One-on-One with Marie Sharp of Marie Sharp’s Pepper Sauce
by Maia Muttoo Oct 21, 2019
It’s safe to say that Marie Sharp is a household name in Belize.
You’ve probably seen her pepper sauce on the table at your favourite restaurants, her jams and jellies at your local supermarket, or her souvenir sets at the airport.
Her products are packed full of flavour and made using produce grown on her farm in Stann Creek. Pineapple, prickly pear and carrot are just some of the fruits and vegetables she infuses her habanero sauces with, making unique flavour combinations that embrace Belize’s local plants.
If you’ve ever wondered more about the woman behind the sauce, keep reading.
Yello caught up with Mrs Sharp, who shared her business’ origin story, what keeps her passionate and why she thinks her sauces are so well-loved.
How did you get started making pepper sauce?
It wasn’t in my wildest dreams.
I was working as an executive secretary with the citrus company in Belize. While I was working there, my husband inherited this farm. The farm was about 200 acres of citrus and 200 acres of cattle. At that time, cattle were about 18-cents a pound on the hoof, so they were occupying 200 acres and not bringing in any income.
We decided to sell the cattle and started thinking about what to do with the land. I told my husband, “Why don’t we plant all of the fruits that grow in Belize? Everybody knows oranges, but we have ortaniques, tangelos, uglies, all the different varieties of citrus that Belizeans don’t even know about. We can grow these things, package them and put them in the supermarkets. The people who come to Belize want to see what we grow, and to taste our fruits.” That was my idea.
One day, my sister called me to say that the doctor who used to make pepper sauce couldn’t find any habanero peppers. She asked me if I could grow some for him. So, I went out and planted habanero peppers without consulting the doctor.
I took the peppers to the doctor, and he said to me that he only buys a little bit. Here I was with a pickup truck full of pepper and my trees laden! What was I supposed to do with all these peppers? There was no market for them really, except the little bit that you could sell from stall to stall in the marketplace.
So, I took out my little kitchen blender, and I started to blend them, put them in a pail, add salt and repeat. I was going through blenders because I was asking the poor things to do what they weren’t made to do. Eventually, I got a bigger one-gallon blender. Very soon my husband said, “The cars can’t fit in the garage anymore. What are you going to do with all of that pepper?” One night I started playing with sauces. I made one from carrots, one from carrots and cabbage, one from papaya. I just gave them away to friends and relatives.
One of my friends said, “Gyal, this is better than anything we have on the market. This is going to sell!” I started thinking about it.
We inherited the house that my mother and father-in-law were living in; she had a little additional piece added onto the kitchen at the back, so I went out there and cleaned it up. I put in a counter and bought myself three stoves – the little tabletop models. I bought three pots, one per stove. Every night, I’d come home from work and cook three pots of sauce. In the day, I’d have a girl come in and start filling bottles for me.
I decided I had to go out and sell what I was making, and I couldn’t just let it stack up. So, I fried some tortilla chips, did my refried beans and loaded my peppers into my car and started going door to door. I went to all the little stores and all the big stores with tasters and asked them to put some on their shelves. I did that everywhere I could on weekends.
I quickly learned that Belize was one of my most challenging markets. The first year, I made only BZ 17,000. But I stuck at it, and I kept persisting that this was going to work.
In addition to local sales, you now export to over 20 countries. How did you start expanding the business internationally?
I started giving away bottles to friends who were going to the states. One of them called me one day and said, “I would start to sell for you in the states.” I sent off my first palette and put up notices saying “Marie Sharp’s now in the US” Then my local sales started to climb.
I left my job as a secretary, moved to the farm and started doing this full time. There was no electricity or phones here. My husband made me my first filler. He took a sheet of stainless steel and he made a big ‘U’ with three outlets at the bottom, just like a faucet. I had three people helping me fill; we were doing about 600 cases in eight to nine hours.
From there, we started to export more to the United States and to sell more locally. I became very proud of my Belizeans; they started to know and back up Marie Sharp!
One day, I saw this guy coming up the road. He was Japanese. He said he’d tasted the pepper sauce in San Pedro; he loved it and wanted to take it to Japan. But to do that, I had to meet their food standards. I couldn’t work in my kitchen anymore because I had been doing jams, jellies and pepper sauces under the one roof. I had to be HACCP certified.
I had to invest about a million dollars to get HACCP certified, but after a couple of years, I managed to achieve that and start selling to Japan. Today Japan is one of my largest customers; they take about two 40-foot containers a month. We’re also IFS certified so that we can sell in the supermarkets in Europe.
We’re all over the world today – we sell to Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Holland, the United States, Switzerland, and more.
You’ve been making pepper sauce since 1981. What keeps you passionate?
I’m going to be 80 years old next month. I just did two shows in Belize over the weekend, and I’ve travelled all over the world too. Now I send my grandson to international shows, and my niece is understudying me.
I still enjoy coming to work. Now that I’ve lost my husband and my son being here every day and staying busy keeps me going.
Your sauce appeals to so many people. What do think makes it so enjoyable?
Yes. Did you know that Mrs. [Hilary] Clinton goes nowhere without Marie Sharp’s in her purse? It’s in her book! The American Ambassador [to Belize] in the early 2000s was friends with the Clintons and first sent my pepper sauce to Hilary. Whenever they go to functions, she takes out her pepper sauce and uses it with dinner.
When the Taiwanese president came to Belize, she held up my Belizean Heat sauce and said, “This is going to be a staple in Taiwan.”
The thing about our sauce, and I said this in my speech at the Hall of Fame [Sharp was inducted into the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame in 2016], is that most pepper sauces go for a lot of heat. They try to blow the roof off your head. I have never tried to do that. I try to produce something that’s not only hot, but has flavour to it — Something you can enjoy. Even the hottest sauce has a lot of flavour.
To learn more about Marie Sharp’s products, visit the company’s website.
We’re sure you’ll have no trouble finding the sauces in Belize; they’re in almost every shop after all! For a list of international distributors, visit the distributors page.