Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Surf the web for Screamin' Blue Hen hot sauce

Her marketing skills and his love of cooking, along with the latest Internet technology, have been blended to cook up a successful hot sauce and seasoning business, McNeill Inc.

Susan (Conforte) McNeill, Delaware '86, and her husband, Donald, created the business after brainstorming ways to enable McNeill to stay at home after the birth of their baby.

During 1996, baby, Matthew Ryan, and hot sauces, Nor'Easter, Chesapeake Baybe, Screamin' Blue Hen and Doc McNeill's Final Experiment, all came into the world.

Although the products are called hot sauces, McNeill says, she and her husband like to think of them as cooking sauces, used in food preparation rather than just splashed on food after it is served.

The McNeills not only invented the sauces, they also created the concept for the labels on the glass containers for the first three sauces. When Final Experiment was ready, "We came up with the idea of a test tube rather than a glass container so that people could see at a glance how hot it is. The graphics just evolved naturally."

Marketing the products called for the assistance of two modern-day necessities-an ad agency and the World Wide Web.

The choice for an agency was Harris Design Inc. in Hockessin, Del. Owner Jack Harris not only was McNeill's recent employer and one-time UD graphic arts instructor but is a well-known, award-winning graphic designer. His firm executed the design of the labels and the web site, as well as the related advertising and literature.

Using a web site for promotion, McNeill says, enables her to stay home and take credit card orders. The web accounts for about 25 percent of their sales, and McNeill says she expects that figure to keep rising.

The web site also features their original recipes, which change monthly, featuring the sauces.

On the national level, ads in Chili Pepper magazine have been successful and "hot shops" around the country have been solicited.

To reach Delawareans who don't buy by computer, the couple also sells the sauces at Peppers, adjacent to the Starboard restaurant in Dewey Beach, Del., and at Janssen's Super Market and Bourbon Street Cafe in Wilmington, Del., to name a few.

"Delawareans are willing to take a chance because it's a local product," McNeill says.

Nor'Easter combines apples, maple syrup, spices and a touch of haberno pepper, which earns it a 4 out of 10 on the McNeill's hotness thermometer. Nor'Easter sauce has recently been chosen as a finalist in the hot sauce/fruit base category in a contest sponsored by Chili Pepper. The winner will be announced this spring at the "Fiery Foods Convention" in Albuquerque.

Also rating a 4 is Chesapeake Baybe, containing peppers, fresh fruit, seasoning and beer.

Moving up the scale to 8, Screamin' Blue Hen is described by its creators as "hot, hot sauce, much like the incredible University of Delaware football team-both fruitful and fiery!"

Doc McNeill's Final Experiment is advertised at 10 and claims to be "high on the heat scale yet still has taste." It's made with Haitian haberno mash, African mambosa and rum.

A kitchen in Elsmere is the actual sauce production site. Donald supervises, while a part-time employee produces the creations. Packaging and shipping fall mostly to Susan. Another employee helps out as needed.

The McNeills say they hope to someday employ 100 people. They have another sauce ready, as well as a seasoning package, and they envision expanding into such other areas as salad dressing and popcorn. Acting as a retailer for other people's products, which have some connection to theirs, also is a strong possibility.

Visit their web site at http://www.heatmeup.com

-Gerry Elter