Abdul "Doolie" Mohamud and longtime friend/business partner Eric Graham reflect on their journey so far in bringing a unique Somalian hot sauce to the market, standing in front of Freshy's coffee shop in West Seattle on June 15.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Doolie’s Hot HOT Sauce LLC, started up by 24-year-old Abdul “Doolie” Mohamud of West Seattle at the onset of 2012, is gaining traction as the young entrepreneur crafts, bottles and labels each container by himself, slowly building the brand with a growing army of customers and resellers willing to give his product a chance on their shelves.
It is not, however, your everyday hot sauce. Mohamud, born in Somalia, is creating his grandmother’s East African recipe for the masses, fusing chili peppers, lime, garlic, chunks of coconut and the secret Somali spice blend that introduces something entirely new to most palates.
Mohamud describes Doolie’s as a jack-of-all-sauces, equally at home as a fresh dip, topping, marinade or cooking sauce, thanks in large part to its origin in a flourishing maritime trade hub going far back into human history.
“The thing about Somalian cooking,” he said, “is it is Indian to Italian to Middle Eastern all jumbled into one because we are right on the coast of Africa, so we get a lot of influences.”
Mohamud and his high school buddy turned business partner Eric Graham are making a run at the American Dream today, but it all started in 1991 when Somalia’s civil war broke out, sending the easternmost African country into governmental instability and social chaos.
Mohamud was only four at the time, living with his mother and three siblings. He said although his parents were separated, they worked together for the sake of the kids and his father fled with them to a refugee camp in Kenya. His mother stayed behind to care for her mother, the woman behind Doolie’s hot sauce recipe.
He lived in the refugee camp with his siblings, father and step-mother for two years, separated from his mom.
“She came and found us two years later (after his Grandmother passed away),” he explained. “She had to walk from Somalia to Kenya with her sisters. I don’t know how they made it; they were stopped and robbed several times. They came to us with nothing but their bare rags and clothes and met us in Kenya. I think my mom was just so determined to find us. She was our savior.”
With help from relatives living in the United States, the family was able to secure enough money to buy a modest home in Kenya and move out of the camp.
But then the house burned down, and they were homeless once again – a tragedy that Mohamud now looks back on as a positive moment: “We would not be here today if our house had not burned down.”
An aunt, with the help of a church, sponsored an exodus to New York.
“New York was crazy,” Mohamud remembers. “It was the early 90s … people were going nuts, a lot of violence, a lot of homelessness. We weren’t expecting that, we were thinking, ‘We are going to America, the greatest country in the world.’”
After only a month another aunt called from across the continent, and introduced them to a place called Seattle. “She said, ‘You guys are going to love it in Seattle. There is a good Somalian population and it is a lot calmer than New York.’”
They made the move, but not without future hardship. For the next several years Mohamud’s family jumped from shelter to shelter until they finally landed in a Section 8 home in Auburn, providing the welcome reprieve of stability.
He started learning English by watching cartoons, his sister got the first family job at 16, and they bought a car. “We finally just learned how to live, make friends and survive in America,” he said. “It just built up, we just never gave up, we were never down on ourselves and constantly kept on working hard. That’s what my mom taught us.”
They moved to West Seattle to be closer to family in the early 2000s and Mohamud attended West Seattle High School. They were integrating, but one thing remained the same: that sauce. Mom would always make the family hot sauce, and it was always accompanied by the story of her learning how to make it from her mother in Somalia.
After graduating high school in 2006, Mohamud said he found himself in a rut, unsure of his future. His mom picked up on the growing apathy of Doolie and his younger sisters and decided it was time for a trip back to Africa.
“My mom wanted to show me what life was really like because we started acting like what we had been through wasn’t important,” he said.
They spend five months in Kenya, visiting relatives, the refugee camp, the spot where there home once stood before the fire; getting in touch with their roots.
“It was mindblowing, me being an adult now, to see how the world really is where I came from,” Mohamud said. “Right after that I grew up so fast, seeing poor people, because I was always complaining about stuff, yknow, little stuff that didn’t really matter in the world.”
Business partner Eric Graham remembers seeing Mohamud for the first time upon his return. “He had spiritual enlightenment in his eyes,” he said. “We were all so happy for him … because he did have that lost aspect before he left, kind of spinning his wheels.”
Mohamud found a job in housekeeping at a hotel downtown, and although it “was a good job,” he “just felt like I needed to do more with myself.”
Last year he started a Somali restaurant with his brother, but after six months they were only able to break even and decided to call it quits. There was, however, a silver lining.
Grandma’s hot sauce was served with every meal during their restaurant run, and Mohamud said people started to take note. Customers were stealing bottles from the tables, friends were stealing mom’s homemade batches from his fridge, people were calling in to-go orders for the sauce instead of food … it was clear people really liked the stuff.
At the turn of 2012, Mohamud decided to run with the lustful following Grandma’s sauce had created, applied for the necessary permits to start making it for commercial resale, and started renting time at a commercial kitchen in SoDo. After much trial and error, he was able to recreate Grandma’s flavors in large scale batches and found a way to tone down the heat “for the masses” (he said the original is extremely hot).
After finding the magical ratios, he started visiting stores and made his first customers in Freshy’s and West Seattle Produce earlier this year. Today, Mohamud and Graham are working hard, setting up tastings at potential client’s stores and flying through bottles. Facebook friends are starting to add up with cheering testimonials, and the sauce is spreading to neighboring communities.
Mohamud said Angelina’s Italian Restaurant in Admiral is offering a Chicken Parma-Doolies plate and if you ask for a Doolie’s burger at Zippy’s Giant Burgers in White Center, they’ll make it happen with a wink and nudge to the secret menu request.
Reorder requests are going from a case a week to a case a day, a modest profit is starting to turn, and Mohamud is already scheming future products, including a “GuacaDoolie,” a red sauce, and, eventually, an original version of Grandma’s Recipe with a heat level for adventurous palates.
I asked Mohamud if his experience feels like the fruition of that vision he had of America before landing in New York.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I feel like the American Dream is doing something you like, being very happy with it, and the end results take care of you, your family and your friends.”