Growing up in New York, Iman McDonnaugh-Brown knew there was something special about the food her grandmother cooked for the family. As a child, she was always around her paternal grandmother, a native of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, in the kitchen.
“I grew up with her cooking a lot, and the older I got, the more I would come to her and be like, teach me how you do this, show me that because I really loved the food and that side of my family’s culture,” says McDonnaugh-Brown.
One dish or condiment McDonnaugh-Brown didn’t see her grandmother make until almost four years ago was a pepper sauce. Watching her father put it all over his food, curiosity led to trying it herself. Not one for products that add a little punch, McDonnaugh-Brown enjoyed the sauce and the flavor it added without all the heat.
Making a casual but at the same time serious comment, her father said, “Iman, you should sell this.” And a year later in 2018, that is exactly what she and her husband Ryan Brown started doing.
From Fashion to Food
After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, the new graduate headed back to New York for a future in modeling. The successful model knew she also wanted to have a business one day but hadn’t settled on what that would be or the industry. She tossed around ideas, but nothing was sticking. That changed following a family gathering in 2017.
After being encouraged by her father to make and sell his mother’s pepper sauce, McDonnaugh-Brown says, “I just kind of stopped for a second, and I was like, I think this is actually something I could really do.”
With Trinidadian food, culture, and family as important shapers of her life, McDonnaugh-Brown knew taking on her father’s suggestion would be a very different path than modeling. At first, she says she was nervous about going from fashion to producing a pepper sauce. But after giving it a lot of thought, she says, “I just went for it. This was the first time that I was like, you know I actually really want to do this, and I think for me the passion really came from my family.”
The first line of business included learning the recipe from her grandmother. Shopping for the ingredients and then making it several times together helped ensure McDonnaugh-Brown got it right. She also had to do one more step common when recreating family recipes. “You know how grandmothers are, they don’t measure anything, so I had to figure that part out,” she says.
Once the recipe was ready to go, McDonnaugh-Brown started making small batches but wanted to produce it on a commercial level to ensure safety. She also wanted to gear up for introducing it to more people around the country. Together with her husband, the two located a co-packer in Florida who was able to produce the sauce to their specifications.
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More Than a Pepper Sauce
Looking back, McDonnaugh-Brown can't recall seeing Trinidadian sauces in the markets she shopped at, leaving a niche wide open for her new product. When comparing the other sauces' ingredients, she noticed there was a difference, especially since a hot pepper such as a Scotch bonnet was not the base of her pepper sauce.
Grandma’s Trini Pepper Sauce is a blend of peppers, lime, green papaya, and few other ingredients that render a chunky and flavorful condiment that is non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free and low in sodium.
Brown is the company’s chief operating officer as well as the chief recipe tester. “The biggest part about working with the sauce is it is so versatile. I can cook with it, I can top my meals with it, I can make spicy cocktails and spicy drinks and so many things. It just works really well with so many things you can think of,” he says.
During our interview, he teases me with talks of brisket, tacos, salmon, and his latest creation, a holiday turkey bathed in a brine created with the pepper sauce.
Iman shares that she also did a little recipe testing recently by putting her own twist on a favorite version of hot chocolate. As a fan of Mexican hot chocolate, I am tempted to see how she created her Trinidadian version using the pepper sauce. She says she was surprised about how good it came out. I’ll have to get the recipe to try for myself.
Staying Centered on What Matters
When asked about the company’s name, McDonnaugh-Brown says it was important to have one that made people feel good whenever they interacted with the brand. Inspired by the bible verse Psalm 139:14 that reads, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,” she shares,” I want to make people feel good. I want to remind them that it is our uniqueness, our differences that really make us special. I wanted everyone to get that gentle reminder that we are all wonderfully made and that there is something special about each of us whenever they came in contact with my company; no matter what we are going to present as a product.”
Currently living in Southern California while Ryan serves in the Navy, Iman is taking advantage of the weather and meeting new customers at local farmers markets in the San Diego area. While some may wonder and even comment on the $16 price tag for the eight-ounce bottle (five-ounce bottle is $10) crafted in love, after hearing the story, ingredients and benefits, customers are sold. “We’ve never had someone come back and tell us they didn’t like it. Our customers always come back,” says McDonnaugh-Brown.
Compared to New York, where you can easily get to know about diverse Caribbean cultures that contribute to the beauty of the state’s melting pot, California is a different story. Along with introducing the product to customers, McDonnaugh-Brown also sees it as an opportunity to talk about Trinidadian and West Indian cultures that are unfamiliar to many. Often, the mention of the Caribbean follows with having to explain that it is more than Bob Marley and Jamaica. Something McDonnaugh-Brown is happy to fold into the conversation.
With big plans in the works, she says, “At this point, I feel like the sky is the limit.” McDonnaugh-Brown remains passionate about the company she is building with her husband and the opportunity to share a piece of her family with others.
Grandma’s Trini Pepper Sauce and Grandma’s Mango Pepper Sauce are sold on We Are Wonderfully Made’s website, with shipping available throughout the United States, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Shipping is available to Canada but will be a little extra. You can also purchase on Walmart.com and Amazon.
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