Jun 23, 2014
Due to popular demand, residential real-estate broker Aaron Wagner started making his family's time-tested ketchup recipe in 2012. "It's from my great-great-grandmother," says Wagner. "I remember my great-grandmother making it when I was a kid."
His brother, Larry, would make it and give it as a holiday gift, but on New Year's Day 2012, Wagner's bottle was empty before he got a taste. "My friends basically used it up before I got any," he says.
When he turned pro, Wagner started making batches of Elevation Organic Ketchup at home, but soon moved into a commercial kitchen in west Denver. He uses all-organic vegan cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, and tomato and vinegar -- as well as, of course, his great-great-grandmother's secret spices.
"A lot of ketchup tastes the same," he says. "We're really pushing it in terms of flavor profile. My ketchup totally stands out. It's got a lot more tomatoes and a lot more spices. People go crazy for it."
Wagner's sales are evenly split between retail outlets and restaurants, including such plum accounts Linger in Denver and Root Down at DIA, and he provides the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver with 1,500 mini-bottles a week for room service.
Wagner is moving into a new facility in the Baker neighborhood with Ink Lounge, a screenprinting operation and the pickle-makers at Read Dill, and has been pre-approved for the shelves at Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage, and Sprouts.
At the new kitchen, his production will soar to 250 gallons in four hours, up about 400 percent from the previous facility, and can easily fill more than 1,000 bottles in an hour -- a nice number, considering that each sells for $6 to $8 at retail.
Wagner is the company's sole owner and employee, and he enlists his family and "willing friends” to help out.
As he scales up, he'll need to let go of the reins and let an outsider know the secret blend of spices at the heart of the ketchup recipe. "That's what makes it unique," says Wagner.
Wagner still sells real estate, but spends about 70 hours a week on Elevation, as opposed to the 20 he devotes to realty.
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is getting chefs to respect ketchup," says Wagner. Once they try it, however, chefs like it, he adds. "Everybody who's brought it on still has it."
Opportunities: Growth. The ketchup market is massive and Wagner is looking at institutional opportunities at colleges and hotels as well as the retail shelves. "The big opportunity, now that we're getting our new facility built, is that we can start working with huge users," he says.
"It's unbelievable," adds Wagner. "The average American consumes 383 bottles of ketchup in their life, and more and more people are moving away from high-fructose corn syrup."
Needs: To stay the course. "We're growing fast enough but slow enough that I do every batch," says Wagner, noting that the company has been profitable since late 2013. "It was a very expensive habit at first."