Mother-daughter business kicks things up with African kick sauce

Ernie's African Kick Sauce launched in 2019
Ernestine Morris and Sandra Morris holding up bottles of their sauce
Ernestine Morris (left) and her daughter, Sandra Morris, launched Ernie’s African Kick Sauce in May 2019. (Photo by Oona Mackesey-Green)

Sandra Morris, co-founder of Ernie’s African Kick Sauce, grew up eating her mother’s homemade hot sauce. “We have to eat peppers every day,” Morris says. “It makes us feel alive.”

Morris decided it was time to share the sauce with more people and, in May 2019, she and her mother, Ernestine, launched their new business, making and bottling their sauce at FEED Kitchens on Madison’s north side. Calling it a “kick” sauce — “I didn’t want to say hot sauce because it’s redundant and people get scared when they hear ‘hot,’” Morris says — she knew she wanted to name the sauce for her mother whose nickname is Ernie. “At first some people didn’t like the name,” Morris says with a laugh. “They would say ‘what are you two black women using that name for? Ernie is an old white man’s name.’ But we said ‘we don’t care… it’s catchy.’”

Originally from Togo in West Africa, Morris and her mother moved to Wisconsin in the late 1980s. “Growing up in Togo, we would always eat together,” Morris says. “And we would eat with our hands. You are really tasting the food when you eat that way.” But when Morris arrived in the United States, something was missing.

“We noticed food in America lacks a little flavor,” she says. Morris would add her mother’s sauce to everything from eggs to soup to pizza. “You have had this experience of eating a good meal but it’s missing the ‘je ne sais quoi’” Morris says. “The ‘quoi’ is the kick sauce.”

Available in two varieties, mild and hot, Morris says Ernie’s Kick Sauce can be used as a condiment or a dip. Based on a traditional family recipe made with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, vinegar, cayenne and lemon, the sauce is “multi-dimensional,” Morris says. “It has a unique flavor. It has heat but the heat isn’t overbearing.”

When Morris first launched the business in May 2019, she started by selling the sauce at the Hilldale Farmers’ Market and the Northside Farmers’ Market. Morris set up a stand and put out samples of the sauce to try with tortilla chips or couscous salad. “I was loving it!” Morris says. “Who knew I was going to end up loving the farmers’ markets?” After a successful summer at the markets, Ernie’s Kick Sauce is now available at Willy Street Co-op and Orange Tree Imports. Morris also plans to return to the farmers’ markets in spring; she loves the opportunity to interact with customers. “After being here 20-some years, we noticed we needed to bring a piece of our culture to our beloved Wisconsin,” Morris says. “And Wisconsin people are grateful, they say thank you for bringing flavor to us.”