Over the past few years, TRUFF has partnered with brands ranging from Hidden Valley Ranch and Taco Bell to Super Mario Brothers and Warren Lotas. Despite the diversity of these partnerships, all have a common authenticity that unifies them. I sat down with co-founder Nick Ajluni to talk about their journey building the brand and why they have made partnerships a central part of their brand building.
Dave Knox: I want to start with the story of the business. How did you create Truff and what inspired you to use truffles as the core ingredient?
Nick Ajluni: It may not be the story you expected, but the origins of our company, Truff, didn’t start with a hot sauce at all. I met my co-founder, also named Nick, in college, where we worked on various business projects. After graduation, he secured the Instagram handle “@sauce” and we built a following of pop culture foodies by posting engaging content, mainly focused on food and relevant cultural topics. After amassing a substantial following over five to six months, we had the idea to create a sauce tailored to our account’s audience. We researched different sauces in various categories and thought about how we could approach a sauce in a new way. We decided to focus on the hot sauce market because it was relevant to pop culture and having a moment of mainstream popularity. We noticed some gaps in the market, which led us to create Truff. We wanted to create an upscale hot sauce that would appeal to a higher price point, packaged in a unique and forward-thinking way. As digitally native entrepreneurs, we leveraged our online presence to tell the story of Truff and used top-shelf ingredients to create a product that could speak to a higher-end market. To elevate our product, we decided to use truffle as our hero ingredient. We created an amazing hot sauce recipe that centered around truffle, which has now become the signature flavor of Truff.
Knox: Why do you think truffles have emerged as a mainstream luxury and hero ingredient in recent years?
Ajluni: Pinpointing the exact reasons for Truff’s success is difficult, but we believe that several factors have contributed to it. Undoubtedly, the internet and Instagram have played a significant role in creating a desire for cool, luxurious, and upscale products. We chose to use truffle as our hero ingredient because of its visual appeal and exclusivity. While truffles were once relatively unknown, they have become more mainstream in recent years as awareness has increased, and brands like ours have highlighted their value and specialness. By making truffles more accessible to consumers, we have helped to bring them into the mainstream food scene. Overall, we believe that the combination of the internet and our innovative use of truffle has helped to create a flywheel effect that has driven Truff’s success.
Knox: Truff took a different approach to the hot sauce category. How did you change that conversation and create a different sort of buzz?
Ajluni: There are a few layers to Truff’s approach to hot sauce. First and foremost, we are flavor-focused and aim to elevate the dining experience at home. While we use chili peppers to create a spicy profile, our goal was never to overpower the meal or burn someone’s tongue off. Instead, we found a balance between the delicate and expensive nature of truffle and the spicy elements of hot sauce. By incorporating truffle in a way that doesn’t follow the trend of just how hot a sauce can be, we have created a unique and flavorful hot sauce that appeals to a broad audience. While some hot sauce connoisseurs have requested hotter versions of Truff, our primary focus remains on flavor. Interestingly, a significant portion of our consumers are first-time hot sauce users who are drawn to Truff because of its unique flavor profile, rather than its spiciness. We believe that our approach to hot sauce has helped us stand out in the market and attract a new audience to the category.
Knox: Partnership and influencer moments are at the heart of your go to market strategy. Do you have a checklist as you think about who you engage with and who makes right to be associated with the Truff brand?
Ajluni: Our checklist for collaborations is more intuitive than formal. Above all, authenticity is key. We never want to force a collaboration or put our name on something for the sake of it. Instead, we ask ourselves whether a collaboration can create a moment that resonates with consumers and inspires them to try our product. A recent example of this is our collaboration with Hidden Valley Ranch. By pairing their household name and beloved ranch dressing with our luxury hot sauce in a unique flavor profile and a Magnum bottle, the collaboration broke the internet and sold out within minutes. We believe that the potency of that moment is what we’re after, and we’re not interested in collaborating with just anyone and everyone. Another recent collaboration with Taco Bell tapped into the nostalgia of our consumers, many of whom grew up eating at the fast-food chain. By combining that childhood nostalgia with our product, we were able to strike a chord and create a moment that resonated with our audience. We prioritize authenticity in our collaborations and would rather do one or two meaningful collaborations a year than several for the sake of it. By staying true to our brand and values, we believe we can continue to create moments that excite and inspire our consumers.
Knox: With such a wide variety of partnerships, what is that common thread that makes it be authentic for the brand?
