A few months ago, bright yellow bags of corn chips began appearing all over Asheville. Almost simultaneously, they were on display in Earthfare, Greenlife, French Broad Food Co-op and West Village Market.
The 5th Sun Specialties chips are just the beginning. They're accompanied by a line of salsas and hot sauces. The products have intriguing flavor combinations; the chips get dressed up with maple syrup and Cajun spices, and peach-mango salsa comes with sweet chunks of fruit and fresh cilantro.
What accounts for the rapid and widespread product launch? Look closely at the label on the chip bag. It looks like a Mayan mandala at first glance, but it's actually a family portrait of 5th Sun co-owner Michael Henzel and his five sons.
“With us having the five boys, I thought we could have two meanings to the brand,” says Adrienne Henzel, who co-owns the business with Michael, her husband. “Each kid has his own little stake in the company.”
The Henzels’ sons range in age from 4 to 24, so each has a different role. In the case of the youngest, Henry, that may simply mean moral support. “Our little guy, who's 4, he goes into Earthfare or Greenlife, and he sees the product, and he's like, 'It's our chip! It's our chip!'” Adrienne says.
That enthusiasm means a lot to the Henzels, who came to Asheville for a new start.
Until 2007, they piloted several successful businesses in Stowe, Vt.: a bed and breakfast, a Mexican restaurant called Miguel's Stowe Away and a line of salsas of the same name.
Micheal launched the Mexican menu at the restaurant in the late '70s. At that time, there wasn't much Latin food in the Northeast, he says. He had discovered the cuisine as a self-described ski bum, traveling through the West, washing dishes for a living and, at one point, residing in a teepee.
“We just played with it, and people liked it, so we kept growing it,” he says. “It started very, very small. We had a bed and breakfast and 130 seats, and we were there for 30 years.”
But in 2006, they sold the salsa line, and in 2007, they closed the restaurant. The market in Stowe, a ski resort town, was changing quickly due to an influx of corporate money, Adrienne says, and the restaurant wasn't feasible anymore, especially with a fifth child on the way.
“It was a really stressful time, but it also got us back down to our roots,” she says. “I think that's been the most optimistic thing about this whole experience. You can have a lot. You can lose a lot. But then you can start over again, and you might appreciate what you're doing more than ever because it is simpler than you thought.”
A few years later, Adrienne knew it was time to get back into salsa. “In the middle of the night, I had a vision of this new company we could start,” she says. “And the story that we write on the products is what I came up with to give people hope when they feel like all the chips are down.”
Thus, each bottle, jar or bag reads: “Even at times of loss there is a chance that something better is coming your way. It may be a symbol of a new life, or a brilliant glimpse of something even better than you ever dreamed.”
In 2012, the Henzels relocated to Asheville. They moved here for the test kitchen at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, where they make sauce and salsa, and a similar facility in Hickory, where they bake three varieties of GMO-free corn chips (blue corn, maple and maple-Cajun).
They were pleasantly surprised by the community's interest in food, Adrienne explains. “We think in Vermont the food movement's only in Vermont,” she says. “Asheville and Vermont are very similar … except you have better weather here.”
By March, 2013, the entire 5th Sun line was in production. Today, it's on the shelves in several Earthfare and Whole Foods stores around the region.
At the same time, they've set up production in the Northeast, and they're expanding distribution there, too.
They're finding that consumers have different tastes regionally. “Down here, people appreciate the hot sauce,” Adrienne says. “Up in New England, you think you can push that hot sauce? It's not easy.”
When Southerners reach for hot sauce, Vermonters reach for ketchup, Michael says. Northeasterners are coming around to hot sauce, he adds, but they have yet to develop an obsession as some of his Asheville customers have. “We had one guy back in April, he was going around to all the stores and buying up all of the mango-habanero,” Michael says. “I'd go into the store, and I'd say, 'How did you guys sell through this in three days?'”
The Henzels hope to cultivate similar enthusiasm across the Southeast. Right now, they sell 500-600 cases of their products each month. “We're looking to grow the company and have East Coast coverage by this time next year,” Michael says.
But, Adrienne adds, they're an Asheville company from here on out. “We still want to stay in the local food movement,” she says. “We don't want to grow out of ourselves.”