Sara Willis first moved to Mexico in her 20s just to spite her ex-boyfriend after the two had previously visited and fallen in love with the country. What began as a spur of the moment decision transformed into a career of privately cooking for the extremely wealthy, the founding of popular Eugene restaurants like Red Agave and now a subscription-based food company that has fans across the U.S. — Saucefly.
Saucefly is a restaurant, storefront and online retailer that sells a subscription service where members receive a box of goods each month that can include sauces, cocktail mixes, dressings, marinades or any other flavorful concoction that makes cooking easier.
Willis’ venture pulls from her vast experiences in the culinary world that are largely unconventional. While she made money nannying in high school and college, Willis learned that she enjoyed cooking for others. When she had her daughter at 20, Willis was two years into college and living in Santa Cruz, California. She decided taking care of a child while going to school would be too hard.
“Once I had my daughter, it was ‘what can I do with a kid,’” Willis said. “So I started a business — also in Santa Cruz — that was a food delivery service that I cooked at my home and I brought people dinners.”
Willis' baby daughter would ride in the backseat with her as she was going door-to-door. It was around this time that Willis decided she wanted to move down to Mexico to start a restaurant. “I can do it down here,” said Willis about Mexico. “Liquor licenses are cheap.”
“[I] started working as a private chef pretty much the day I arrived and met people who had more money than I had ever met before,” said Willis. “So I was thrown into this kind of jet-set, movie-star thing, like amazing opportunities. From there I opened my first restaurant in Mexico just because I had met people who had a lot of cash and believed in me.”
Willis recalls cooking for one family visiting from New York and counting her stack of $100 bills she had been tipped in the pantry of their $25 million vacation home. By making connections like these mixed with a little entrepreneurial spirit, Willis was able to open up her first restaurant in Mexico at the age of 24.
“I was very busy from the beginning,” said Willis. “I would sleep for four to five hours, and I would get there early and make the bread — and all this stuff I just figured out myself.”
Willis ran this restaurant in Mexico until her daughter got to high school, which is when she decided it would be a good idea to start looking to move home to the U.S. One of Willis’ friends, Katie Brown, that she knew from her high school days at South Eugene High School, called with a proposition to open a restaurant in their hometown that would be named Red Agave. Willis still remained in Mexico but flew up to Eugene to help design the menu and work as the head chef until the staff was trained. It wasn’t until 2006 when Willis and Brown opened their second restaurant together, El Vaquero, that Willis and her daughter moved back to Eugene. Willis and Brown also ventured into the retail space by selling cocktail mixes that they found to be popular in the previous restaurants.
Willis continued to work in the restaurant business and with these mixers until she decided to go back to being a private chef for eight more years — but this time in Aspen, Colorado. The company Willis worked for would cater for private jets in Aspen, as well as Cabo.
“I gave that great job up to open Saucefly, which is a subscription box service,” said Willis. “Part of that is the cocktail mixers — everything is organic because I only want to eat organic myself.”
The subscription boxes pull together different tastes and popular items from all of Willis’ endeavors. From enchilada sauces she made for Red Agave to the cocktails she mixed up for her wealthy clients in Aspen, it’s like Willis is still a private chef in her subscription clients’ home. Taking the trending idea of subscription meal kit services like Blue Apron and then making it simpler, but also more gourmet is a model that Willis is trying to make work.
“Part of the thing with Saucefly is I know people don’t have that much time necessarily, so although [Blue Apron] is a romantic concept, you really want to get good food to the table quicker,” said Willis.
Sauces from a subscription box can simply be poured over whatever protein is recommended while it is cooking. While waiting for that food to cook, the signature cocktails can be whipped up just by adding alcohol to the premade mix. To go along with the meal, different dressings are often included for a salad, one of such dressings is so good Willis claims “you could drink it straight from the bottle.”
Although subscription boxes are Saucefly’s main business model, Willis had so many customers come in looking for food that she finally gave in. Pulling more specifically from her time in Mexico, as well as the successful Red Agave, Saucefly offers mainly Latin cuisine with a few dinner pop-ups coinciding with the seasons. Tacos and Mexican food are offered Monday and Tuesday from 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with tapas being served Wednesday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
With such a successful career both in the restaurant business and in the retail-scape, that ex-boyfriend who dumped Willis should consider himself spited.