Radhi Fernandez likes to joke that his foray into entrepreneurship is the fault of pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson. With the company as a contractor for nearly a decade, Fernandez took up gardening at one of its plots near its Fort Washington campus. That simple act led him down a path from which he created hot sauce brand Faiya Co.
In 2022, the company more than tripled production. This year, he’s looking to maintain that level, increase wholesale and eventually “be a staple item in Philadelphia,” he said.
They’re ambitious goals for a man who had never grown produce before and had no food industry experience, but ones he believes are in reach.
The seeds of Faiya – a take on the word fire – were sown when his friends asked him to take up a J&J garden plot in the summer of 2019. Initially Fernandez wasn’t interested, but after a bit of persuading, he decided to plant half a dozen Carolina Reaper pepper plants. When they took off, he suddenly found himself with a bounty of one of the world’s spiciest peppers.
Unsure what to do with them, he began sourcing other produce like tomatoes and herbs from the community garden, making salsa he would share with his co-workers.
Enjoying the experience, his goal was to take up a plot again in 2020, but when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he decided to grow the peppers at his North Philadelphia home instead.
Rather than salsa, he used his harvest to make hot sauce, an amount which he could never consume on his own. So he decided to sell it, posting his initial 24 bottles on Facebook. They sold out and Fernandez’s interest was piqued, so he began laying out a business plan.
Fernandez taught himself the cooking techniques and also sought the expertise of a food scientist to refine his recipes and ensure their shelf stability.
His first recipe was a sauce known as La Muerte, the hottest among his nearly dozen offerings. Others are mild to medium like Sweet Summer Heat made with jalapeños, limes and pineapple; Purple Flame with blueberries, jalapeños and serrano peppers; and What the Fuego, which has mango and habanero.
“It’s tropical, it’s fruity, it reminds me of Christmas at the beach,” he said.
He also makes green and red salsas, the former of which landed second place in the 2023 Scovie Awards, an annual competition judged largely by industry pros and held in New Mexico. Each of his sauces come in 5-ounce bottles and retail for $10.
The sauces are inspired in part by his heritage. Fernandez grew up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, spending summers with family in Miami or New York. At the age of 18, his father’s job permanently relocated the family to the U.S. and he’s called Greater Philadelphia home ever since.
In addition to sampling from his Dominican heritage, spicier sauces also draw on his wife’s Mexican heritage.
Where possible, Fernandez sources locally grown ingredients, including from farms in West Chester and South Jersey. Once harvested, he and his team make and bottle sauces by hand. During peak season, he employs upwards of 14 people on a part-time basis.
Faiya can be found at several area shops like the Head Nut, which has outposts in Ardmore and the Reading Terminal Market in Center City, and V Marks the Shop in South Philadelphia.
Fernandez also sells at farmers’ markets, including in East Falls, Horsham, Perkasie, Warrington and at events like the Christmas Village.
Presently most of business, about 80%, comes from retail sales. Another 12% to 15% comes from online sales, with the remaining 5% to 8% coming from wholesale.
Fernandez’s goal is to shift those numbers so that wholesale is about 50% of business. “Eventually, I would love to be able to offer wholesale to Whole Foods or ShopRite,” he said.
Faiya is self-funded and Fernandez reinvests profits back into the business. His goal is to reach a level of profitability this year so that he can start drawing a paycheck, something he believes is well within reach.
While wholesale means a bigger investment in production, he’s adamant about owning that process rather than working with a co-packer.
Presently Faiya is produced and bottled in MaKen Studios in Kensington. He began with around 600 square feet before increasing his lease last year to nearly 2,000 square feet. Not only has he tripled his footprint, but also production.
In 2022, the company produced 14,577, a 185% increase over the 5,100 bottles made in 2021 and a sharp increase from the 254 bottles he started with in 2020.
After experiencing such dramatic growth, Fernandez wants to maintain his pace in 2023 and also turn his attention to other shelf-stable pantry items like rubs, seasonings and salts.
“[I want to] grow more, to establish myself as a food company, not just a hot sauce company,” he said.
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