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Co-owner Don Helms says the company plans to add a steak sauce and salsas next year.
SBJ photo by McKenzie Robinson
Co-owner Don Helms says the company plans to add a steak sauce and salsas next year.

Business Spotlight: Saucy Startup

Unlikely business partners launch a health-conscious barbecue sauce and salsa brand

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Even though Munchie Mo’s Sauces LLC launched 18 months ago and the brand is now reaching consumers, its barbecue sauces and salsas have been a decade in the making.

After a year and a half of research and development, co-founder Cody Molina’s recipes have been refined and are ready for retail.

Molina says health concerns drove his interest in creating salsa and, later, barbecue sauce with healthy nutritional profiles. He spent his childhood in and out of the hospital because of severe asthma, and Molina says a prescribed medicine caused him to develop heart problems.

As an adult, he gained a great deal of weight and received a warning by doctors: “If I didn’t lose the weight, I wasn’t going to see the age of 50 or much past 50,” Molina says. “If I were to gain weight again, all of those risks would come back.”

So, Molina embraced a permanent change of diet – “kind of like a diabetic diet, but a bit more wholesome – no preservatives, none of the processed stuff, low cholesterol, low sodium. I pretty much decided to start making all of my foods from scratch,” he says.

That idea expanded from meals to condiments when he picked up a jar of commercially prepared salsa and read the label.

He tried national, healthy brands of salsa but found them bland.

When Molina began experimenting with salsas of his own about 12 years ago, he drew inspiration from his grandmother’s cooking.

“I’m half Mexican and coming from Texas, I come from a background of flavor. I kind of looked back to the days when I was living with my grandmother and having homemade meals every day. Tortillas and enchiladas – the chili was out of this world, and even the cornbread was flavored. And not just spicy,” Molina says.

“In America, it’s mostly just vegetables and water. In Mexico, they roast most of their vegetables,” he says.

He tried roasting vegetables first. It deepened the flavor, but not quite enough, he says. Molina next tried smoking the vegetables.

That’s when he hit the winning combination. Molina employed the same technique for developing a barbecue sauce that was lower in salt and sugars but still hit the desired flavor levels.

The condiments got raves from family and friends. A couple of investors even showed interest. “But I wasn’t ready yet,” Molina says.

He wouldn’t be ready until after moving to Missouri and meeting Don Helms, who helped him launch Munchie Mo’s Sauces.

Right mix
Helms says he met Molina a few years ago while recovering from back surgery.

Helms’ family had owned and operated Mailbox It and US Cellular outlets in the Table Rock Lake area, as well as a sign-making and printing store.

After the family sold a few and closed a few, Helms says he started working as a business consultant. But after back surgery, he needed something to get him moving and out of the house, and he took a job at Domino’s.

“Deliver pizza two days a week? That’ll help,” Helms recalls. “It was part of my physical therapy.”

Molina also worked for Domino’s, and he persuaded Helms – who is from New Mexico – to taste his salsa and barbecue sauce recipes.

“I tried it, and I loved it,” Helms says. “We decided to become partners and things started falling in place.”

They each invested $15,000, and Helms took on the business aspects of brand development, marketing and finding a bottler. Molina headed back into the kitchen to dream up new flavor profiles.

Munchie Mo’s was on its way.

From kitchen to market
Tom Clark, owner of Ozark Mountain Packaging LLC in Hollister, has experience in taking concoctions from the kitchen to the grocery shelves.

“That’s something I’ve specialized in over the last 30 years with small mom and pop brands,” Clark says.

Clark, who went out on his own and opened Ozark Mountain Packaging in 2018, says he often has barbecue circuit competitors knocking on his door for help. He says most of the roughly 200 bar-coded products currently bottled at his company are barbecue sauces.

“I put together a manual on how to get started, what the expectations are, different processes,” he says.

Among other things, the process demands that home cooks’ usual measurements are converted to metric weights to create a repeatable process.

“It was extremely difficult,” says Molina, who serves as the startup’s chief operating officer.

He had to figure out how many grams in a tablespoon, then upscale to kilograms so Clark could mix the sauces in large batches.

Clark says the timeline for development varies, but it’s typically four to six weeks from the time a recipe is handed over to producing a test batch. After that, it depends on how many recipe refinements have to be made until they start making the 80- to 160-gallon batches. It also must be tested and sent off to get process authority from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Then a UPC code and nutritional information need to be obtained for the label.

Molina and Helms in early March had their first 80-gallon runs of three flavors of barbecue sauce: original, sweet and spicy. They’re now working to get them on store shelves and selling them through their website.

So far, they’ve sold over 500 bottles, priced at $6.99 apiece. Next up is pitching the product line to an unnamed grocer Helms describes as midsize.

Helms, who’s Munchie Mo’s CEO, says they’re satisfied with slow, steady growth for the moment. They plan to add a mango barbecue and steak sauce next year – and salsas when the price of vegetables drops.

“It’s all been self-funded so far. If we start growing more rapidly, we’re going to have to get some investment money,” he says.

The business partners hope to grow their brand from the Springfield region to a five-state Midwest territory in the next few years. But Molina expresses greater hopes.

“I’d really like for us to become a family household name,” he says.

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