When Tommy Wood – Tommy is the man at the helm of the full-service Atlanta-based production company Terebinth Tree – spoke with Spotlight on Business back in the dog days of summer, we could tell straight away that he’s the kind of business owner who doesn’t feel the heat. Tommy’s cool. In fact, he’s contagiously calm. When we asked the award-winning writer, director and producer – and now bona fide Southern saucier – for tips for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to know how to stand the heat in the kitchen, Tommy was, well, cool and direct. “When people ask me about my story as an entrepreneur, I tell them that I did it honest,” he explained. “I grew up in a house where my dad not only owned his own equipment rental store – equipment like tractors, lawnmowers, chainsaws; a whole array for homeowners and construction workers – he also specialized in making parts for vehicles like Volkswagen Beatles that weren’t available locally at the time. So, he ran the store up front and he was in the back working in the machine shop. In a nutshell, that really explains who I am. While I have this central, over-arching general media company that I’m running where I’m doing branding and video production, I’m also writing screen plays and developing a hot sauce brand.” Terebinth Tree, the “over-arching” outlet for Tommy’s creativity, has generated branding and media for businesses known around the world. Grate Chef, Autotrader.com, and Glock are just some of the household names featured in Tommy’s eclectic professional portfolio. His filmography, part of the “also” of Tommy’s artistic drive, includes an associate producer credit on the acclaimed documentary An Inconvenient Tax as well as the award-winning narrative feature film Grilling Bobby Hicks, which Tommy also co-wrote and directed. “With all that in mind,” he continued, “I’ve learned over the years that having too many irons on the fire is a bad thing. You can’t be a master of everything; you have to hone your focus. I’ve found a nice balance by assigning particular tasks to certain days in the week so that five things aren’t staring me in the face at once.” There is, we learned, one particular task for which Tommy is happy to extend his work week. For the last 16 years, Tommy has been refining his Bootlikker Hot Sauce, a tequila-based condiment with an origin story befitting a brand under the Terebinth Tree portfolio.
Tommy, the readers would love to hear how a guy with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Atlanta College of Art who’s been responsible for marketing elements for movies like Nerd Prom and American Made Movie came to whipping-up batches of award-winning hot sauce.
TW: In the early 2000s, I was playing in a rock band – I’ve been a musician since high school. We were playing out all the time and eating late night wings and one night I said I was going to make my own sauce. Everyone was like, ‘OK, whatever, Tommy’ but I just had this inclination: I’m not a big alcohol drinker, but I had this inclination that tequila would be good in hot sauce, like a wing sauce. I made it for the first time in 2002 and everybody loved it. Over time, I would just make 12 bottles or so and hand them out to friends for Christmas and things like that. Everyone kept coming to me and saying, ‘Man, can I get some more of that? You should bring it to market.’
So, after a few stops-and-starts we found a co-packer who is highly versed in the industry and she helped us figure out how to overcome our hiccups. We did our first batch in February of 2016 and we went from making 350 bottles in our first quarter to 350 bottles-a-month within the first year. Bootlikker is now in over 30 stores in the South East, on Amazon – and a couple other online retailers – so it’s definitely growing. We recently hired a sales agent who’s trying to find us some even bigger opportunities. We like being in the specialty food stores and shops, department stores, and gift shops. It’s in the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in a place called The Salt Table and they have a hard time keeping it in stock down there. People just see it as a Georgia-grown product, so it’s the perfect kind of gift for travellers.
And we have different variations of our sauces with new flavors coming out also. Once we decided we were going to market we settled on the flask bottle to sort of echo the fact that there is alcohol in it – although it doesn’t taste like alcohol; it just has that margarita zip thing to it. I revamped the original label because I had this very utilitarian label on purpose because I wanted it to look almost apothecary-style in the beginning. Now the Bootlikker label looks more like something you would see on the back bar of a 1850s saloon.
Your second place in the Hot Sauce-Medium category at the 2018 International Flavor Awards must have been a real moment of confirmation for the Bootlikker name for you, Tommy.
TW: Well, we stand out for a few reasons in the hot sauce world. We are not like the ghost pepper, reaper sauce types you’ll meet at festivals who are trying to hurt you. Our sauce has lots of flavour and heat because we want to appeal to everyone. We want people to look at us more as a label trying to become the Heinz of hot sauce. Someone told me that Bootlikker ‘tastes like what Tabasco is trying to do.’ I really believe it in as a versatile sauce and it’s being recognized more and more that way.
What’s the game plan for Bootlikker looking ahead to 2019 – and beyond?
TW: We get asked that a lot these days. We have a whiskey version in the works pending approvals. We also have jerky coming out this year, which is delicious, that’s flavoured with our original hot sauce. It’s got a sweet, brown sugar beginning and it has that traditional jerky quality to it. While we love selling the hot sauce, hot sauce can sit on somebody’s table or in their pantry for a year, but the jerky might be gone in an hour. There is a potential for turnover there, so we’re really excited about that product.
Long term, Bootlikker has its own LLC and will continue to develop. We’re looking into a Bootlikker brand salt and several other products. Being in the food business, we have our eyes and ears out looking for potential everywhere.
The Bootlikker brand is only one growing branch of Terebinth Tree. Can you get back to its roots and please explain how this parent company came to be?
