Interview with Shauna Donnelly of Wild Smoke
Sorry about the delay everyone! Here's our next Midtown box interview with Shauna from Wild Smoke. She was responsible for those amazing rubs that you got in your box. We talked about the growth of her business, her putting her own spin on traditional barbecue, and more. Here we go!
Start us off by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about Wild Smoke.
SHAUNA DONNELLY: Okay. Well, my name is Shauna. I started Wild Smoke because I didn't like traditional barbecue sauce, and I felt like I could do better than what was out on the market. I like to cook. I figured, "Oh, let's play with this flavor, that flavor," and I came up with some unique flavors for myself. Shared them with friends and family and at events and things like that. People would tell me, "Man, you should sell this,” so I went, "Oh, all right. Why not?" *laughs* I like spicy food, a lot of spicy food, and there's not a lot of decent spicy barbecue sauce out there. We have five different smokers at our house so we smoke a lot of food, but I could never find a sauce where I felt, "Oh, I love this." I don't like vinegar-based sauces of any kind. It doesn't matter if it's hot sauce or salsas and I'm not a sriracha fan. So I developed my first sauce, which I called No Joke. It's a smokey, spicy sauce, but it doesn't have that vinegary aftertaste. It started there. I decided, "Oh, let's play with this." I like to cook with wine and I'm a bourbon drinker, so a lot of my sauces have wine, or bourbon, or spicy notes to them. We also make our own rubs for our own barbecue. So after the sauce took off, I decided, "Hey, let's throw some rubs in there." I now have four different rubs in production. I've got a coffee-based one. I've got one that's made after our spicy raspberry sauce. So it's the same flavor profile but in rub form. It's a little sweet, a little heat, and it's fantastic on seafood. Being that we're Alaskans, that fits really well. *laughs* Right on. So the rubs weren't the plan from the beginning but ended up becoming sort of an extension of things? SHAUNA: No. I was already making our Cajun rub for our own personal use. After the business took off, I just tweaked the recipe and then made it available for the market. I like my steak in layers. I like different flavors for it, but I like to be able to taste the meat. So when we developed our coffee steak rub, I joked with everybody that I should have named it the Best Friend Rub because when you don't know what to do, you go to this. You've got your garlic, your onion, a little bit of spice and then the coffee actually ties it all together and enhances all of those flavors. So you can put one rub on it and get that nice steakhouse crust. You can use it on pork. People are using it on popcorn, of all things. Hot buttered popcorn and everybody loves it. Nice. I love experimentation. SHAUNA: Then we have our bleu cheese and wine rub. I like bleu cheese on my steak. So when I was with my distributor, I found all the flavors, and thought , "I bet that would be good." I originally designed it for steak, but it's really taking off with pasta because you could put it in an Alfredo sauce, roasted veggies or potatoes or a dip. We're finding as time goes on that they're much more versatile than we originally had intended them to be. So that's been a neat adventure. Right on. And I guess, with the bleu cheese, it makes sense because anything that you put bleu cheese in by extension, it seems like it would work really well in. SHAUNA: I actually wanted it to be a steak rub, but also to be able to use it if you wanted it to make a wine reduction sauce because I make a lot of those myself. If you wanted to just add some wine in with the seasoning and reduce it down, you could mix it together and make a steak sauce with it too. I wanted it to have that versatile feel. I just never thought about it going into pasta until later on, and I thought, "Oh, it would be good with this." You could also make a dip with it. It was a very interesting thing to do with just one pack of seasoning.