Ajluni: Our roots have always been in pop culture, as evidenced by our previous @Sauce account, which heavily focused on culture. We saw a gap in the market for a hot sauce that was lifestyle-oriented and could resonate with the way people lived. Our collaborations with fashion brand Warren Lotas and condiment brand Hidden Valley Ranch were both authentic to our brand and values. The Warren Lotas collaboration made sense because they are one of the hottest streetwear brands right now, and we are both defining brands in our respective industries. We have a personal relationship with the brand, and they love our product as much as we love theirs. The Hidden Valley collaboration was also a natural fit because we are both condiments, and many of our online customers were already combining our products. While food and fashion may not seem like parallel categories, our brand’s positioning allows us to play within both and maintain authenticity. We prioritize collaborations that make sense for our brand and resonate with our audience.
Knox: As truffles become more mainstream, how do you maintain your equity and ownership of the space?
Ajluni: Our focus has always been one of Gary Vaynerchuk’s famous adages: building the tallest building, but not tearing down anyone else’s. While there have been many new entrants to the truffle market since we launched, including retailers who have launched their own versions of our products, we believe that rising tides raise all boats. We want both the hot sauce and truffle categories to grow, and we believe that consumers can tell when a product is not as authentic as another. At Truff, we have never tried to imitate another brand or product. Instead, we have always led with our intuition and prioritized our brand above all else. We believe that building a brand is more important than merely having many products, and that has been our focus from day one. By leading with brand first, we have been able to differentiate ourselves in the market and create a unique product that speaks for itself.
Knox: The brand has expanded from direct to consumer to the shelves of Walmart, Target and Costco. What’s driven that strategy to really go deep into those traditional retailers with your brand?
Ajluni: We initially launched Truff online with select luxury retail boutiques, wine and cheese shops, and retailers like Neiman Marcus at a price point of around $18. From there, we grew our e-commerce business and eventually made our way onto Amazon with the Oprah list, which we have been on four times. We also launched in Whole Foods in a small region and eventually nationwide, as well as in Wegmans. As the landscape changed, we realized that while e-commerce was still an important channel for us, traditional retail was going to be the long term strategy. We focused on expanding our distribution through some of the best retailers in the country. Our supply chain has grown tremendously, allowing us to lower our price point to $14.99 and open the door to more retailers. Today, we are in roughly 20,000 doors, with our products available within 10 miles of most Americans. This expansion has allowed us to reach a wider audience through digital campaigns while still ensuring that our product is easily accessible to consumers.
Knox: The last 10 years have been explosive when it comes to new brands being launched. What will the next decade look like in terms of brand creation and big companies responding?
Ajluni: In the last decade, many brands were able to raise capital and experiment with new ideas, and social media allowed them to appear larger than they actually were. This led to a lot of ambition, trial, and experimentation in the food industry, with brands riding trends and trying to create innovative products around them. However, some trends did not live up to their expectations, and brands were forced to be profitable in the new economic climate of the 2020s. As a result, the level of micro-innovation may not be as high as it was before, and brands will need to focus on creating products that truly resonate with consumers. Long-term success will depend on the brands that can convince consumers to adopt their products, and trial and error will likely fade out more quickly. The next decade will be a period of true adoption, and the brands that can gain consumer adoption will be the ones that succeed.
Knox: Related to that, and a lot of entrepreneurs look up to the growth that you and your co- founder both have had. What advice do you give somebody that’s trying to start today that wants to build, has that insight for that new business?
Ajluni: Every business is unique, but there are some principles that apply to all entrepreneurs. My advice would be tailored to my experiences, but the first thing anyone starting a business should do is to take a step back and ask themselves if there is a real need for their product or service. Are they starting the business just to be a founder, or are they truly identifying an opportunity that will make people’s lives easier or better? The next step is to ask themselves if they are willing to commit to the business for a decade or more. Starting a business is a grind, and it’s important to be patient and truly believe in the mission. Once the vision and commitment are in place, it’s important to work on the financials. Entrepreneurs should ask themselves what they can make the product for and sell it for, and how big the category is. Doing some common sense mental math on the business economics can help steer entrepreneurs away from starting a business that may not be financially viable. In summary, entrepreneurs should ask themselves if their business is truly necessary, if they are willing to commit to it for the long term, and if the financials make sense. By carefully considering these factors, entrepreneurs can increase their chances of success.