Richmond-based hemp food manufacturer hits a milestone by selling its hemp-infused sauces at Food Lion

Gregory J. Gilligan    |   Jan 28, 2022

Robert Ujevic had an idea in 2015 to create a line of food products using hemp before it became the darling of agriculture and industry.

At the time, Ujevic was working with others advocating to allow hemp to be grown and used in Virginia because of the health benefits.

He was so passionate about hemp that he started making two pasta products using hemp seed protein powder, which he initially sold during the holidays in 2015.

“People really liked it,” he said.

A couple of years later, Ujevic wanted to branch out to create some sauces using hemp oil and hulled hemp seeds, but he was struggling with crafting the products.

A chance meeting with two local chefs in the fall of 2018 helped form Gourmet Hemp Foods that eventually led to the creation of hemp-infused barbecue sauce and hot sauce.

Gourmet Hemp Foods started selling its Hemp Hottie Sauce and Hemp Honey BBQ Sauce at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in the fall of 2019 and at The Market @ 25th grocery store a couple of months later. The sauces are also available in a handful of area independent grocery stores, including Good Foods Grocery, and a couple of local restaurants such as City Dogs and Capitol Waffle Shop.

The company reached a milestone last fall when it started supplying its sauces to about 275 Food Lion stores in Virginia.

“We feel like it’s a great product and now we really want to see it grow further,” said Ujevic, the company’s co-founder and its director of customer relations.

“We’re definitely excited and we’re also pleased at the same time because we put in a lot of time and energy and we think this is all a result of that,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see just how people have reacted, just the testimonials we’ve received on how people have changed decisions on what sauces they use, and some people say they only use our sauce now.”

Gourmet Hemp Foods generated about $50,000 in sales last year, up from about $20,000 in sales in 2020, he said. It expects to double revenue this year to about $100,000, thanks largely to the Food Lion business.

“We definitely weren’t profitable. We are developing and growing our inventory,” said Ujevic, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2015.

To grow sales, the company’s goal is to have its two sauces — a 5-ounce hot sauce and a 10-ounce barbecue sauce — sold at supermarkets elsewhere in Virginia and nearby states, with the hope of having them available on a national scale, he said.

The company has had preliminary discussions with Food Lion about expanding into the chain’s stores in other states such as North Carolina, he said, noting that he is talking to other grocery retailers. But nothing is definitive yet, he said.

“We feel like we can really get these two products to greater market share. And then once we have enough recognition, we would want to start introducing some other products,” he said.

That expansion would include making other hemp-infused sauces, such as a marinara sauce.

“We have lots of ideas,” he said.

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In the fall of 2018, Gourmet Hemp Foods really changed when Ujevic met Tyenella Hall and her husband, Reginald Hall Jr., during a First Friday art gallery event in downtown Richmond.

Ujevic, 28, was trying to figure out how to create a sauce using hemp seeds and hemp oils.

“It was serendipity that I met them,” he said.

The Halls knew how to create different types of food. They operate Hook’s Lunch Box food truck and T&R Catering businesses.

After that chance meeting, the couple sat down with Ujevic to discuss possibilities and became partners in the creation of Gourmet Hemp Foods.

“They had a product but did not know anything about the food industry. And I’m a chef. That’s my backbone. That’s what I do know,” said Tyenella Hall, the company’s food scientist. “So we decided to work on it. My husband was the one who made the hot sauce, and it was like freakin’ amazing. And then he made a barbecue sauce. And those have been what has gotten us our notoriety is the hot sauce and the barbecue sauce.”

Reginald Hall, the company’s director of food production, said creating the two sauces gave him “an opportunity to show the world my ability in sauce making.”

“So I got some [ingredients] together for the hot sauce. I think I have a pretty good palate and tried some I had made,” Reginald Hall said. “My wife tasted it and she said, ‘like yeah, this is really good.’ So I was like if my wife says it is good and she’s a chef, it must be good. We don’t sugarcoat anything from each other when it comes to cooking. It’s either good or it’s not good.”

The original idea was to create a marinara sauce to go with the company’s pasta products, but the initial tests indicated the sauce was too acidic, Ujevic said.

After spending months testing variations of recipes for the hot sauce and the barbecue sauce and conducting different tests, Ujevic and the Halls started bottling the first batch at a cannery in the Farmville area.

In 2020, they moved production operations to the facilities at Hatch Kitchen RVA, the business incubator for startup companies in the food industry that operates in the Clopton Siteworks in South Richmond.

