June 26, 2022



How Yellowbird went from hot sauce festival failure to Amazon’s No. 1 seller

7 min read

The story of Yellowbird, the current No. 1 hot sauce sold by Whole Foods/Amazon, celebrating its 10th year with a Hot Ones collaboration, is a triumphant one. But it’s no fun to start there.

It was 2012 and Yellowbird co-founder George Milton had been experimenting with hot sauces at home. He entered the annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival as an individual with his latest recipe. As he walked around sampling from each unmarked ramekin, he figured out which one was his and parked himself nearby to gauge the reaction among attendees. 

“The facial expressions were 100 percent negative,” he says.

Milton cringed inside as one after another hot sauce lover cringed on the outside. He even saw a couple people spit out his creation onto the pavement.

“That was that was definitely one place where I could have ended my hot sauce journey,” Milton says. ” It was a great learning experience.”

We know that he learned from that experience (don’t put bell peppers in hot sauce, not everyone likes fermented food) because the Austin-based brand is everywhere: H-E-B, on “Hot Ones,” on the table at your favorite restaurant. Let’s go with another failure before we get there, though.

How about the time Milton sent out a bottle of fermented sauce that exploded in a local chef’s car?

Milton was busy, as he says, like a mad scientist working on various hot sauces, including one with a Champagne yeast. He killed the yeast — or so he thought — which is a good thing in the world of fermented hot sauces. He gave it to a chef at Whip In, and when she opened the cap, it turned into a gruesome scene: pureed peppers on the ceiling, on her clothes, everywhere. She called and jokingly asked if Milton was trying to kill her.

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“We popped some of those bottles in our backyard and it literally shot up like 15, 20 feet in the air,” he says. Link laughs.

They can laugh about it now. In 2013, the fledgling company sold just 4,200 bottles of hot sauce. Last year, that number was 2.4 million. The only way to get there was by messing around and making mistakes.

Milton, Yellowbird COO Kevin Uplinger, and Link in a field of peppers.

Milton, Yellowbird COO Kevin Uplinger, and Link in a field of peppers.


Milton and co-founder (and IRL partner) Erin Link moved to Austin in 2012. Both spicy food lovers and athletes, they were dismayed by the amount of sugar and artificial ingredients present in commercial hot sauces. Link grew peppers in the backyard, and Milton would transform them into various spicy concoctions. Before long, Milton landed on a habanero-based sauce with, among typical ingredients like garlic and salt, tangerine juice and carrots. 

They started taking the product to local farmers markets and passing it out to friends, but it wasn’t until Milton, a musician, started hearing more buzz about his habanero sauce than his latest album that he realized that they had a hit on their hands. Now they just needed to get it into bottles for distribution — and a name. Milton had an idea, but Link, who specializes in design and branding, wouldn’t agree on the name Yellowbird unless her partner could prove the concept to her.

Milton’s reasoning was that some little birds in Thailand are immune to capsaicin — the component in a pepper that produces a burning sensation — and also Tweety. The yellow Looney Tunes canary was, “always sweet and approachable, seemingly,” Milton says, “but would drop an anvil on your head if you crossed them.”

It worked, and Link got to work on the exterior of the bottle while Milton figured out the interior. Spicy but approachable was the simple credo.

“We thought it would be would be really cool to move away from the male-centric, inaccessible past of hot sauces,” Milton says. “Hot sauces are traditionally marketed in a very male way: skulls and crossbones and … ” 

“Pain.” Link finishes his sentence, explaining their decidedly un-macho philosophy on heat, “that spice is more of a euphoric feeling than it is a painful feeling.”

The Yellowbird truck carts ingredients between San Antonio and Austin.

The Yellowbird truck carts ingredients between San Antonio and Austin.


The pair began producing the thick habanero sauce in small batches for small Austin-based grocers like Thom’s Market and Wheatsville Co-op in 2013. That same year, the duo entered the habanero sauce into the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Fest — and won. From worst to first, as they say.

The following year, Milton got a phone call from Whole Foods. At that point, his cell number was on every label of Yellowbird, and an interested party at the grocery giant, still in its pre-Amazon period, wanted to stock it at the flagship Austin store. 

