There is no mistaking the pageantry of the annual tussle between Army and Navy. It is a “must-watch” on TV for college football junkies. And it accurately reflects the affinity that our nation bears for its servicemen and -women.
For 1986 Naval Academy graduate Dan Ballister, the game usually features a whopper of a tailgate with his golf-loving, fun-seeking military mates. It’s a group of friends who convene for annual golf trips that are fueled by football, libations and the group’s deep-seated concerns for military and veteran families. During the 2012 tailgate, a question arose: “Why don’t we start a business that donates a large chunk of its profits to military and veteran families?”
About that time, a ranking general, who cooked wings at the tailgate, walked by the conversation with a freshly prepared tray, and someone shouted: “That guy deserves his own hot sauce.”
Ballister, the ringleader for the group that volunteered as standard bearers at the Walker Cup matches in 2015 and 2019, grabbed the moment and promised a product for the 2013 game. Using the business acumen he developed in more than 20 years in the digital media and internet advertising technology industries, he individually cobbled together seven cases of hot sauce in 5-ounce bottles. At the 2013 Army-Navy tailgate, he presented the new product to outstanding reviews. Within a year – with financial backing from his tailgating/golfing group – The General’s Hot Sauce was born. By the way, The General’s name, by a strict company code, is a secret.
True to its mission, The General’s Hot Sauce, based in Columbia, South Carolina, is veteran owned and operated. It creates jobs for veterans and donates a meaningful percentage of its profits to military and veteran families.
“Since we formed the business, we’ve enabled the gifting of well over half a million dollars to help veterans,” Ballister said. “We were even writing some smaller donation checks before we were even profitable just based on principle.”
In concert with this year’s Army-Navy football game on December 9 in Foxborough, Massachusetts, TGHS is hosting a “virtual tailgate” with the proceeds of that online event going to The Big Red Barn Retreat near Columbia.
Ballister continues his post-business career passion with the help of younger Marine veterans in key leadership roles. They are known as The Committee – Dillon Cox in business development; Chris Behling in finance; and Steve Osegueda in operations. Transparency 101: The Committee does not play golf, dabbling in music, libations such as beer and whiskey, while still serving in reserves.
“On July Fourth, I actually had a stroke and was out of commission for a couple of weeks, and they immediately stepped up and continued to run and grow the business,” Ballister said. “Besides writing donation checks, that’s definitely been the most rewarding part, because it’s such a personal experience and I get to live it every day.”
“I started working here because I spent about 12 years in the Marine Corps. I joined because of selfless service, which is what I think we should all try to be.” – Dillon Cox
During his time as a surface warfare officer in the Navy, Ballister never envisioned he’d be part of a classic MBA case study for small businesses. However, each step that the company has taken seems to have the flavor of a great business textbook.
“I started working here because I spent about 12 years in the Marine Corps,” said Cox, the company’s first employee, who is in charge of sales, business development and partner support. “I joined because of selfless service, which is what I think we should all try to be. Working here allows me to take care of our customers and help my fellow veterans at the same time.”
TGHS likes to be grassroots American in everything it does. It has, from its beginnings, supported the American farmer. All of its peppers are grown at local and regional farms because “we think you should be able to trace every pepper back to the acre of land where it was grown, and we can do that,” Ballister said.
Ballister credits the walk-and-talks with his golf friends while watching the Walker Cup matches with many of the good ideas that have already been implemented at the company. He cites the 2017 Walker Cup at LACC for the idea of expanding marketing by calling gift shops at military museums. In 2019 at Hoylake, they mapped out the plan to convert the business from an LLC to a Delaware C-Corp.
His three Walker Cup pals are tethered to TGHS – are all either founders or investors: one is a founder and on the board, one is a legal adviser and one is a professional photographer, who has done most of their product shoots.
“We wanted to help military and veteran families, and we wanted a side project to work on together as we all got older, so it seemed like a pretty good combo,” Ballister said. “It’s since developed into something a lot bigger and a lot more fun than we could’ve imagined.”
The General’s Hot Sauce produces seven varieties of hot sauce that all contain 86 percent actual peppers, when the industry standard is only 20 percent.
“A lot of what we do is manual, old-school work,” Ballister said. “It’s decidedly inefficient, but it’s worth it.”
Their newest product, The General’s Bee Sting, debuts in November.
“It’s important to us because we can never do enough to support returning veterans and their families, and every bit matters. Thankfully we have great investors …” – Dan Ballister
The General’s Hot Sauce lives by its motto: “A Great Sauce For The Greater Good.” In the most recent Inc 5000 rankings, it ranked 757th nationally for fastest growing, privately held small businesses.
“It’s important to us because we can never do enough to support returning veterans and their families, and every bit matters,” Ballister said. “Thankfully we have great investors, most of them USNA grads, and the more we grow, the more our ability to donate will grow with it.”
All of the authentic all-natural sauces are packaged in glass bottles shaped like hand grenades, which recently garnered some national PR and a spike in sales when a careless traveler tried to carry a bottle of “Danger Close” through airport security.
“We are just grateful that our packaging is getting a little bit of attention,” Ballister said tongue-in-cheek. “We sell through Amazon and online and places like Ace Hardware. We are small but idea-driven, and we’ve been able to get our products in the hands of a large number of consumers.”
Photos Courtesy The General’s Hot Sauce
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