"May you never feel unwanted, unloved, or hungry." That’s the motto of Lillie’s of Charleston, a Black-owned, family business that makes barbecue sauces, hot sauces, and spice mixes with flavors from home cooks and ancestors from the coastal South that date back generations.
CEO and co-founder Tracey Richardson said it began in the early 1950s in Charleston, South Carolina, where her father spent his summers in the kitchen with his grandma and Aunt Lillie. No matter who came to visit, the women never let guests leave feeling unwanted, unloved, or hungry.
Channeling the mantra, Richardson’s dad went on to own The Rib Shack in downtown Charleston, where he introduced his sauces in 1985. This was the genesis for the family bottling the sauces named after their beloved aunt, who represented a generation that taught their kin how to cook with love.
But the "special sauce" behind Lillie’s of Charleston goes further than that. What some people don’t know is these flavors date back to the local Gullah culture. "Gullah" is the name for the people, language, and culture of the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and the surrounding Sea Islands. Derived from English dialects and African roots, the language has been spoken for generations, dating back to the first enslaved people in the region. Due to the isolation of many plantation communities, the Gullah language perpetuated and is still alive in the coastal South.
"In honor of an American heritage that has yet to be thoroughly discovered and is begging to be preserved, we named many of our products using Gullah expressions," said Richardson. The family recipe for "Hab Mussy" hot mustard barbecue sauce is a two-time award winner, a huge accomplishment in the barbecue circuit, in part because South Carolina is iconic for its mustard-based sauces.
According to Richardson, the biggest contributors to Lillie’s of Charleston’s success have been joining Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator and using Fulfillment by Amazon. In the last year, with Amazon’s partnership, the company’s sales have increased by 156%.
"Our goal has always been to increase consumer awareness of our brand and products nationally, and Amazon provides us with the ability to accomplish this goal. Being able to use the Fulfillment by Amazon system as our backend logistics system has allowed us to distribute product and offer Prime delivery to customers. With the task of fulfillment taken off our plates, we can concentrate on marketing, innovation, and driving topline sales," said Richardson. "Being a part of Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator has also opened so many wonderful doors and exposed our business to opportunities that a small business such as ours could never afford."
When asked for her advice for aspiring business owners, Richardson shared three key tips:
1. Have a compelling story that brings your brand to life
Richardson differentiated her brand with a compelling story that honors her local roots and family. She suggests developing key visuals and brand logos that represent your personal story, identifying unique brand cues like textures, colors, and a tag line, and answering the question, “Why is this the right brand and/or product for me?”
2. Develop strong marketing and business plans
Richardson built a following for her company by initially focusing on local buyers and stores. Along with being in almost all grocery stores and markets in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, a region along the state’s coast, through its partnership with Amazon, and its own website, Lillie’s of Charleston can bring their unique products to customers around the nation.
Richardson believes that business owners should extensively research their market and competitors, identify their demographic and target consumer, know what differentiates them in the market, and develop appropriate pricing strategies. From there, business owners can build the perfect go-to-market campaign for how, when, and why they should launch their products.
3. Create and protect your brand elements with trademarks
Richardson emphasizes the importance of trademarks. Protecting them, she noted, will keep other companies from infringing on your ideas, reduce the potential for others to counterfeit your product line, and provide proof of legal ownership should any legal issues come up.
Richardson and her family are continuing to grow their small business, with plans to introduce several new products to customers, including a popcorn line seasoned with their beloved spice mixes.
"Every day is different and, as an entrepreneur, we get to be in the driver’s seat every step of the way. There’s no better reward than creating good food and happiness for families that buy our products," said Richardson.
Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator (BBA) is dedicated to helping build sustainable growth for Black-owned businesses, backed by a $150 million commitment over four years.