Don’t be fooled by the label on Nathan Sanford’s product that he sells to at least one grocery store in the Petal area. He’s not grumpy.
Sanford doesn’t mind if people think he is a little surly because that means they are talking about the more than a dozen products associated with his five-year-old business – Grumpy Man salsa and pepper jellies, which are on the shelves at the Corner Markets, including the Petal Main Street store.
Obviously, the name brings questions. Sanford said the Grumpy Man persona on the salsa labels has developed over the years.
“The first thing we had to do as a company was try to come up with a name. (My dad) had actually taken some pictures and he was wearing my granddad’s hat. There were some old photos, and he had a kind of grumpy look on his face. So, we took that and ran with it. We had a painting done. It looks more like my dad, but then we’ve got the hat from my granddad.”
To take the Grumpy Man story even farther, a legend was developed and is told on the company’s website, grumpymanfoods.com.
“The legend of the Grumpy Man begins in the 1700s when the Spanish landed on the shores of what is now St. Augustine, Florida,” according to the website. “The Spanish came in search of new riches, however they brought with them a great treasure in the form of a tiny pepper, called a datil.”
The legend says a single pepper fell from the pocket of a conquistador as his troops traveled near the Mississippi River.
“Four hundred years later, an old man known by many as The Grumpy Man was farming behind his cabin in Mississippi when he came across a strange seed on the ground,” the website said. “He took it and planted it in the corner of his garden. The next morning, he awoke to see that overnight a bush had appeared blooming with little green and golden peppers. Plucking a single pepper from the magic bush and popping it into his mouth, he was instantly filled with great delight.”
The Grumpy Man decided to share the secret by making salsa and pepper jellies to share. And so the legend was born.
Sanford said they have had a good time with the pepper jellies they have been making.
“This last year, we started doing more seasonal flavors, so we started doing some different labels for our jellies,” he said. “We did some gift baskets and we had the Grumpy Man wearing a Santa hat, or the peach pineapple pepper jelly that has him wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. We also had a Mardi Gras label. It’s always fun to put him into different things like sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt going to a Jimmy Buffett concert.”
The original concept didn’t include the Grumpy Man or even his name, Sanford said.
“On the original label, there was a ship and it had another name,” he said “We actually used the original label when we first started up in farmers markets and things. It’s been an evolution and you can actually see some old-style labels with ships on them. We traded that for ‘Made in Mississippi.’”
Sanford said they tried to say too much on the original label.
“We probably overthought our label because we tried to put the whole story on there,” he said. “The kids loved it because of the ship. One kid really pressured his mom to buy it because it had a ship on it. If that would have worked across the board, we would have kept it.”
In the beginning, Sanford got a lot of support from his father.
“My parents spent a lot of time getting the salsa to where it is,” he said. “The salsa is what started it and my dad, Darrell, had played with doing something with it back in the ’90s. For some reason, he just never did.”
Sanford, a Southern Miss graduate in economics, said he receives feedback from some customers who want more.
“We have a guy who has tried our stuff and he likes it,” he said. “But, it’s not hot enough for him. It seems like once a year I get a message from him. ‘Man, I love your stuff and it’s great to see what you’re doing. When can you make it hotter?’ When I have more space and more time. We’re pretty busy with what we’re doing now.”
The line of pepper jellies has given Nathan’s business its biggest boost lately.
“We’ve really grown recently with our pepper jelly flavors,” he said. “We made a ghost pepper sauce. We get a lot of our peppers out of Florida because it’s a unique pepper. You don’t really find it in a whole lot of other places. It’s called a datil.
“The guy who we were getting them from is in Texas, and he has cooked with ghost peppers. He gave me some and said, ‘Here, play with them.’ I brought them back and made a ghost pepper salsa. My graphic artist took our Grumpy Man label and made him just the way he is on the label but made him a skeleton.”
Sanford also got positive feedback early on from a different source.
“At the time, we were just doing farmers markets,” he said. “There are a lot of exchange students from India at USM; they loved it. They found it at the USM farmers market and they were sending their friends to the Downtown Hattiesburg farmers market to find it. We sold it then and about half of it went to exchange students who just loved the spice. But, I have never really found a great source of ghost peppers for what we want to do. We are kind of picky as far as our produce and what we use.”
When Sanford talks about “picky” and “produce,” the main ingredient are tomatoes for his salsa.
“If you’ve ever grown tomatoes just for yourself, you might get a tomato with a ton of juice, but it is just filled with water and there’s not much flavor to it,” he said. “There’s too much rain or they bust too soon. So, the farmers who are growing them are having the same problems.
“That’s one of our biggest things right now. I don’t know why the tomatoes haven’t seemed to be very good lately. Fortunately, we’re dealing with spices and the pepper helps to make things taste better. It’s definitely annoying when you can’t get what you want, but that’s produce. Produce is always finicky.”
Grumpy Man salsa is sold in grocery stores like Corner Market and select Ramey’s and Winn Dixie stores. Sanford also has had success with boutiques in the area that sell the salsa and pepper jellies as specialty items.
Sanford, who is looking to move to a larger kitchen with concrete floors on the same property, said farmers markets are still his bread and butter.
“We’ll still go out to a farmers market and test a new product to see what our feedback is,” he said. “If you can’t sell it one-on-one to a customer, it’s not going to sell on a store shelf. It gives you a nice little tester. We still go to farmers markets because it kind of keeps you grounded.”