Hot sauce was the only thing that helped Tom Geist consume dozens, if not hundreds, of MREs during his active duty service at Camp Lejeune.
But the Southern California native said he began missing the classic flavors of Southern California ‘hole in the wall’ taco shop sauce upon his permanent change of station to the area. Because he couldn’t find any of those flavors locally, he decided to make his own.
Now four months into his business, SoCal Hot Sauce, his Guac Sauce Original Avocado has won a Golden Chile Award — something he says is coveted by hot sauce creators.
While in the military and even after his end of active service, Geist said everyone told him the sauces he and his wife made were great.
“They said I’m going to do great things with them,” he said. “(Receiving the award) just kind of hit home for me and now I guess I truly believe it.”
Retired Lt. Col. Tom Favor, Geist’s former commanding officer, recalled the unit gathering around a table for lunch each day, where they got a chance to talk about non-work related things — and try Geist’s newest hot sauce.
“I think it’s a tough industry he’s in,” Favor said. “I think as a Marine, I’m not surprised (his business is doing well) because he’s a hard worker and determined individual.”
Favor said he thought it was really neat Geist had decided to not only stay in Eastern North Carolina instead of returning home, but that he decided to bring a little Southern California with him.
Geist’s hot sauces were created by mixing recipes together that were passed down from his parents and grandparents, along with adding other flavors and even different peppers grown in his backyard. In addition to the guac sauce that won the Golden Chile Award, four others placed:
• SoCal Guac Sauce Hot Avocado won second place in the hot/extra hot Latin style hot sauce category
• SoCal Hot Sauce Original Red won second place in the mild/medium Latin style hot sauce category
• SoCal Hot Sauce Hot Red won third place in the taco sauce category
• SoCal Hot Sauce four bottle gift pack won third place in the gift pack/marketing category
Winning five awards in the first four months of his business is something Geist said he hopes will show people his product is legitimate — and really good.
“As a businessman, it’s another selling point because anything short of actually putting the stuff on food and having people taste it, they don’t know how good it is,” he said.
He and his wife, Brittany, have worked tirelessly side by side since the beginning. It was Brittany who often served as the taste tester.
“In the beginning, I was making the sauces and she would be the taste tester. I would get (the taste) close, but her palate is better than mine,” he said. “As far as business and marketing goes, I would do what needed to be done and run it by her and she would put final touches to it to make it shine and make it perfect.”
Aside from tasting, the couple has been hands on, making the sauce, bottling and labeling their product until they were recently able to purchase a bottler.
“For me, it’s very rewarding to see something you made and created with your own hands with your husband become popular, that it’s something people love and they want,” Brittany said. “It’s rewarding to see something you’ve created become something so big in such a short amount of time. I never expected something like this to happen.”
For Tom Geist, who struggled to find a job following an involuntary separation from the Marine Corps due to service limitations, where the business is now compared to its meager beginnings is polar opposite. Geist worked over a year at a prison working as a correctional officer. He worked late nights, slept all day, and missed a lot of time with his young family, he said. Although he now works over 80 hours a week, he said he enjoys having the flexibility for family time.
He hoped to set an example for Marines who are preparing to exit the military lifestyle and enter a civilian one instead.
“If I can do it, they can do it with whatever they want to pursue,” he said.
Both his wife and his former commanding officer agreed.
“I think it’s important for everybody to just know things like this are possible,” Brittany Geist said. “If you have a passion, just do it. It can happen if you put in the time and the effort.”
The transition to civilian life is a difficult one, Favor said.
“I just recently retired in October and understand those types of challenges of not really knowing which direction to go in,” he said. “He’s an inspiration for those who are getting out after four years or people who are retiring after 20 years.”
In addition to being sold online, Tom Geist expects SoCal Hot Sauce to be sold in a dozen Harris Teeter supermarkets and another dozen Lowe’s Foods along the Eastern North Carolina coast in the coming months. Sneads Ferry, the company’s headquarters will be the center, he said.
For more information about SoCal Hot Sauce, visit SoCalHotSauce.com.