HARLEM — Vy Higginsen has been an advertising executive, a disc jockey, theater producer, gospel choir teacher and, most recently, a small business owner with a best-selling hot sauce flying off the shelves at Whole Foods Market.
Her family has lived on 126th Street for nearly 100 years. She remembers Harlem before gentrification and the drug epidemic, when it was a neighborhood of middle-class black families.
Higginsen welcomes change: “When I was growing up my mother used to shovel coal. We don’t use coal anymore.” But she won’t let anyone forget Harlem’s history. “I want to be that person that makes sure we always remember and appreciate the legacy of this place," she says.
Her sauce, Mama’s One Sauce, is a marriage of old and new.
The recipe was inspired by Higginsen's childhood growing up in a rooming house with recent arrivals from the south, Caribbean and India.
They all shared a kitchen and it always smelled delicious, she said. The sauce is a blend of flavors from all three culture that came together in 2015.
She is able to sell it in a supermarket that is almost synonymous with gentrification.
“I went in one day and there was not even one single bottle of sauce on the shelves,” she said. “It was pure joy.”
People stop her on the street to tell her how they use their sauce. Some put it on chicken or fish, others on spaghetti, one person puts it in their popcorn, Higginsen said.
She is one of a growing number of entrepreneurial Harlemites who are starting their own businesses but are bypassing the traditional step of getting a brick and mortar shop. Instead, they make their product at home or a small commercial kitchen and sell it at festivals or distributors.
“Gone are the days where you can afford to open up a storefront to sell your wares,” said Nikoa Hendricks-Evans, founder of the business association Harlem Park-to-Park. “Anyone who doesn’t figure that out is going to find that they are going to be left behind.”
When Harlem Park-to-Park started in 2009, all the members were storefront restaurants and retailers. Now, about 20 percent are vendors who sell online or directly to distributors, she added.
To accommodate for this trend, Park-to-Park has been showcasing local vendors in various events. On Saturday, they will host the annual Harlem Harvest Festival on St. Nicholas Ave. to showcase some of Harlem’s up-and-coming vendors.
Graduates of the program have gone on to sell their products at Columbia University and large retailers.
Higginsen is an example of how Harlemites who have been in the neighborhood for generations can benefit from the economic opportunities that gentrification brings to the neighborhood, Evans-Hendricks said.
“With her being a 100-year-old family in Harlem and just representing that legacy, it’s just an example of how you can have growth and change while retaining the culture,” she said.
Higginsen did not have experience in the food industry when she made Mama’s One Sauce. She didn’t know what the label should look like, what size the bottle should be, or how to deliver an order from a distributor.
So, she turned to Harlem Park-to-Park and their small vendor program. It is a crash course in business development that puts local vendors in touch with Columbia University and Whole Foods. Together, they fine-tune their products and can pitch them to distributors.
The experience prepared Higginsen for success, she said.
When Higginsen walked into the Harlem Whole Foods, several employees welcomed her in by saying, “Hi Mama Vy.”
Damon Young, the store’s team leader, told her that the sauce is so popular, that the supermarket is now using it in their hot food bar where people order takeout.
Mama’s One Sauce is one of the most popular items in the store and has a lot of room to grow, Young said.
“Vy is a legend,” he said. “I think they can scale now throughout the region and at higher levels.”
Higginsen, who stood only a few feet away when she heard this, blushed.
"Am I hearing this?" she said.