TW: Well, the terebinth tree is found in Syria and Israel. When I left the family business in ’99 I left everything I had been around day-to-day all my life. You could say it was a bit of a spiritual journey. I remember at the time reading the story of Abraham in the Bible and he was told to leave his father’s house. When Abraham leaves, he comes to a terebinth tree where he camps the first night. It’s a stopping place on your way to the promise land, a place in between where you are and where you’re going. That’s where the icon comes from. If you look at my logo it’s a man who is partially turning into a tree. Now, with my last name being Wood it all came full circle in my mind. The way his arms are stretched out also suggests the letter T. That’s my parent company; my overall umbrella company. Regardless of what brand we might be working on it’s under the Terebinth Tree name.
So, you conceptualized and designed the logo yourself, Tommy?
TW: I did. I went to college to study Design. After sitting behind the desk at the family rental store I realized that’s not what I’m meant for. While I was doing the regular 7:30 to 5:30 thing, I was also doing independent design work for people on the side – but my day job didn’t allow me to do it to the capacity I wanted. My time at school was interesting because I grew up on the East Coast during a time when being an artist gave you two options: You could either be a starving artist or a commercial artist like a graphic designer. What was really interesting about the time that I as in school was that it was really in a transitional period; we were still learning old school printing methods while everything was moving toward total computer interfaces like Photoshop and Illustrator. I was on that bridge of change that took us to computers.
But I do it all. There are times when I hire outside contractors to work with me on projects. I have team of trusted guys who I prefer to work with – when they’re available. Last spring, we did a political ad, for example, and I don’t have all the gear or staff needed to do the entire production myself. I wrote the video, I directed the video, and I edited it; I hired people to help me shoot it and light it.
Do you find that being a Renaissance man, as it were, has its advantages in the world of video production?
TW: I don’t mean to come across like a micromanager, but it’s hard for me to let go sometimes. With film production for instance, I enjoy the whole process. I love being behind the camera for the shoot, but it’s also beneficial to the project that way. If I wrote something, I know the way I want it shot – it saves time.
I’ve been brought in to write for other production companies, for instance. I’ve worked on a lot of projects for things like Kelley Blue Book, Autotrader and IHG Hotels to name a few. I’ve written videos for those companies and even though all I have to do is write it and hand it in, I still prefer to go down to the location the day of the shoot just to be a part of the process. To write something and then see it come to life and take on meaning for other people – there’s a lot of enjoyment in that for me.
Atlanta has earned the nickname ‘Hollywood of the South’ in recent years. How has this transplanted industry impacted Terebinth Tree?
TW: It’s definitely booming. Last year I believe it was a $9 billion year for the Atlanta and Georgia film industries. It’s been escalating for the past 10 years but feature films and TV doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of work for me. I’m more on the producer-writer-director-side and when studios come here for productions they usually have all that dialed-in and set. I’m also not crew; I’m not out there working lighting or grip or jobs like that on set. In other words, I don’t get a lot of business from the business that’s coming here. What it does give me is a lot more resources. I grew up in this area and there was no film industry to speak of here to encourage me to go that direction. Now there’s whole generation of kids here who clamored to film schools who are looking for extra work to build-up their portfolios.
Does Terebinth Tree stayed grounded in the Atlanta metropolitan area, Tommy?
TW: No, we also work out-of-state. Earlier this year I went to Kansas to shoot a professional speaker and then edited his demo reel from that. That wasn’t a full-scale production with a crew by any means but it’s something we offer. But we mostly do work here in Atlanta. Aside from political ads we get a lot of industrials. We’ve been working with a public relations company that represents a lot anesthesiology groups across the Georgia and across the nation. We’ve also done work for Grate Chef Grill Products and Fabritex steel manufacturing, among others. When it comes to producing videos like promotional pieces for local broadcasts and websites and instructional films for B-to-B purposes, we have a national and a regional reputation for quality.
Aside from your video production examples found at terebinthtree.com, how do you communicate your process and your product to prospective clients?
TW: I tell people that I like to shoot for profound. Everybody, of course, wants to create something profound, but what I mean is profound through simplicity. A truly profound piece of art, whatever it might be, has got to be basic but has to communicate. The simplest version of anything is usually the purest. It makes people look at it and wonder if there’s something deeper the very first glance.
Branding, giving a company an image, across the board – I mean from marketing needs, to logos and banners on a website, to trucks out on the road – is something I really enjoy. I get a lot out of working with companies and giving them exactly what they’re looking for.
Alongside your profile on the Terebinth Tree homepage is the profile of a young drummer and percussionist – and Audio Engineer-in-training – by the name of Tré Wood. Can you please introduce Tré to the Spotlight on Business readers?
TW: Tré is my son and he’s starting his third year in college. He’s an excellent writer and an amazing musician. It’s my hope that his involvement in the company will give him a chance to really explore his creative side. He’s really immersed himself in his writing; he’s written an entire album that he is nearly done with. I know the time is coming when I need an original score that I’ll be able to turn to him. There’s a lot of potential for him that way. He’s also written three screenplays and we’re writing one together currently – and he’s just 20. He’s going to keep chasing the rabbit and becoming an even more vital component and I’m proud of him.
Any milestone this company has reached over the past few years – like 15 or so – it’s been a bit of a roller coaster getting there. I had one friend tell me, ‘If I had have done what you did, my wife would have left me by now,’ but my wife has been awesome. She is along for the ride and she kind of knew what she was getting into – for the most part.
Please visit terebinthtree.com for more information about design and video production services. For more information about Bootlikker Hot Sauce, please visit bootlikker.com and join the email list! Orders can be placed at Amazon.com. ‘Grilling Bobby Hicks’ is available to stream online for US subscribers of Amazon Prime Video.
By David MacDonald