As it turns out, selling Szechuan Sauce on the internet is partly about aggressive entrepreneurship and partly about clandestine phone calls to employees of the world’s biggest fast food chain.
Various interviews with sauce peddlers who are cashing in on the renewed interest created by the sci-fi sit-com Rick and Morty reveal that the secondary market for Szechuan Sauce is driven by a few big sellers who aren’t afraid to bend the rules in the Sauce game. Yes, 2018 continues to be a very weird time to be alive.
If you’re just getting up to speed, the recent re-release of the McNuggets dipping sauce was spurred by a wonderfully strange plot point in the third season of Rick and Morty on Adult Swim. It was an astute idea by McDonald’s to capitalize on a show that claims a cult following, even if it was unprepared for the demand.
For the entrepreneurial, the return was an opportunity to make a squanchload of money, because when Szechuan Sauce came back on February 26, it also relaunched a massive secondary market on the internet. There weren’t enough packets to go around, so sellers took advantage of the limited supply and demand shot up.
“In 1998, they had this promotion, for the Disney film Mulan, where they created a new sauce for the McNuggets called Szechuan Sauce. And it’s delicious! And then they got rid of it, and now it’s gone. This is the only place we’re going to be able to try it, is in my memory.”
— Rick in Rick and Morty
The dipping sauce first released in ‘98 as a promotional product for Mulan had become the planet’s most sought-after condiment, even if it only tasted “mainly like corn syrup with maybe a tiny bit of Worcestershire thrown in,” according to an oft-linked Eater review.
McDonald’s trumpeted the return of its sauce like this in late February: “20 MILLION SZECHUAN SAUCE CUPS NOW AVAILABLE NATIONWIDE!🚨 FINALLY get the sauce!🎉 Celebrate w/ some Buttermilk Crispy Tenders (or other qual. purch.), a cup of Szechuan, and The Sauce: a podcast about the surreal, true Szechuan story.” Yes, McDonald’s even released a podcast series about its condiment.
Even now, a few weeks after the frenzied return, the Szechuan Sauce market on eBay is still going strong. A recent search brings up 700 results, and how the sellers got their hands on cases of it is even more interesting.
Mark Tumpalan, whose company Ventures For Mahal, is one of many sellers on eBay currently selling the Sauce by the case of 250, but he even has bubble-wrapped bundles of 10 and even 10 packs transplanted into an 8 oz mason jars.
“I wanted to preserve some for myself [in jars] and just threw it online to see if anyone wanted it,” Tumpalan tells Inverse.
Like most sellers online, Tumpalan saw an economic opportunity and seized it. After all, it’s the diehard Rick and Morty fans that in the past have paid $15,000 for a gallon of the Sauce or traded a car for a single packet.
“I hope I don’t get roasted for this, but honestly I’ve never even seen a single episode of it. After all this, I do plan on watching it though.”
— Szechuan Sauce seller Mark Tumpalan
Fans want to devour the sauce as much as Rick Sanchez, and the eBay sellers are cashing in on the frenzy.
After McDonald’s first attempt to bring Szechuan Sauce back in October 2017 ended in near-rioting, the most recent February attempt sent those 20 million packets of Szechuan Sauce to restaurants around the United States.
If that sounds like a lot, think again.
According to Statista.com, there were 14,155 McDonald’s locations in the United States in 2016, so if the sauce was evenly distributed, then each restaurant should have gotten 1,419 individual cups, or more realistically, 6 cases per restaurant at 250 cups in each case.
Almost immediately on the February release, reports came in that McDonald’s locations were sold out within hours, or otherwise had no idea of the promotion. (When Inverse went to its local McDonald’s on the morning of release, a manager told us that anyone could get two packets for free with a qualifying purchase — and as many extra as you could possibly want for 15 cents each.)
One eBay user going by handle of lospwr tells Inverse that they spent $200 in-store on Szechuan Sauce packets at 23 cents each. That means lospwr walked away with around 870 cups, which was probably at least half of everything that store received. And lospwr estimates almost $6 in profit from each individual packet. If that is indeed the case, then lospwr made something close to $5,220 buying packets of Sauce directly from McDonald’s and reselling them at an upcharge.
Here’s what motivated Tumpalan to start flipping a McDonald’s condiment on eBay:
What made you want to sell Szechuan Sauce on eBay?
About a week before the Sauce was about to come out, I quit my job. It was unrelated to the launch, but I’ve always wanted to run my own online business and I remembered how big this Sauce was [in October]. I needed to be able to pay my bills for the month and fast. I just got back into hustle mode like when I used to flip sneakers in my early years to pay off college debt.
How did you get so much of the Sauce?
I was able to obtain the Sauce through some people I know. I asked them to look out for it and when it arrived, I just went to all the stores and bought as much as I could. The equivalent of cases worth so they could just hand me the case if they had it.
Most managers were cool and all it took was a call to corporate or ringing up 250+ extra sauces. There were, however, some issues. I bought a case one time and the next morning called the place to see if I could do so again. The manager was not happy to find out what happened the day before. He was yelling at me over the phone and demanding that I tell him who sold it to me. I was not trying to get anyone fired, and I definitely wasn’t going to talked to that way. I told him I couldn’t remember and kept it moving.
I got my girlfriend (shout-out Myca) to buy a case for me from a Mickey D’s on the south side of town. She told me the employee that was serving her started arguing with the manager that didn’t want to sell her a case. Wow. Eventually, she got that case.
Another time I went to a nearby city where my friend Omar lives and we checked out a location near him. I asked the cashier about the Sauce and was met with these words: “It’ll be $75. Cash. And you didn’t get it from me.” That was the most Gangster thing that’s ever happened at Mickey D’s.
“It’ll be $75. Cash. And you didn’t get it from me.”
After finding out their restock times I had a route I could take to hit all the places I could in a day and return home. I hit that store on the south side last week and they tried to up-charge me on the case. They told me corporate made them do it because people were reselling the sauce. So I guess you know I haven’t been back since.
How much of the Sauce did you get? What has that experience been like?
It’s hard to say because I kept reinvesting my profits into more cases. The experience is pretty funny overall. I literally went to three different cities worth of Mickey D’s. Besides the stuff I mentioned before, a lot of places laughed and said I must really like the Sauce.
Do you really like the Sauce?
It tastes like a teriyaki marinade, like it should be cooked with some chicken or beef. Kind of bitter.
As far as the Sauce itself, I hope I can get the smell out of my apartment when I move out. Also that I don’t have some Szechuan form of PTSD after this.
What’s the best part of this process for you?
The message on eBay I got from a customer that told me “Thank you, My Morty will be so happy!” pretty much showed me how powerful this was. Being a huge anime fan I know the different kinds of people in a fandom can range from the chillest and most accepting of people to the wildest die-hards out there.
All I can say is that I hope everyone can appreciate that a popular TV show was able to influence a huge brand to do something like bring back a sauce packet that was originally promoting a Nineties Disney movie.