Yeah, for sure. That's very cool. So you were talking about as far as making the rubs, making the sauces, you were already making the sauces just for yourself if I'm understanding correctly. And then after that, you started sharing them with people. Was this for several years then, that you've been making them? SHAUNA: I've been making it for a few years now. It's developed more in the last couple of years. I own a photography business as well. So I have friends where I've done catering and photography for the same wedding because I'm kind of insane like that. *laughs* Whoa, yeah. That sounds like it would be a lot to handle. SHAUNA: Yes, I cook a lot, and I like to cook for big groups of people. A lot of the time, I would just make stuff, and then bring it to them. A lot of people were finding out about it through that. They would tell me, "Oh, I had that at so and so's wedding," and whatnot. Also, I've done some classes for Allen & Petersen, demos for their smokers. I've thrown sauce on some of the food that I've made, and people at events kept asking "Why are you not selling this? Why are you not selling this? Why are you not selling this?" So after two years of hearing that, I said "Okay, fine. I'll sell it." I never intended to do rubs as quickly as I incorporated them. They go hand in hand, but I never expected -- we opened in April, and it's now the end of October, and I've got nine different sauces, and I've got four different rubs in smaller packaging, larger packaging, tins. It's taking up every spare minute of my time, but I'm loving it. It's fun. I enjoy it. That's great. You go into something hoping to grow it into this big thing and then it starts happening. That's awesome. SHAUNA: It's a wonderful thing to be able to build a business from the ground up. I've done everything from my website, to all the recipes for my sauces, all of them for my rubs, the branding, the packaging, everything. So that's rewarding to be able to say, "Yeah, this is me." I have a fantastic support system. My husband helps when he is available and I have a close group of friends that help wherever is needed. Yeah. Did you already have some experience with growing a business while doing your photography? SHAUNA: I have ran a childcare facility for almost 20 years. I started as a teacher's assistant, I worked my way up to director, and I've been doing that for almost 10 years. A lot of marketing has come in from that. I opened my photography business about eight years ago, and I had to learn how to do a lot of website and marketing with that because you need to make sure that you're putting your name out there. You're going to sell your own business the best. I've not been to business school. I just learn as I go. I teach myself everything I can. I'll figure out how to do it and if I don't know how, I'll find somebody that knows how. *laughs* Yeah. Sometimes, there are just those things where you're like, "I can figure out how to do this, but I don't really like it," and then your time isn't really being used efficiently. SHAUNA: Right. And with my rubs, I can sell those online and I have them for sale in two stores now. For my sauces, I'm doing them under Cottage Food law, so I have to do direct sales with that. I can't ship my sauce yet because I need a restaurant-grade kitchen. With my rubs, I outsource to a co-packer. They make my rub with my recipe, and then I package it and can distribute it to others. Cool. So if you had a commercial-grade kitchen, then you could ship your sauces too? SHAUNA: Yes. I have one lined up, and that's something we want to work towards, but I don't believe in getting too big too fast. I think that you lose quality that way. I've seen that in other businesses. If you get too big too fast, things decline. I want to be smart about it, so I'm not taking on more than I can handle.
For sure. I totally understand that. I saw that you had won a couple of awards from the Alaska Eggfest back in June. Tell me a bit about that. SHAUNA: Yes. We have a bunch of Big Green Eggs. That's the kind of smoker that we use. My husband and I cook a lot. We've had our original Big Green Egg for over 10 years. I didn't like barbecue until I owned a Big Green Egg. I couldn't just go to a restaurant and order it because I didn’t care for it. A lot of that had to do with the sauce, meat was dried out, and things like that. We bought a Big Green Egg, and I fell in love because it's very versatile. You can bake on it. You can smoke on it. You can sear on it. There's nothing it can't do. I mean, I cook breakfast on it, Philly steak sandwiches. As time went on, Allen and Petersen, they started selling them, and then they brought up Eggfest, which is a huge competition down in the states too. So this year was our second year competing and I placed first for People's Choice for my candied pork belly. It had our Spicy Raz on it, which is our number one selling sauce. I placed fourth with the same meat with the judges. But People's Choice is a huge thing when there are hundreds of people and they pick you out of 25 teams. I was more impressed with myself for that than I was the judging because it's a panel of 12 people. We had to cook for over 300 people, and they sampled, and they chose us, so that was a cool thing. Even more people asked me, "Where did you get your sauce? Why aren't you selling it?" We had just started fully selling it a couple months before that.
That's cool. It seems like it was not only the validation but also a really good way or extra way of marketing too. SHAUNA: Right, absolutely.
So I imagine you're going to do it next year. SHAUNA: Yes, we intend to. I enjoy the competition. It's a good time. I mean, we spent 36 straight hours there outside cooking. I got about an hour of sleep. That sounds intense. SHAUNA: Yeah. And you never know what everybody else is cooking. The unique thing about this competition is it's not brisket versus brisket. It's all the meats against all the meats, so I start thinking, "What are they cooking? What am I cooking? Is it going to be better?" I did our smoked chicken legs with our Pomegranate Mesquite last year and that was a big hit, particularly with the fire department because Eggfest is tied with MDA so the fire department's all there. They fell in love with those chicken legs, so I thought, "I guess I need to start cooking for the fire department." *laughs* That's awesome. As far as deciding what you're going to make, now that you have a couple of years under your belt, does that sort of play into it a little bit? Do you have a certain, I guess, plan of attack now? SHAUNA: Yes, you do, but I'm torn because I'm used to having five smokers at home, so I'm never restricted. During the competition, I have one cooking device. I have to cook for 300 people and not only do I have to cook a main dish, I have to cook a side dish too. This year, I cooked a smoked peach cobbler with a bourbon caramel sauce on it and that was a big hit as well but finding enough surface space to cook everything, and make sure it's hot, and cook for 300 people, that’s a little stressful. *laughs* Yeah, I can imagine. SHAUNA: The minute the competition ended, we were already thinking about what we were going to do next year. Also, the rules have changed a little bit this year, so we have to take those into account. I haven't got my menu fully planned out, but I'm sure it will be in the next couple of months. We're actually doing another competition in Texas in February.
