It’s 10:45 in the morning, and Sonny Reese is hungry. Over a double-bacon BLT at the Arcade restaurant on South Main, Reese tells me about his time in the Army. While stationed in Missouri, he met another soldier who liked to eat as much as he did. “On the weekends, we would go AWOL to Memphis to eat at the Rendezvous,” he fondly recalls. “’Course when we got back, they would punish me by sticking me on KP duty.”
That seems to be the story of Sonny Reese -- out of the frying pan and into ? well, another frying pan. A lifelong passion for good food led Reese to perfect his own seasoning salt, which he now sells at several local restaurants and specialty stores. He calls it Sonny Salt.
Reese grew up around good food. Born in Mississippi, he came of age in the Kitchen of Mama Dean’s and Clyde’s Fish Camp, the eateries run by his grandmother and father. His first job as a traveling salesman took him around the Mid-South. Courting customers often involved serving them a meal, something Reese excelled at. People who tasted his special seasoning would tell him he ought to market it.
In 2000, Reese won first place in a catfish-cooking contest sponsored by Original Louisiana Hot Sauce. He won it again in 2002. The response of the crowd and the acknowledgments of the contest’s judges convinced Reese his salt might make a good product.
Reese wanted to make sure that his salt didn’t lose anything when it became commercially available. “I took it in to get bottled, but they just couldn’t get it to taste the way we wanted,” he says of the local distributor he won’t name. “I had to test it seven times before they got the formula right.”
After the salt was to his taste, Reese took it from there. He is a consummate salesman, constantly marketing his product, leaving samples everywhere he travels. At the Arcade, Reese restocks a few tables and teases some reluctant patrons into giving his salt a shot. “We started off with one production a month. That wasn’t enough, so we doubled it. Now we’re doing three productions a month,” says Reese, with a wide grin.
Many of the retailers carrying Sonny Salt are impressed with its success. “I didn’t think it would sell all that well, but we’ve had a great response,” says Jeff Wilkerson, the assistant manager at Miss Cordelia’s Grocery. “People taste it straight, then they imagine what it would taste like on food, and they buy it right away,” says Scott Blen, president of Lit, a restaurant supply store, where Reese recently hosted the store’s first in-house demonstration and tasting.
When describing the salt, Reese sounds like a seasoning yogi. At lunch, he instructs me to put some Sonny Salt in my palm and lick it. “There is a three-step journey across the palate,” he says. “First you taste the herbs, then the salt, and then, last, you should get the heat in your throat.” True to his word, there are three stages: first, a burst of herbs, such as cumin and thyme, then salt, and finally a pepper-induced heat. The tastes are wonderfully distinct and give a good sense of exactly what Sonny Salt will add to a meal.
“Sonny Salt is good because it works on everything. It’s less boring than your average seasoning salt,” says Blen. At Alice’s Urban Market and the Brookhaven Pub and Grill, Sonny Salt has found a place in the kitchen. “Yeah, it’s that good. You can use it on any type of meat. We put it on our hickory burger,” says Paul Degloma, a manager at the Brookhaven Pub.
A lot of Sonny Salt’s brisk sales have been attributed to its eye-catching advertising and packaging. The bottle, with its dark-orange label adorned with a photo of Reese’s face, is hard to miss. “We used to have all kinds of homemade labels. Stuff like ‘Damn Good’ and ‘Slap Yo’ Momma Good,’ but that wasn’t working,” Reese says. The new campaign from Conaway Brown was designed by Eric Robinette, who is now Reese’s business partner. It has won two local advertising awards. “Sonny Reese has been eating since he was born,” the ads exclaim. “And with that kind of background and experience it gave him the insight into what a spice should truly taste like.”
When I ask how it feels having his face on bottles all over town, the boisterous salesman is suddenly shy. “I don’t know if I’m that guy from the campaign,” he says. “I’m no chef, that’s for sure. I’m a cook. I can’t tell you any fancy French terms, but I can cook you the best steak you’ll ever eat.”
The interview at the Arcade is over. Reese chuckles when he sees my lunch is half-eaten. His plate is wiped clean. For Reese, the taste, the simple joy of eating, is always what comes first.
You can buy Sonny Salt at Lit, Alice’s Urban Market, Miss Cordelia’s Grocery, and the Arcade. Reese’s Web site, SonnySalt.com, includes recipes, banter, and advice.