the needs of BRB. Seven-day work weeks are common, fueled purely out of our passion and just a little bit of caffeine.
Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
We are known for our diverse and unique flavor lineup; especially on the hot sauce side. Those flavors took home a gold medal and three silvers in this year’s first annual Sauce Lake City festival. In many ways, Utah’s lack of hot sauce culture meant we didn’t have much exposure to what others had done in the past. Many of our flavors were developed purely out of naive creativity instead of being inspired by those before us. In fact, one of our most popular hot sauces, the ‘King of Sting’ Honey Bacon Scorpion Pepper sauce was born from a dream I had; if having dreams about hot sauce recipes doesn’t prove our passion, I don’t know what will.
Because spice is not for everyone, having the family friendly BBQ sauce lineup has allowed us to bridge the gap with our audience. Utah is the beehive state, so we naturally love to work with local honey in lots of our BBQ sauces. We joke that we are contractually obligated by the state to produce a fry sauce, but we put our own spin on the classic condiment and our honey BBQ themed ‘Memphis Fry Sauce’ is a fan favorite.
In the last few years, the hot sauce industry and spicy food, in general, has seen significant growth across the nation as companies like Bear River Bottling showcase that hot sauce doesn’t just have to be spicy vinegar. Hot sauces that focus as much on the flavor as the fire enable a far more enjoyable eating experience with the reward of the spicy sensation. There is such a spectrum of ingredient pairings and sauce profiles that very little overlap exists despite many hundreds of new products coming to market each year. We recently brought to market a leather hot sauce holster branded with the phrase “packin’ heat and flavor”. It’s been such a great conversation starter and brings a smile to everyone that notices one being worn.
I also think our market booth experience is a big reason why we have grown organically at the local level. We love talking sauce with everyone, and sampling is the absolute best experience for us. We help people learn about how to integrate hot sauces of various flavors and heat levels into their menu, and we love interacting with other chileheads who grow their own peppers and make their own sauces at home.
I’m most proud of our brand for being able to take our passion and use them to help support the community and charities. In addition to donating to charity auction and events, we started our “Sauces for Causes” program to continually give back to causes that are closest to our heart. Our Lightning Hot Buffalo sauce generates charity for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and a college scholarship in memory of a friend of mine who passed away from the disease. Our Honey Chipotle BBQ sauce generates charity for the Huntsmen Cancer Institute in memory of the brother of my first partner. It’s incredibly rewarding to feel we can do some small amount of good with our sauces.
I want your readers to know that Bear River Bottling is the product of an all-consuming passion for sauces by a group of families who have all come together with the purpose of sharing that passion through creative flavors. Our slogan is “Food Elevated”, because what we make is built around the principle that sauces should be a part of every meal and can be used to enhance the mealtime experience.
If we knew you growing up, how would we have described you?
I was an only child, so unless you invited me into your friend group, you would probably describe me as a pretty shy and quiet kid and because of that I was always a very loyal friend. I always have loved animals and growing up, my friends knew me for always having some exotic reptile or insect pet. For a long time, I wanted to own a pet store. I also played a lot of baseball and basketball and spent many hours alone in the driveway practicing jump shots and pitching mechanics; I’m still not very good to this day. I also enjoyed science topics growing up and severe weather was something I always was fascinated by. A favorite childhood memory I enjoy telling my students is when I would play in the Colorado hail storms using a metal snow shovel to protect my head.
As I grew, thankfully so did my sense of humor, which now would be classified mostly in the “dad jokes” category. I tortured my parents with my love to argue anything and everything as teenagers often do. My parents thought I was going to be either a lawyer, a comedian, or an engineer. Funny that their punishment for my childhood culinary complaints set me down a path that eventually turned into a fun business.
- Hot sauces range from $8-$15
- BBQ sauces range from $8-$10
- Hot Sauce holster + a bottle is $40
- Website: www.bearriverbottling.com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bearriverbottling/?hl=en
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BearRiverBottling