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Jul 26, 2022

How this CEO is heating up the hot sauce world

Interview with Entrepreneur, Crystal Fairley of Uncle Keith's Gourmet Food

Crystal Fairley is the President and CEO of Uncle Keith’s Gourmet Foods, a specialty hot sauce business in San Diego, CA. She and her husband Keith launched their business in 2015, when a local hot sauce seller was retiring, tasted Keith’s chili pepper plants, and offered them a buyout plan. They jumped at the opportunity to bring Keith’s spicy mix to market. Uncle Keith’s now has three locations in San Diego and sells through Amazon online. Featuring their signature recipe Uncle Keith’s Chocolate Thunder, their stores also highlight specialty food products from other local small businesses. In fact, Crystal and Keith have made it their mission to live by the motto: “No one is in business for himself or herself.” They mentor new business owners and are always looking for ways to elevate fellow entrepreneurs as they expand their hot sauce company. Uncle Keith’s also donates proceeds to support local nonprofits that serve the community.

⁠Read on for Crystal’s seasoned take on running a community-minded business:

On her entrepreneur superpower
I’m a people person. I like working at onsite meetings and events, and I like to do things over the top. I try to add value to every area. When I’m working with people, I ask: “How can they benefit from this?” I sent our intern to a local community meeting with the mindset: “How can Uncle Keith’s benefit this community?” Our business is not just looking at making a profit; we’re also focused on how we can make a difference. 

On using her business as a platform
I knew we had a niche taste of southern California. But at the beginning, we had no products outside of Keith’s signature sauce. So he worked on developing it, and I worked on finding brands of private labels to bring to market. We want to have local representation in our hot sauce stores, so we purchase from small businesses, feature their products, and reduce their overhead costs. 

⁠We try to use our business as a platform. We can help people just starting out who might not be seen. We might put their product right next to Truff, a well-known brand who has a bigger budget. Customers come for Truff, but they also are exposed to the ‘no name’ brand. Our stores are a place for other small businesses to exist, to be seen, and to grow.

On the biggest surprise of entrepreneurship
You have to take risks. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, which is surprising because you have to just do it and ask for forgiveness later. I make financial moves and calls that are risky. And sometimes I can’t believe I just jumped in that pool. I just took that risk. You may not do it if you consider the cost, and that’s a scary position to be in. People say fail fast, but you have to learn to continue to take risks. Because you could not put yourself out there, but then you’ll miss opportunities.  

On getting creative with funding
I had to get creative with how I solved for funding. I was trying to figure that out and saw that Quickbooks has a capital program. I could apply right through the Quickbooks portal, and I got a better rate than our credit card. The best part is we can use them again and as we grow, Quickbooks sees it. So we’re doing more events now to see an increase in product sales, and then we can go back to Quickbooks to get more capital.

On managing a busy schedule
I wish I could say I’m so organized. But the truth is I use opportunity based time management, because so much is vying for my attention. I put it all on my calendar. I look to other people for help and ask them to take notes in meetings. I’m always scanning fields for new opportunities. I plug them into my calendar and hope I can attend. I’m often double booked, so I replay recorded events if possible, and live by the day. 

On what keeps her motivated
The challenge of growing a business is that nobody just becomes a CEO. No one hands you that job. But if I grow my own company from the bottom up, I get to be CEO. That’s exciting! I love the prospect of giving my mom bragging rights. I’m making my own opportunities, and in this position as an entrepreneur, I can make opportunities for someone else. It’s motivating to think I’m helping the next generation, maybe even helping more moms out there. 


Michelle Keller

UX writer, content editor, small business storyteller.