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Closing The Loop: Hot Sauce King Tom Nuijens

Nuijens at work
Warren Miller

Tom Nuijens grew up in Fort Lauderdale, waterskiing and surfing. His family was devoted to good food.

“We all loved dinner hour, which is kind of unusual for younger kids,” he says. “My father was the cook of the family. My sister is an accomplished cook, and my nephew is a James Beard Award chef.”

Tom loved to travel as well, and his trips usually involved surfing, fishing and food.

“When I had the financial means, I always loved to travel, initially the Bahamas and the Caribbean. And then I started in advertising in 1978. We had the Costa Rica airline and tourism accounts. That got me interested in Costa Rica,” he says.

And that was how Tom came to what he now does for a living.

“At about that time, we were doing a lot of packaging for a natural foods company, and that got thinking, ‘Wow, I could do this,’” he remembers.

In June 1992, Tom formed Half Moon Bay Trading Company, named after a popular Costa Rican surfing beach, and partnered with a Costa Rican manufacturer to produce a line of sauces that Tom created and would market internationally.

“I create the sauces at home in my kitchen, and then I go down to the factory in Costa Rica and spend a week or so,” he says.

Tom Nuijens didn’t quit his day job at the ad agency, though.

“For the first eight years, I was still creative director, running this out of a rented warehouse in Riverside. We just started to grow exponentially, and at year seven, it was my ticket out of advertising,” he says.

Today, Half Moon Bay’s sauces are sold through the U.S. and in many other countries, directed from a small warehouse in Atlantic Beach. Success with food didn’t mean that Tom got to spend more time on the water, however.

“Surfing and fishing more was one of the original impetuses for starting this business, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be great, I’ll spend more time in Costa Rica!’ I bought property and built a house down there. And as soon as the company started to take off, I was stuck here working,” he says.

He may be overworked, but Tom Nuijens wouldn’t trade what he does for anything. At least, not right now.

“I really, really enjoy what I do. People in the food business are, for the most part, very jovial, fun to be around, and they’re also happy people who like their jobs,” he says.

It doesn’t hurt that Tom makes products from all-natural ingredients … including, of course, capsaicin, the endorphin-producing compound in hot peppers.

“The endorphins in capsaicin – your hot peppers – is what gives people a kick, an endorphin kick. It’s addictive and it’s actually good for you,” he says.

But Tom Nuijens also is looking forward to surfing and fishing in Costa Rica.

“At some point in the future, if we continue on this meteoric rise, yeah, we’d be ripe for a takeover. I’d love to retire, but I still love the business. I’ll never stop cooking,” he says.

And while many people want to follow their dreams, Tom – like most people in the food business, which is, by some measures, the most difficult industry in which to succeed – has a more realistic view.

“’Don’t quit your day job’ is the very first thing I tell people who have their grandmother’s recipe for a great hot sauce or chutney. I had a call this morning about a wing sauce. A guy in the Bahamas said, ‘I’ve got an old family recipe; it’s going to be great,  I need somebody to make it,’” he says.

He suggests, “Give me about $500,000. I’ll keep half and give you the other half back, and you’ll be much further ahead.”

Warren Miller is a writer and financial executive who lives near St. Augustine, Florida.