It all began with a carrot.
Well, a basket of carrots, actually.
Carrots were the vegetable of the week at Learning Gate Community School in Lutz, and everyone was encouraged to come up with an idea to make vegetables more enticing for kids.
Michele Northrup, who works at the charter school, decided to combine the sweetness of carrots with the heat of peppers to concoct a gourmet hot sauce.
People said the sauce tasted so good, she should bottle it.
So, she did.
Since then, she launched a business named Intensity Academy and has branched out to have a product line including sauces, dry rubs and dips.
Her company’s gourmet sauces also have garnered 57 national awards.
Last year, Northrup and her husband, Tom Was, joined forces with a partner to open their own bottling plant, The Sauceology Group, in Clearwater.
Intensity Academy also was selected by Winn-Dixie to stock its product in about 150 Winn-Dixie stores across Florida.
“In the middle of the summer, Winn-Dixie did a really big, grassroots search for local, quality products,” Northrup said. “They put the word out through all festivals and markets that they were looking for products to showcase their Winn-Local program.
“So, we did a pitch, very similar to a ‘Shark Tank’ pitch,” Northrup said, referring to the television program which gives product inventors a chance to win backing from potential investors.
“We did samples of foods with all of our sauces, and we presented it to them, and we had little cheat sheets, so they knew what sauces they were eating with what foods.
“We had to talk about our fan bases and our social media, and how we built our businesses from the ground up.
“From that selection process, they narrowed it down to a few key products for the state of Florida,” Northrup said.
The rollout began around Thanksgiving and is occurring gradually.
The fun part, Northrup said, is finding out from fans where her sauces are showing up in other parts of the state. They’ll pose in front of a shelf and take a “Saucy Selfie” to send to her, Northrup said.
Northrup was also notified last week that she is one of five finalists in the first annual “That Business Show Awards” selected by Jamie Meloni, host of the iheartradio show.
Northrup is thrilled by the achievement of a business she has built from, literally, the ground up.
She launched Intensity Academy in 2007, the same year she was making her run for Lutz Guv’na.
The honorary title is won by raising the most cash, and proceeds from the race go to local organizations and charities.
Northrup raised $16,912, setting a record for the race.
Throughout her bid, she was introducing her sauce and using proceeds from their sales to fill her campaign coffers.
Her Guv’na bid helped groups in Lutz, but also helped Northrup get her fledgling business off the ground.
People who had tasted her sauces during the campaign wanted to buy more, she said.
Now, Northrup’s sauces are sold at specialty markets, and dozens of festivals and fresh markets each year.
She also delivers. She tools around the area, making stops in Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel, Land O’ Lakes, Trinity, Citrus Park, Carrollwood and other spots to drop off orders.
Now, she’s transitioning the business. Her sons Christian, Sebastian and Tommy, and their girlfriends, now handle the events and markets.
She’s focusing on product development and marketing, and her husband is in charge of the Clearwater warehouse.
“I do all of the artwork for the labels. I draw all of the designs.”
She’s still developing new sauce flavors, too.
“Our newest sauce is a mustard. It’s MustThai. MustThai is a must try. It’s a spicy mustard,” she said.
The bottling plant provides services for 11 brands on a regular basis and about 20 others, periodically, she said.
At Sauceology, she helps new companies get their grassroots marketing going.
“Really, for me, the marketing and the branding, and the social media — I love that. I love the connection side of it, too,” she said, noting she has about 10,000 combined followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The common question she gets is: “How did you get started?”
Another popular query is: “How do you take an idea and actually make it into something? That’s why I ended up branching off into Sauceology, because I was giving everybody advice all of the time,” she said.
When she meets someone who has an idea and a passion for it, she tells them: “Take the chance. Take the leap. That’s the difference right there.”
It’s not necessary to know all the answers, or how it will all play out, she said.
Just get started and don’t be intimidated, she advised.
“The first step makes all of the difference,” she said.
“You don’t always have to know how you’re going to finish it, or how you’re going to do the whole thing,” Northrup said.
“I would have never thought that I’d have my own manufacturing plant — from just that little idea from a carrot in a garden,” she said.
To learn more about her business, search Intensity Academy on Facebook or visit www.intensityacademy.com.
Published January 20, 2016