From her upbringing in Louisiana, where her mother’s penchant for adding cayenne pepper to many dishes left the family sweating at the dinner table, to her determination to revolutionize the hot sauce market, Kelly Schexnaildre’s unwavering belief in her brand continues to bring joy to countless customers, one bottle at a time.
In 2014, Kelly Schexnaildre was 26 years old and starting her own hot sauce business called Merfs Condiments in Denver. Being a non-binary lesbian in the male-dominated food industry, particularly in the hot sauce sector, brought its fair share of surprised reactions to her age and gender, as well as microaggressions and hurtful backhanded compliments.
There was also the isolation she felt from not having a large pool of queer or non-binary business owners with whom to network. Despite these challenges, Kelly, whose pronouns are she/they, pushed through and managed to build a thriving business.
However, the biggest test yet in her business journey came in 2020 when the pandemic struck. Kelly, like many other business owners around the world, had to grapple with a tough situation. The majority of her revenue depended on restaurant sales, a business model that took a major hit when restaurants closed their doors. And even after dining establishments cautiously opened months later, the landscape had shifted dramatically. Single-use packets had replaced her hot sauce bottles on tables, leaving the business struggling to regain its pre-pandemic momentum.
“Every problem I ever had pre-COVID, I pretty much can’t even remember,” she chuckles. “I was so gravely impacted by COVID because about 75 to 80% of my revenue was restaurant-based. It was brutal.”
A recipe for resilience
The sudden and substantial loss of revenue forced Kelly to make the decision to sell her manufacturing facility and lay off staff. With the uncertainty around what lay ahead, she quickly pivoted into the co-packing business model where an external manufacturer produces her sauces.
She also started to diversify her revenue streams. Prior to the pandemic, Kelly had relied on her cousin, who had his own Amazon storefront, to sell her hot sauce. Once the pandemic was underway, she decided it was time to take more control. In late 2021, she launched Merfs Condiments in Amazon’s store.
“The best year we ever had with my cousin reselling our products, we made maybe $40,000,” she says. “Then we launched our store with Amazon in the second week of November of 2021. In 2022, we did $96,000 in sales. That’s phenomenal! Now my question is, what do I got to do to do half a million with Amazon this year?”
U.S. independent sellers sold more than 4.1 billion products and averaged more than $230,000 in sales in Amazon’s store in 2022. So Kelly is not far off with her ambitions. One of the steps she’s taking to get to her goal is leveraging Amazon’s Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) program which allows sellers to outsource their order fulfillment to Amazon. Small businesses can benefit from FBA by saving money on: warehouse space, hiring staff to choose, pack, and ship their products, and hiring an entire customer service team to handle inquiries and returns.
“The ease and accessibility of FBA make it a breeze,” she says. “I have my fulfillment center create all these packs, we ship them in, they’re received, Amazon takes care of the customer service, and customers feel good because they get their products in two days.”
From Louisiana to Denver
As a Louisiana native, Kelly grew up with a love for spicy cuisine, thanks to her family’s affinity for home-cooked meals and her mother’s one-time penchant for adding copious amounts of cayenne pepper to everything.
At college, she started out enrolling in a nursing program but soon realized it wasn’t the right path for her. After graduating with a liberal arts degree, she and her college girlfriend made the move out west to Denver, where Kelly’s love for cooking drew her to the food industry, and where she “spent a couple of years working in restaurants, wondering what the hell I was going to do with myself.”
During this time, she was also gardening and harvesting a lot of fresh produce which led her to experiment with making jams and relishes, and crafting ketchup and barbecue sauce. Eventually, she found her way to hot sauce.
The first recipe she made was a peach habanero hot sauce. “People were just crazy about that stuff,” she remembers. “They were stealing it out of my fridge and asking for it for Christmas gifts, and I thought, well, shoot, I might be on to something here.”
After eyeing restaurant ownership and recognizing that opening her own establishment required significant capital, Kelly decided to focus on a “restaurant-adjacent” business of creating and selling hot sauce instead. So in 2014, she launched Merfs Condiments, which her brother helped name as a nod to her family’s beloved Bassett Hound, Murphy.
“The real reason I started writing hot sauce recipes is because the popular brands at the time featured this thin vinegar-style chili sauce, and I just felt like hot sauce could be so much bigger than that, it could be big and bold and flavorful and interesting and textually satisfying,” she says. “I just felt like the market really needed that at the time.”
Spicing up success
Starting with a commissary kitchen and being a constant presence at farmers’ markets, Kelly gradually earned enough cash and interest to start taking samples of her hot sauce to restaurants and specialty grocery stores. She compares her approach to cold sales to casting lines while fishing—it requires patience and multiple touchpoints to reel in a big catch.
The idea that I could come up with something in my own mind and bottle it and have people just lose their minds—it’s extremely gratifying.
One of her favorite memories is when she approached the head chef of a renowned 300-seat restaurant in Denver. Introducing herself and presenting her peach habanero sauce that started it all—now named Peaches & Scream—along with Hand Grenade, a pineapple sriracha sauce, she nervously awaited his verdict. Twenty “agonizing minutes later,” he emerged and promptly placed an order for 15 cases of each flavor. Kelly recalls:
I got back into my car screaming and called my dad, and I was like, “Dad, you’ll never believe this...” I just won’t ever forget that feeling. The idea that I could come up with something in my own mind, bottle it, and have people just lose their minds—Merfs Condiments has a cult following now, and people regularly buy our hot sauce in half-gallon jugs for personal use. It’s astonishing. And even in tough times, it’s extremely gratifying to work for myself and to really just be bringing joy to people.
Embracing community and breaking barriers
These days, Kelly is back in her native Louisiana, where she currently resides. With her products manufactured by a Colorado Springs-based co-packer and Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) handling her operations, she realized she could run her business remotely from any location.
She’s found that affirming sense of community she sought earlier in her business career by joining the Gulf South LGBTQ and the National Gay and Lesbian Chambers of Commerce, something she encourages other queer entrepreneurs to do as well in their own communities. She also participates as a mentor and mentee in StartOut, a nonprofit organization that connects LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs to expertise, peers, community, and capital.
To return to and exceed pre-pandemic sales, Kelly is focused on growing her Amazon business while also expanding into more grocery stores, including national chains, and exploring international opportunities. Merfs Condiments will be nationally distributed in Canada come summer 2023, and she plans to enroll the business in Amazon Canada’s FBA program as well.
In the meantime, she’s spending a lot of this year doing more substantial marketing, investing in the brand’s social media presence and customer targeting to enhance brand awareness.
“The lesson for me around COVID has been that, for me, success is the only way out,” she says. “When that’s the only option, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure A: the survival of the business, which is all I’ve cared about for the last three years, and B: managing resources to use them for the things that are going to actually grow the business.
“Some of it has been really challenging and hard, but I refuse to quit. I’m as persistent as they come, and I’ll hit the brick wall with a sledgehammer until the whole goddamn thing comes down.”