Creating the two sauces, Ujevic said, changed the course of the company.

“Once we started introducing the sauce, they were just flying off the shelf. Everywhere we went, people were just saying they were just loving it,” he said.

The first break for the budding business came in the fall of 2019 when Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market agreed to carry the sauces.

“Landing Food Lion is great and it is definitely one of those milestones, but I never want to forget who gave us that first start,” Tyenella Hall said of Ellwood Thompson’s.

“When we made it on their shelf in October 2019, in that moment, to be a brand-new company who no one had ever heard of, but Ellwood Thompson’s took a chance and put us on their shelf and have been consistently getting boxes from us. That, for me, was a pinchable moment,” she said. “We literally made it into one of the most persnickety stores. They are very calculated about who or what they put on their shelves.”

Jordan Montero, essentials manager at Ellwood Thompson’s, said he was immediately interested in Gourmet Hemp Foods’ sauces because it was a local company using hemp in the products at a time when putting hemp in foods was a growing trend.

“Hemp is nutrient dense and overall super healthy,” Montero said. “It is full of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, amino acids and omegas. I sampled their hemp and honey BBQ sauce. They are delicious and unique. Gourmet Hemp Foods is local, healthy and delicious, the perfect vendor for us. Their products have been great sellers, and their team has been a joy to work with.”

Sales at Ellwood Thompson’s have been strong and steady, he said.

Before Gourmet Hemp Foods landed in Food Lion stores, it was producing about 20 cases a month. Food Lion is currently ordering about 100 cases a month.

While the company continues to expand distribution of its products, it will be working on creating a marinara sauce using hemp, Tyenella Hall said.

“But we have to make sure that it will cross over to the mainstream the same way as the hot sauce and barbecue sauce,” she said. “Pasta sauce is definitely going to go mainstream because it’s fun to go with our pasta and it’s going to make it a complete package.”

Gourmet Hemp Foods continues to make two types of pasta with hemp seed protein powder, but the focus is on the sauces, Ujevic said. The pastas are available on the company’s gourmethempfoods.com website and at Ellwood Thompson’s.

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In Virginia, hemp was a mainstay crop until it was banished as part of the U.S. war on drugs starting in the 1930s.

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 2015 and 2016 allowing limited hemp cultivation in the state under a program administered through state universities. The federal Farm Bill in 2014 legalized growing industrial hemp for institutional research, and the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the broad cultivation of hemp.

Advocates talk about hemp’s health benefits — it is high in minerals, antioxidants and nutrients without having the psychoactive effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, that is found in marijuana.

Using hemp in food products is a growing market segment, said Collin Gallus, director of supply chain at Victory Hemp Foods, a Kentucky-based company that manufactures hemp ingredients for food manufacturers including Gourmet Hemp Foods.

“You can go into Whole Foods and find some 50 or 60 brands that incorporate different hemp products into consumer packaged goods,” Gallus said. “We work with a number of companies that do everything from using hemp in jerky to tortilla chips, different kinds of granola, pasta, sauces, pestos. You name it, we’ve pretty much covered it. The bottom line is that [hemp is] a much healthier product to consume.”

The health benefits were a key reason why Tyenella Hall said she wanted to be part of Gourmet Hemp Foods.

“I have a nursing background, so I saw the benefits of hemp,” she said, noting that she served in the military as a nurse and then went to culinary school. “It just made sense for me to go into this,” she said.

The hulled hemp seeds and oils give the sauces a distinct flavor, she said. “It is a heavy, very dense to the tongue as far as flavor,” she said.

She and her husband have used the Hemp Hottie Sauce on chicken wings that they sell from their Hook’s Lunch Box food truck, which features what Tyenella Hall calls international comfort food.

“It’s a great way of promoting the product, and then we tell them [customers] to go to Food Lion,” she said.

Ujevic said the Hemp Hottie Sauce and Hemp Honey BBQ Sauce have a nice flavor with the hemp “giving a little kick to it.”

“There are inherent health benefits from the hemp seeds itself which is why this is such a great product,” he said. “We’re very happy to incorporate that ingredient because that’s basically our company’s mission, and we’re all about educating about what hemp is and what it isn’t.”

ORIGINAL LINK: https://richmond.com/business/watch-now-richmond-based-hemp-food-manufacturer-hits-a-milestone-by-selling-its-hemp-infused/article_accae42b-b612-5b7a-8730-4adf0596ef51.html

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