By Tanner Kent
Free Press Staff Writer
NORTH MANKATO —
Over libations and appetizers, Mark Porisch made a life-changing decision.
As he and friends were relaxing after a softball game at Big Dog Sports Cafe in North Mankato nearly a decade ago, Porisch noticed the Tabasco sauce being passed around the table. Someone asked Porisch — who was known among friends for using the produce from his garden to make various homemade concoctions — if he would ever try making his own batch.
Seemed easy enough.
He’d already been growing chilies in his North Mankato garden for years, a skill passed down from a green-thumbed, preacher-man grandfather who survived the Great Depression on a meager wage from the congregation and a bountiful harvest from his garden. Plus, as a self-confessed “knucklehead who wants to re-invent the wheel,” Porisch thought maybe he could do better.
So, he made his first batch of homemade hot sauce in his kitchen and began giving it to friends and family. After years of making sauce for sport, his friends suggested making sauce for profit.
The idea stuck.
Soon after, Porisch was laid off from his job, got serious about sauce-making and incorporated Lucky’s Popcorn Dressing in 2008. (The phrase “popcorn dressings,” he adds, comes from a few of his friends who liked dipping popcorn in his homemade hot sauces and mustards.)
“My friends started threatening to pay me,” Porisch said, laying out the reasons why he risked his retirement savings and financial security.
“My 401(k) is now a 201(k). ... But, maybe it’s part of the human condition to own something of our own.”
Now, Porisch’s sauces — he makes hot sauces, barbecue sauces and five varieties of mustard, including his best-selling fire-roasted jalapeno and garlic honey mustard — can be found in a variety of establishments, including: all Kowalski’s Markets in Minnesota, the Enchanted Forest and Hilltop Meat Market in Mankato, St. Peter Co-op, Jim’s Apple Barn in Jordan, Le Sueur Cheese Store and farmers markets in both Mankato and the Twin Cities.
His sauce is a full-time job and Porisch spends his weeks shuffling to and from the metro area, doing product demonstrations, making deliveries and trying to expand his business into other markets.
“Fundamentally, I was a bad employee,” Porisch said. “Now, I’m self-employed with all the benefits. I get to meet all the people and be my own boss, but I also have to clean the toilets and sweep the floors.”
Porisch admits that when he started his venture, there was a lot he didn’t know about the business side of owning a business.
Tasks such as finding a fully licensed kitchen to make his product, securing a food manufacturer willing to run the small, specialty batches his sauces required and finding ways to get loans and secure capital became serious challenges.
He found help at the Small Business Development Center in Mankato. The center provides a number of programs that offer counseling and assistance to small-business owners and entrepreneurs. Through a federal program jointly administered by the center and the state called Growing America Through Entrepreneurship, or GATE, Porisch was able to find the help he needed.
GATE staff helped Porisch with his payroll and taxes. He was able to receive advice about business plans, marketing initiatives, securing loans and acquiring capital.
Director Mike Nolan said the center in Mankato has assisted more than 300 clients and is charged with helping any business with fewer than 500 employees (nearly every business in the region). GATE alone, Nolan said, has worked with about 60 entrepreneurs in the region since its inception less than two years ago.
Interested citizens are linked to GATE through a variety of outreach programs, including referrals from workforce centers. After that, GATE gives an assessment to potential entrepreneurs to get a preliminary gauge of their business potential. Then, they are assigned a counselor who offers up to 25 hours of direct counseling.
“We want to help fuel growth for small businesses,” Nolan said. “But a lot of what we do is talk people out of running their own business. Before anyone spends their life savings, we want to help people ask the tough questions.”
For more information, visit Porisch’s website at www.LuckysPopcornDressing.com, or find him on Facebook.