It was the summer of 1989 and Sean O’Rourke had invented his first iteration of what would eventually become Surfer Slappin! barbecue sauce for competition with buffalo wings. He didn’t win the race, but O’Rourke found a recipe he kept in his toolbox, something to prepare for the July 4th rallies.
In 2018, O’Rourke’s son took ownership of The Dive in Carolina Beach, which included wings. He asked his son if he could add his company sauce to The Dive’s selections, prepared a batch in the restaurant’s kitchen and added it to the menu.
Soon, customers started asking for sauce for other items, such as shrimp and chicken packaging. They asked if they could buy containers with him to take home, and then O’Rourke said the light bulb went out.
O’Rourke then partnered with an extended family member, Brian Mack (O’Rourke’s wife’s sister is O’Rourke’s daughter-in-law) to form Sea Monster Sauces. He knew Mack was the right match after witnessing his long-running racing drinking spectacle, the Garage Games, which included a detailed scoring system. “It’s like decathlon,” O’Rourke said. “The way he did it and how professional and meticulous he was made me think that if I was going to find a partner, he was exactly the person I wanted.
Mack said he has no real business experience, but he embraced the venture with all his heart. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Mack said. “It was never a dream to become a sauce chef.”
The two began bottling in the Veggie Wagon’s kitchen in Carolina Beach, where their businesses helped secure federal exemptions and nutritional value. Given Veggie Wagon’s rich inventory of original goods, the team quickly outgrew the local cuisine. Originally packaged in a thin 5-ounce jar, today the bottles have a Loch Ness-like creature as the brand’s mascot.
By the fall of 2019, the team found a bottling facility in Tar Hill, North Carolina, and after changing the mass production recipe several times, created a formula that is now being prepared in batches of 300 gallons.
The surfer Slappin! Barbecue sauce, the flagship of Sea Monster, is “sweet, sharp heat” – in that order. “It’s layered that way,” Mack said. “First it gives you great sweetness, then the spicy comes from a little vinegar and a base of orange juice. And then the heat, we call it a “slap of heat” because it splashes you with a little flake of paprika and Tabasco sauce.
The couple’s second sauce, the spicy Danger Berry sauce, is a blend of habanero strawberries. Asked what his favorite was, Mack said, “I think it would be like asking what your favorite child is,” before reluctantly choosing Danger Berry, “because I could get a little weirder with that.”
It took the team two years to beat Danger Berry. “We are definitely not in a hurry with any products just to have a product,” he said. A new flavor, Lift Up, a collaboration for hot sauce with local band Signal Fire, will be out this summer.
Over the years, O’Rourke has secured the location of Sea Monster in 160 stores, including its first international venue on store shelves in Dublin, Ireland. About 60% of its sales are made at local companies in Wilmington, 20% from suppliers and pop-up markets, and the remaining 20% through online wholesale partners. When visiting stores, O’Rourke said he had about 80% to 90% success in getting them to wear the product. Once on the shelves, customers help make sure stores are refilled. “We probably have a 90% reorder rate right now for our retail customers because their customers love it and always want more,” Mack said.
In early June, Mack said the company had sold its 20,000th bottle. “I’m not sure if this is a big stage or not, but we were very excited about it,” he said. Mack still works full-time as a property manager, and O’Rourke works at various full-time concerts after burning out of his career as a chef. They both want to be fully committed to Sea Monster, and O’Rourke said he feels close. “It was definitely a love affair,” he said. “We still haven’t gotten to the point where he’s paying the bills, but we’re on the verge of hoping to take that turn.”
Sea monster sauces
Wilmington, North Carolina
Number of Employees: 2
Year of foundation: 2018
Senior local officials: Co-owners Brian Mack and Sean O’Rourke
Company description: Sea Monster Sauces is a sauce maker that started in Wilmington, first producing its signature Surfer Slappin! hot sauce, based on a 33-year-old family recipe created by O’Rourke for the first time in 1989 for a chicken wings competition. The company is on the verge of offering three different flavors, with two being sold in more than 160 locations.
Locally produced products: Surfer Slapin! the barbecue sauce and the hot Danger Berry sauce were first bottled and produced using the Veggie Wagon facility. In 2019, production exceeded the available production space of the Veggie Wagon and the owners began using a bottling facility in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
Product distribution: Mack: “Wilmington, North Carolina, is our largest retailer. We have other retailers in probably 20 of the 50 states. ”
What is planned next? Mack: “We recently collaborated with Signal Fire on a new hot sauce. They love surfer Slappin! sauce and they wanted to come together with us, so we hope in the middle of summer to release Lift Up hot sauce in collaboration with them. This is our first serious collaboration. “
EDITOR’S NOTE: To be considered for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s MADE feature, contact [email protected]
Check out our other production news featured in the Pender County Special Section on June 17 at the Greater Wilmington Business Journal: