In 2022, we’re so oversaturated with a marketplace marrying the luxurious with the mundane that sometimes it can be difficult to trace the thread back to where it all began. Eager to unpack the trajectory of the coveted truffle’s meteoric rise to prominence in the mainstream, I spoke to the co-founders of TRUFF hot sauce, Nick Guillen and Nick Ajluni. The entrepreneurial duo was able to shine a light on their journey integrating truffles into the world of hot sauce, which in turn revealed a bit about how we’ve gotten to this truffle-soaked era.
They say all roads lead to Rome. And the adage is certainly representative of the avenue through which the founding Nicks arrived at concocting a high end hot sauce line. During the social media boom of the early 2010s, the Nicks got their hands on the coveted @sauce handle on IG, “which we immediately saw the value of,” Guillen tells me. They initially used the handle as a vessel for curating a vast array of food related content.
“We were posting things we thought would resonate with the pop culture foodie,” Guillen tells me, referring to the emerging landscape of food porn and other culinary social content of the era. The page picked up hype, gaining celebrity followers and reposts from major outlets, but left the duo to consider what more they could do with the handle.
“Do we want to be an Instagram account with a cool name or create a brand and product that would live on the platform we’re building?” Nick explains the question they were posing in that period. They began researching the sauce market, and realized they were on the precipice of a hot sauce renaissance. “Hot sauce was having a moment,” Ajluni tells me, revealing a few of the ways in which hot sauce was upping its cultural cachet. It was around the time Beyonce was spitting lines about having hot sauce in her bags, and the conversation was heating up—pun intended. “It was just feeling culture and feeling where things were headed, and what was missing from hot sauce and food culture on the internet generally.”
“We didn’t see any top shelf hot sauce brand that really existed,” Ajluni remarks of the era. At the time, most of the hot sauce brands were either huge legacy corporations or small mom and pop operations with extremely limited distribution. “We wanted to be lifestyle first, a product that could sit in a music video,” remarks Ajluni of the nascent days of the brand.
Nobody was doing the Dom Perignon of hot sauce.
This white space cemented the idea. They were going to create a luxury hot sauce line. But they were uniquely positioned to do it better than anyone else could, with their social media savvy and commitment to a direct to consumer approach. “Nobody had a cracking IG,” Nick chuckles to me. Most of the brands were relying on retailers, and they felt the social media reach from the handle could allow for a fruitful DTC structure.
“The most important thing was creating a flavor profile that was very elevated,” Nick explains the next step after settling on a hot sauce brand. They looked at a myriad of high end ingredients—saffron, caviar, you name it—before settling on the now-pervasive lavish fungus, the truffle. “We had never seen a truffle hot sauce,” they tell me. Additionally, there was a bit of a longstanding stigma around combining the flavor of truffle with spice. And this taboo was intriguing as it meant they were really opening up an entirely new flavor profile. From there, they spent about two years developing the formula through over 300 recipes before they found the one they thought was the golden ticket.
“We’re working with raw ingredients that change by season,” Nick tells me, explaining why the process is more nuanced than it would be with a less artisanal product.
TRUFF officially launched in December of 2017 and the two have “been on the go ever since.” A lot of the marketing structure was based on some of the success they had seen from other IG-based DTC brands of the era. “It was all about using that same kind of strategy of cool people who resonated with the product posting it,” they tell me, referencing the strategy of organically building social hype around the product. “We weren’t focused on selling yet. It was all about value.” To this day, TRUFF’s priority is to build brand, not just to sell a product.
Since the launch in 2017, they’ve released three other mainline products: the pasta sauce, spicy mayo and truffle oil. But this isn’t a part of a catch-all approach by any means. A combination of factors—seeing the demand from consumers, emerging retail opportunities and more—led to the integration of more products. “We’d never been a brand to do all things for all people. We’re looking to make less things,” Nick says. Despite now being in 11,000+ stores worldwide, the Nicks still taste the batches. “We approve everything, nothing gets made without our approval.”
We would never launch anything we don’t think is exquisite.
The brand’s early commitment to creating cool content is still a throughline in their strategy. They recently released a Youtube series titled “What the TRUFF?!,” and content like that is still integral to the brand’s success and cultural cachet in 2022. The recent web series is hosted by TRUFF’s Tal Cooperman and challenges celebrity guests to create questionably delicious meals using an array of unique and unorthodox ingredients. The episode with deadmau5 is a special standout.
They got on TikTok early and saw success there. “We’ve always tried to bob and weave based on these new technologies that are coming out,” Ajluni tells me, referring to the ways in which their marketing strategies have evolved since 2015.
Nowadays, it might seem like you see some sort of content integrating truffles every day. “No one was shaving truffles on stuff before we did it,” they smile to me.
“We wanted to truly create a brand that will be here when our grandkids are around,” Guillen grins to me during the conversation. Five years and change later, they’ve managed to not only change the hot sauce landscape, but food culture in general.