Oh, nice. So now that you've cut your teeth these last couple of years, is the plan to continue branching into other competitions? SHAUNA: I would like to, not just necessarily for the business, it's just something I enjoy doing. It's cool to be able to see what other people do. I like the pressure of it. Last year, I competed against my husband. We had two teams. We did it very strategically because, first of all, that's how you save marriages. *laughs* You don't have to worry about arguing about what the other one's cooking, or what they want to do versus what you want to do. It gave us double the chance for exposure and for a chance to win, so I felt like it was a smart move. Two of our best friends were our assistants, and we had a great time doing it. We met a lot of good people during that time. We run a barbecue group too on Facebook. So we get to stay in touch with everybody, and invite each other to dinner, those kinds of things. Yeah, keep in touch. That's awesome. Out of all your sauces and all your rubs, do you have personal favorites? SHAUNA: Absolutely. Spicy Raz is my favorite sauce. If I make ribs, that's my go-to because it is unique and spicy. There's nothing too spicy for me usually, so that's my favorite. Depending on what I'm eating, my second favorite would probably be our Blackberry Bourbon, but I'm a bourbon drinker. Cool. And then what about the rubs? SHAUNA: For rubs, the coffee rub is my favorite, honestly, and that's the last one that we developed. I've got a couple more that we're working on, but I think it's very versatile, and it hits all of the flavors that I would want if I were to season the meat. Yeah, totally. I saw that you have a recipe on your website. Is that yours? SHAUNA: Yep. Are there plans to post more recipes on there?
SHAUNA: Yes. I have a lot of people that want recipes, and I have a lot of people that don't know how to cook simple things so my goal is to maybe do some videos, to have simple recipes using our products that people could make that they might not think about. I have food allergies myself, so I would like to start offering some things that people could cook that take into account certain food allergies. I've had a lot of requests for gluten-free and stuff like that, so we are working on developing some of those rubs and sauces to accommodate that because I think that it's important. Yeah, absolutely. More and more, you're seeing people that have different issues and things that they just can't eat. That's very cool, giving those options. SHAUNA: Yes. In our childcare facility, we have probably 30 kids that have food allergies and some of their allergies, they're eating really bland food because there's nobody on the market that can make something that accommodates their needs. I would like to take some of the ones that are more difficult like the garlic allergy, the gluten allergy, and make something that tastes good for them. Yeah, for sure. It seems like that's the other thing too is it's hard to find stuff that actually tastes good with certain things. It's like, "Oh, this exists, but it's not very good." SHAUNA: I'm really kid-friendly. I run a daycare, so I know what kids like and our pomegranate is actually -- I have not met a child that doesn't like that sauce. If I want to sell to a group of people, I talk to the kids, and I have them try it because if your kid lights up and says, "I like that," and it's something you can use in your everyday cooking, odds are it's going to sell. Yeah, for sure. I was just on your website. Near your contact us, you mention special requests. Is that something you get pretty commonly?
