Mama’s One Sauce Represents the Flavors and Folks of Harlem
Founder Vy Higgensen shares memories from her legendary life.
Vy Higginsen is nothing short of a Harlem legend. She has a story for nearly every block and her family roots in the neighborhood run deep. But she still never thought she would create a small business that would not only help feed her community—both literally and figuratively.
Higginsen is the creator of Mama’s One Sauce, a multi-use sauce and condiment company with flavors inspired by her life, and the sights and sounds of Harlem. She has plenty to draw from, being born and raised on 126th Street where she still resides to this day.
“We’ve been on this very same block for almost 100 years,” Higginsen tells us. She explains that, when her father passed, her mother turned their brownstone into a boarding house in order to pay the bills. “It was at a time when people were coming to Harlem in order to find a better life.” Boarders hailed from all over the South and parts of the Caribbean, and they brought with them their food traditions from home.
“There’s only one kitchen in a brownstone and they would often ask my mom if they could cook their favorite recipes,” she remembers. The result was a culinary melting pot, which would become synonymous with Harlem in her mind. She remembers regularly coming home from school to a house full of “aromas and seasonings and smells.” The boarders would cook enough food for Higginsen, her three siblings, and her mother to enjoy, and they would all eat together. After eating, there was usually lots of singing.
“For me, Harlem was always about good food and good music,” Higgensen says.
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Despite these early, foundational memories surrounding food, Higginsen never envisioned that she’d be a food entrepreneur. “I’m a communicator, I’m a broadcaster, I’m a journalist,” she says. Indeed, she was one of the first women to become an advertising executive at Ebony magazine. She later went on to become an editor at Essence before moving on to WBLS, where she would become the first Black woman in New York to host a primetime radio show.
In addition to her work in journalism and broadcasting, Higginsen also co-wrote, produced, and directed the longest running Black off-Broadway musical, Mama I Want to Sing, which was based on the life of her sister, soul singer, Doris Troy.
That creativity and drive eventually led her to think of Mama’s One Sauce with her business partners, Felicia and Kevin Lewis. “We imagined what it would be like and what it would taste like,” Higginsen says. She drew inspiration from her childhood in Harlem and all of the flavors and spices from her multicultural home.
In the beginning, the hot sauce was really more for themselves than anything else, but that changed when Higginsen had lunch one day with Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, her friend and executive director of
Harlem Park to Park. The organization supports entrepreneurs and small business owners in the neighborhood, and as gentrification continues to affect many of long-term residents, it partners with big companies and institutions, like Whole Foods, to help Harlem entrepreneurs get their products in stores. The program helps participants scale their operations and develop their brands even further.
By the end of 2016, Mama’s One Sauce was one of more than 20 Harlem businesses that were selected by Whole Foods to be stocked in stores. “We went through the process of learning how to organize our product and our business,” Higgensen explains.
The flavors of the sauce are inspired by the Southern, Caribbean, and South Asian influences that Higginsen grew up around at home—and come in mild, spicy, and fire variants. While her daughter loves to use the sauce on her scrambled eggs, Higginsen uses it on everything from chicken to salmon. “I grab me a rotisserie chicken and dab a little on there, and people will think you’re a good cook, honey!” she says. The product has become a favorite in Whole Foods across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
But Mama’s One Sauce isn’t just about the food—it’s also about the music. A portion of the proceeds goes towards Higginsen’s organization,
The Mama Foundation for the Arts. “Music was taken out of the school system and musically gifted inner-city children were left behind,” she explains. “Most families cannot pay $100 an hour to have vocal lessons.”
The foundation provides youth in Harlem with free musical training and aims to preserve the immeasurable musical contributions made by African Americans throughout history.
“They can do hip-hop, rap, or contemporary pop,” Higgensen says. “But it’s important that they don’t forget the root, and don’t forget the people.”