Tahjere Lewis had no idea that the tangy sauce with a touch of heat he’d been eating all his life when the family would gather around the table to dine on seafood was made by his Aunt Carol.
Lewis didn’t ask about the sauce until his senior year of high school, as he prepared to head off to college at Virginia Tech. He wanted to know where he could find it for a little taste of his home in Newport News.
“I was just so astonished and shocked that my entire life something I thought was store-bought, she was making it,” Lewis said.
Though he hadn’t yet taken an interest in entrepreneurship, Lewis told his aunt they’d start a business together selling her sauce once he graduated. But they didn’t get the chance. His aunt, Carol Ann Morgan Scott, died from breast cancer during Lewis’ freshman year. The two shared a special bond, and he was heartbroken by the loss.
“I almost forgot about the promise I made to her when I was a high school senior,” Lewis said.
But he didn’t forget. Lewis eventually charged ahead with the plan, wanting to honor his aunt’s legacy. There was one problem, though: She hadn’t left a recipe.
With a little guidance from Aunt Carol’s husband — who, ironically, does not like seafood — and some trial and error, Lewis managed to create something similar to the sauce he’d grown up with.
“Today I still can’t make it as good as she can, but it’s really similar,” Lewis said.
He described it as sort of like a cocktail sauce that’s tangy, sweet and spicy. The spice isn’t too powerful, though — Lewis wanted to make sure it wouldn’t overpower the food it’s paired with. While Lewis grew up using the sauce with seafood, he said it’s really all-purpose. It can be used as a dipping sauce, marinade or glaze.
Lewis debuted his version of the sauce from his dorm, West Ambler Johnston. He offered students samples of the sauce, along with crab and shrimp to pair it with, and conducted surveys to get customer feedback.
“I was so scared that people wouldn’t like it,” Lewis said.
When the reviews were positive, Lewis said he got a little emotional. He realized that the sauce his aunt created wasn’t just for his family, but could be enjoyed by countless others as well.
Developing the sauce was the first step, but the next was gaining more business knowledge. Lewis got involved with Tech’s Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, participating in an accelerator program during the fall 2020 semester.
“This program is really aimed at meeting students where they are in an entrepreneurial journey,” said Derick Maggard, executive director of the center.
Lewis already had the product, Maggard said, along with a touching story about how he created it to honor his aunt’s legacy. But he was still trying to build the brand and a community around it. Lewis was also navigating the challenges of manufacturing, packaging and selling a food product, Maggard said. The accelerator program helped him clear those hurdles.
Most successful entrepreneurs share a few key attributes, Maggard said: They are competitive, assertive, driven and coachable. He sees all of those in Lewis.
During a virtual demo day, Maggard said, Lewis got a shout out for his impressive customer service skills from a member of the Apex Center’s advisory board. He had ordered the sauce, wanting to test out the product ahead of the event, and it arrived the next day, along with a personalized note from Lewis.
Maggard said the advisory board member’s rave review prompted a flood of orders to Aunt Carol’s Sauce.
Lewis, who is now a junior, has taken a number of steps in the last year to grow and professionalize the business, which started in his dorm, where he could make only a dozen or so bottles at a time.
He began producing the sauce in a commercial kitchen in Blacksburg and got the necessary approvals from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“It was amazing to see that I was actually fulfilling and seeing the dream that me and my aunt made into a reality,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he’s been pouring the profits of the business into doing good, first by donating to Mayo Clinic and now through community outreach events, including preparing meals for the hungry and providing groceries to people in need.
In addition to a website (www.auntcarolssauce.com), Lewis built an app for Aunt Carol’s Sauce where people can find nutritional facts and recipes and also post their own. Lewis has a second business developing mobile applications; he even created one for student entrepreneurs.
Lewis wants to continue growing Aunt Carol’s Sauce. He hopes to eventually get his product into some restaurants and is also developing a dry rub.
When Lewis told his aunt that he wanted to start a business selling her sauce, she didn’t believe him, laughing it off. To her, the sauce wasn’t all that remarkable. But it was to Lewis. He won’t eat seafood without it.
“She was so nonchalant about it. I was like, OK, I’m going to really change her mind about that. If she could look back right now, I think she would actually be lost for words,” Lewis said. “She has impacted so many people. This is all from her legacy. I’m just trying to be a good steward of it.”