SHAUNA: I've been getting special requests, and that's why I put it on there because I have people that come to me and want, say, a Carolina mustard sauce. I have people that have wanted the allergy things. I can brainstorm all day, but I have to be able to listen to our clients and what they want because if they're staying interested in what we're doing, then I'm going to continue to have them as a clientele. I want to be able to say, "Oh, yeah, we can do that." Within reason of course. Of course. And I'm sure every once in a while, you get an idea like, "Wow, that's an awesome idea." Or you're getting an idea multiple times, and you know there's some validation there. SHAUNA: Yes. It's easier for me to put something into production if I know that there’s a want and a need for it. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. As far as the Bear Box, what was it about the Bear Box that made you want to be a part of it? SHAUNA: First of all, I like the element of surprise. I think that's a neat thing to be able to do, and I like that it ties a lot of small businesses from Alaska together in one unified place because I think that's what Alaska is about. I just thought, "Well, this is one way I can reach somebody that I wouldn't be able to reach otherwise," because if you're shipping to villages, or out of state, or whatever, they're not going to know about little Wild Smoke from Alaska if I don't get it out there or somebody doesn't tell them about it so word of mouth is everything in this town. I thought, "Hey, this is a good opportunity." I team up with a lot of small businesses so it's just something that appeals to me. Very cool. I'm hoping more and more as we go, we'll see businesses that already know each other, they'll find out they're in the same box and it'll be this cool connection thing. SHAUNA: Oh, that would be cool. I already referred the person that is packing my rubs for me and who I get my spices through to you guys because I think that she would be perfect for it because she has a lot of flavor profiles in the spices and the teas that would work with rural Alaska. Meats, fish, things like that. Oh, that's very cool. I totally agree with what you were saying with getting all these small businesses connected. That was a big part of why we wanted to do it was to bring everybody together and have it go beyond, "We got these great products. These are all really cool," but, now, you get to know the people more, and be able to get the behind the scenes, and that sort of thing. That's the goal we had in mind. SHAUNA: Yeah, definitely. Our rubs are for sale in Mr. Prime Beef and in Allen and Petersen. They're two of the businesses that helped me start out as a small business, so I started a community section on my website that points people in those directions. Hopefully it brings them a little bit more business too because they've done so much for me. Yeah, for sure. Having those connections makes a huge difference. Did you have sort of a connection to them already, or did you approach them after and they were all about it? SHAUNA: Well, a little bit of both. With Mr. Prime Beef, I buy a lot of my meat from there. I also know the owner. She's been to my cooking competitions and things like that, so she brought the interest. She actually pushed me to get the rubs done faster because she wanted to sell them in Mr. Prime Beef so it was a little kick in the rear for me to say to myself, "Get it done faster." With Allen and Petersen, we shop there because I like to shop locally as much as I can and when they started selling Big Green Egg, it was new to them, and we were already experienced in it, so we started talking to the owners. One thing led to another and then I started doing some demos for them and the relationship just developed from there. Once I got everything up and running, they told me, "We have no problem putting it in the store. We love that," because a lot of their clients were the ones that were literally yelling at me, "Why is this not for sale in the store? Why can't I buy this now? They also put on the Eggfest, so it's that whole big circle. Nice. It's great when things work out that way. So the holidays are coming up. I saw some pictures on your website, that you're doing gift boxes. So you're just starting with those this year?
SHAUNA: I just started them. Shopping for men is especially difficult. I know from shopping for my own husband. Most men like food like food and barbecue, so I figured I would gear some of it towards men. Not that women don't, but I think that that will be an easy sell to a woman like, "Here you go." I'm finding out that a lot of people are telling me, "Oh, yeah. I always try to buy my kids spices, or seasonings, or sauces," so I wanted to create some custom gift boxes for people during the holiday season, or Valentine's Day, Father's Day, Mother's Day, birthdays, things like that. Easy sells, basically. If they have a gift-wrapped item, and it's ready to go, then they're more likely to buy it a lot of the time. I'm not a shopper because I don't like shopping, so I do a lot of online shopping and if it can be delivered to my door, I'm all about that. *laughs* I would like to be able to have some of that be available, whether it's local or whether it's online. Yeah, for sure. I'm definitely with you on the online shopping. SHAUNA: I work seven days a week. I've literally had one day off in 45 days so, to me, that's an easy thing. Our grinder and our shakers will be ready next month, and I'm going to launch those. We were doing a trial run on them to make sure I like that style of shaker. That's something that I'd like to offer, a nice gift box where you can pick whatever shakers you want in it and then the bags, you could use to refill the shaker if it was already low. That way you pay for the shaker once and then you could buy a bag to refill. Very cool. Any events that you're going to be at these next couple of months? Anything else that you'd like to mention? SHAUNA: Right now, I don’t have anymore events planned at this time with the holidays being right around the corner. I usually team up with the Spice and Tea Exchange every couple of months. I do a lot of pop-ups at local businesses and then I'll do some markets and festivals. We do have a calendar on our website, so people can find out where we're going to be if they want to stop by to try the sauce, or rubs, or smell it, anything like that. They can also follow us on Facebook. If anyone would like to host a pop-up we can arrange that too. Awesome and good to know. Well, that's all I have. Thank you a ton, Shauna. I super appreciate it. I appreciate you taking the time. It's very nice to meet you. I'm excited to see the reactions about the rubs. SHAUNA: Yeah, definitely. And you too.
I just want to give a big thank you to Shauna for being a part of The Bear Box! Stay tuned for the follow up Facebook post where I'll talk a bit more about what else she has to offer. In the meantime, please go check out her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.