“We had we had some misses there too,” Link says. 

In an effort to scale up to meet demand, Yellowbird began using a third-party manufacturer, who they discovered was watering down the product without telling the owners. 

“We ended up having to take a bunch of product out of Whole Foods,” she says. “We just learned a bunch of really hard, really expensive lessons that way. Well, certainly expensive for a self-funded company.”

Since fixing the quality control issue by taking manufacturing back into their own hands — Yellowbird makes everything in San Marcos with ingredients sourced from small and mid-sized farms — the company has taken off, now available in H-E-Bs across Texas and in grocery stores nationwide.

Milton and Link in 2014, the year they first got Yellowbird into Whole Foods.

Milton and Link in 2014, the year they first got Yellowbird into Whole Foods.


The duo also chalk up a lot of their success to serendipity.

Part of their marketing strategy in the early days was education-based: showing up at Wheatsville or Whole Foods and passing out free samples to customers. One day, Link happened to give one to a writer from Thrillist, who casually mentioned that they were going to write about the growing hot sauce brand. Little did they know that the piece ended up being a showdown taste test with the best-selling hot sauce in America, Huy Fong Sriracha. The old red standby narrowly edged out the newcomer, but the closeness between the two brands earned Yellowbird nationwide publicity.

“That that was a lot of luck,” Link says. “A lot of being in the right place at the right time with the right products.”

Yellowbird recently unveiled a limited-edition sauce called Bliss & Vinegar, made for Hot Ones Season 16.

Yellowbird recently unveiled a limited-edition sauce called Bliss & Vinegar, made for Hot Ones Season 16.


Today, Yellowbird is a company of 30, and has the capacity to produce 20,000 bottles of its sauce in San Marcos. The full line includes, in addition to the classic habanero, jalapeno, serrano, blue agave sriracha, and ghost pepper varieties, organic versions of many of those, and a limited-edition line, which includes Bliss & Vinegar, released to coincide with Hot Ones Season 16.

Milton explains that, of course he likes to experiment — that’s how Yellowbird came to be in the first place — but for the first three years, he and Link only sold the habanero condiment. It wasn’t broke, so they didn’t fix it, plus, the bright orange bottle stood out in a crowded field of reds and greens. Since then, though, they’ve been branching out, and for the last two years, Milton has been work-shopping a sauce for Hot Ones. Link was an original donator to the show’s Kickstarter back in 2015, and for years fans have been asking them to make a sauce for the show.

“My name is on their plaque in their store,” Link says. “We’ve known them for a while.”

Bliss & Vinegar making an appearance on Hot Ones.

Bliss & Vinegar making an appearance on Hot Ones.

First We Feast

Milton’s ideas would get kicked back as too hot or too mild or too out there. The one that wound up making it onto the show, Bliss & Vinegar, is one that might make hot sauce purists balk. With a red serrano base, the flavor profile is filled out with strawberries and coconut for an oddly satisfying, acidic kick.

The people have spoken, too. On Amazon, it has an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars with almost 300 reviews, some that read “Best. Sauce. Ever.” and “Aquí Hay Sabor!!”

“It’s about doing something that you really love to do and love to get lost in,” Link says. “A lot of it is just making sure that we’re still doing a lot of the stuff that we love every day instead of … you know, grinding all the time.”

The original habanero hot sauce is Yellowbird's top seller.

The original habanero hot sauce is Yellowbird’s top seller.


As popular as Yellowbird is, they’ve found a number of imitators, particularly those who have tried to copy the bottle and cap design. Link and Milton say it’s flattering, and that what they do isn’t much of a secret. Once, Redditors started a thread focused on trying to crack the code on making Yellowbird habanero sauce at home. Milton chimed in and gave them the entire recipe. Even though shelf space is at a premium considering the increase in hot sauce brands over the last decade, they welcome the competition in an industry that is expected to nearly double in size to $4.38 billion in 2028.

“We really don’t want the hot sauce market to get less crowded,” Milton says. “In general, I think if anything, I would just hope that it gets less crowded with bad stuff.”


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