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Column: Beekeeper’s sauce is enjoying sweet success

Lindi Copeland has wanted to create and sell a product ever since high school.

But it wasn’t until the Spotsylvania County amateur beekeeper had a bumper crop of honey and habanero peppers that she came up with a winner—and a new career.

“I was thinking: What am I going to do with all of this stuff?” said Copeland, who works part time as a graphic designer for a government contractor in Tysons Corner.

Her solution, which came in the middle of the night, was to blend the two into a unique product called Honey Habanero Sauce. The condiment has a sweet heat and glows a jewel-like orange in clear glass jars bearing a beehive-inspired label that she designed.

It soon drew the attention of Virginia Living magazine, which named it a Made in Virginia Award winner last December. Online sales boomed during the holidays, and customers began reordering.

“That was a big indication for me,” Copeland said. “When they reorder, they like it. It’s not just a curiosity purchase.”

Her sauce was also accepted into the Virginia’s Finest program, and attracted about 75 potential retailers at the Virginia Food & Beverage Expo in March.

“I’m working with about 20 now,” said Copeland. “There are quite a few that I want to contact, but I’m afraid to. I don’t want to be in a position where I can’t provide it. I’m in that awkward phase.”

A contact she made at the expo, Willard Ashburn of Ashburn Sauce Co. in Virginia Beach, helps small businesses with manufacturing and packaging. He’s helping her streamline her process and increase production so she can sell to more retailers and bring prices down. (A 4-ounce jar on her website,, sells for $4 and a 9-ounce jar goes for $8.)

“I thought I could give them the recipe and say, ‘Here you go,’ but they want me to cook it,” Copeland said. “They provide the space, equipment and guidance, but I’m still the head chef getting that sauce made.”

Currently, she drives to Richmond on Thursday mornings to buy 10 cases of habaneros that she cleans and cuts up for her sauce. She also orders commercial honey in 5-gallon buckets, because demand for both the peppers and the honey has outstripped what her bees and backyard garden can produce.

It takes her a couple of days from start to finish to produce, bottle and ship 12 cases a week, but once she starts using Ashburn Sauce Co. she’ll do the prep work at home and cook at its fully automated facility.

“Then I will go back to have the sauce analyzed to make sure it meets all the FDA safety steps and is shelf-stable,” Copeland said. “When I realized how involved it was going to get, I thought twice about it, but this is a wonderful product and I want people to have it.”

Pepper jams and jellies have long been popular, and she used recipes for jalapeñno pepper jam as a starting point for her sauce. Then she tweaked it by playing with different amounts of peppers, pectin and honey.

“I wanted something different than what’s on the market,” she said. “I think we nailed it. There are habanero sauces on the market, but they’re ‘blow-your-head-off sauces.’ Habaneros have a beautiful floral note; sometimes the sauces are so hot that you miss that characteristic about them. I wanted my sauce to be sweet, but I didn’t want it overpoweringly sweet.”

Copeland used Legal to create Po River Apiary LLC once she decided that making and selling the sauce was more than a hobby, and she is getting her sauce trademarked. She’s also attended a program for budding food entrepreneurs and a two-day Better Process Control School for training in producing acidified foods. Both are sponsored by Virginia Tech and the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Honey Habanero Sauce is now available at 15 specialty shops in Virginia and Maryland, including Braehead Farm, Made In Virginia Store and Olde Towne Butcher in Fredericksburg.

“The customer doing the most business with us is Hot Stuff in Chincoteague,” she said. “They can’t believe it. The owner said, ‘You’ve got a gold mine here. Keep it going.’ Those are the kinds of comments that keep me going.”

Copeland includes a couple of jars of her sauce with each wholesale order so that customers can try it. She said that it can be poured over mascarpone or cream cheese and served with crackers or toasted baguette slices for a quick appetizer or used as a glaze on salmon.

Justin Cunningham added it to vanilla ice cream and mango slices to make a honey habanero shake when he ran Fizzlebottom’s Café in downtown Fredericksburg.

“We had one bride use it for her wedding favors. She said people were asking for extras,” Copeland said.

As for herself, she prefers to pour some of the sauce over scoops of vanilla ice cream.

“You get the cold creamy from the ice cream, sweet from the honey and then you get the heat,” Copeland said. “It’s an interesting combination of flavors.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407