Unlike many CPG startups that build a product before finding customers, truffle-infused hot sauce brand Truff had a loyal audience before it manufactured its first bottle.
Just over five years ago, co-founders Nick Ajluni and Nick Guillen, who met while studying at California State University, Fullerton, secured the Instagram account @sauce and began posting pop culture-heavy content aimed at young people. Ajluni described their approach as “anything from food and cars and women to cool things that we consider saucy.”
But after reaching over 10,000 followers, the duo paused all posting for about eight months. Their first post back, in December 2017, was a teaser for the upcoming change in the account’s direction with a new logo introducing Truff—essentially shifting from a lifestyle account to one selling a product. Now with over 131,000 followers, the account mainly features images with either a bottle of Truff hot sauce or some sort of food item—pizza, burgers, hotdogs—covered in the stuff.
“We didn’t want to go from posting nonstop to immediately becoming a CPG brand overnight, so we decided on a cooldown period where we would stop posting and let time help aid our transition,” Ajluni explained.
Guillen said the shift was “definitely an awkward, weird period,” but ultimately the account didn’t lose too many followers and the product, which the Nicks spent two years developing in Ajluni’s parents’ kitchen, was well received upon its debut.
“The brand we created with @sauce was already making waves across the internet, so Truff was a quick hit,” said Ajluni, who added that timing the launch with the holiday season encouraged customers to buy the product as a gift, too.
Truff’s hot sauce, which comes in black truffle, white truffle and spicier varieties, has done well since then, appearing on Oprah’s Favorite Things list in both 2018 and 2019. The company, valued at over $25 million, reports year-over-year sales are currently up 300%.
Ajluni said leveraging social media is more art than science. If it weren’t, Truff never would have made it this far.
“It’s super common for a brands to go hire a studio, have them take standard studio photos, make generic videos featuring their product and then post in on their feed,” he said. “It’s very uncommon for that to resonate with a wide audience, and ultimately turn into a true lifestyle for millions of people.”
Part of Truff’s success comes from an authentic connection with a particular audience that no marketing budget, no matter its size, can replicate.
“We actually are the audience that we are speaking to,” Ajluni said.
Now, Ajluni and Guillen, both young millennials, are hoping to repeat their success with their first expansion into a different category. In mid-November, the brand debuted two pasta sauces: Black Truffle Pomodoro and Black Truffle Arrabbiata. Part of the inspiration behind the new products, which were in the works prior to the pandemic, came from recognizing the prevalence of pasta sauce around the globe. Another element was customers telling Truff that they were already adding the brand’s hot sauce into their pasta sauce.
In line with the packaged-food industry as a whole, both pasta and pasta sauce have sold well since the outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown measures.
This year, pasta sauce sales hit $3 billion in the U.S, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Together, category leaders Prego, Ragú and Classico control just over half of the market. But given that more Americans are making meals at home and looking for fun recipes to keep things interesting, experts anticipate an opportunity in the space.