By Lorrie Baumann
“If you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat,” — Ronald Reagan
Over the past few years, the news media has been prompting people around the world to think a great deal about heat in its many manifestations. A growing number of us have concluded that one thing we want to do about heat is put it in our mouths. The hot sauce market has gone nuclear.
In 2013, CompaniesandMarkets.com reported that sales of spicy chile pepper sauces grew 9 percent in the previous year, with the industry reaching a current value of $540 million. This upward growth trend is expected to continue. IBIS World, a marketing research company, noted last year that hot sauce production was the eighth fastest growing industry in the United States, with industry revenue projected to grow over the next five years at an average annual rate of 4.1 percent.
“The hot sauce industry is extremely strong,” says Dave DeWitt, founder and Co-Producer of the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show, scheduled to take place Feb. 28-March 2, 2014 in Albuquerque, N.M. Now in its 26th year, the show presents the annual Scovie Awards, a tribute to foods whose spiciness is measured in Scoville Heat Units. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and Carolina Reaper peppers are currently considered the hottest peppers in the world, with Scoville ratings in the range of about 1.5 to 2 million SHU. The mild Anaheim, Peppadew and Poblano peppers come in around 1,000 to 2,500 SHU, with most of the world’s other peppers measuring somewhere in between these two ranges.
There are more than 800 products entered into the Scovie Awards contest for 2014, with 161 of those hot sauces. “Everybody seems to make them, and they do it very well,” DeWitt says. “The criteria for judging are flavor, appearance, aroma and texture. The heat level just has to be appropriate. If something says it’s a hot sauce, it’s got to have some heat in it.”
Pete Burback of Cooks Corner in Green Bay, Wis. is one of the retailers riding that wave. He says Cooks Corner has always had some hot sauces in his store marketed mainly as impulse items to the tourists who come by busloads to spend the day in the nation’s largest kitchenware store. According to Burback, many decide at the cash register that they should probably take home a little something for the spouse who stayed home to change the oil in the car or watch a football game on television. For many of these shoppers, hot sauce perfectly fits the bill.
About three years ago, Burback called his distributor and asked what he would need to stock if Cooks Corner were to have the largest display of hot sauces in the state. “It was more of a gut feeling than anything else,” he says. In those days, a selection of 250 hot sauces was what Burback had to put on his shelves in order to have more sauces for retail sale than anyone else in Wisconsin. Today, Cooks Corner stocks more than 400 varieties. As a result of Burback’s efforts, hot sauce sales have been growing steadily for the store over the past three years. “We absolutely blow through hot sauce,” he says. “I was surprised at how many people collect them.”
Although Cooks Corner has the largest hot sauce shop in Wisconsin, its selection is dwarfed by the array offered by Peppers of Key West, located in Key West, Fla. Owner Pete Legrady sells 1,200 SKUs, of which about 900 are hot sauces. The clientele are mostly tourists coming off the cruise ships that call in at the island, as well as day-trippers from Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Legrady also has many customers who visit his online store at www.PeppersofKeyWest.com.
“Not everything we have in the store is hot. Just because something says ‘habañero’ on the label doesn’t mean it’s going to be hot,” says Legrady. Legrady bought Peppers of Key West six years ago after he fell in love with Key West and decided to leave the corporate rat race for a business he could be passionate about. About 100,000 people a year come into his store, where every product offered for sale has something to do with chile peppers, whether it is a rub or dry spice mix, a chile-seasoned jerky, a cookbook or a tea towel printed with an image of a chile pepper.
“People are getting more adventurous about enjoying spicy foods more. With the Baby Boomers, maybe their taste buds are dying, so they’re using hot sauce to put more flavor into the foods. With the younger generation, it can be an ego thing,” Legrady says. “There really is no specific demographic that hot sauce appeals to. It’s really all over the board.”
In addition to selling chile sauces made by others, Legrady also makes his own Peppers of Key West-branded sauces that are winning plaudits from hot sauce aficionados. These plaudits include seven awards for a Peppers of Key West Asian marinade, two for a chicken wing sauce and three for a very mild jerk sauce. Most of the company’s awards have come from both the Fiery Foods Show and Zest Fest.
“We have all kinds of variations of hot sauce from super mild to super hot,” Legrady says. “I enjoy it when people come in and say they don’t like hot sauce. We sit them down and get them tasting, and they find something they like. We can always match a flavor profile to a personal preference.”
Dave’s Gourmet makes sauces that cater to the hot sauce aficionados who love to feel the fire. “This is extreme heat, and that caught on right away,” says Dave Hirschkop, the “Dave” of Dave’s Gourmet. The very hot end of the chile sauce spectrum is just a small niche of the industry, but he thinks it is the most exciting. He finds that the super-hot sauces appeal to younger men, but there are no geographic boundaries to a taste for the fiery. “Places without a hot sauce tradition were a little slower to jump on, but they’ve caught up,” Hirschkop says. “There are people who can handle the heat and who can taste the flavor and appreciate it.”
Hirschkop, like many other hot sauce makers, is experimenting these days with some of the hottest peppers on the planet. “Super-hot is going to move forward from habañero to ghost pepper to scorpion, with a lot of debate about which is hottest,” he says. “That’s meaningful to people. It’s a point of interest.”
Johnny McLaughlin of Heartbreaking Dawns makes hot sauces for the segment of the market that is more interested in chile peppers for their flavor than their heat. McLaughlin launched Heartbreaking Dawns five years ago with three products after a year of researching and developing a business concept. When he started, he had been making hot sauces from his garden peppers and he knew about flavors and how to layer them. However, he did not have a point of reference for the direction that the hot sauce industry was taking at the time. Right away, he started creating sauces that were different from anything else on the market. His was the first company in the United States to use the Trinidad scorpion pepper in a commercially available sauce. Today, he sells his 1498 Trinidad Scorpion Sauce today for $7.95 a bottle, and he says it is not only a very popular sauce, but it is also his personal favorite.
“Scorpion is one of the hottest peppers in the world, but the first time I tasted it, it had such an earthy, floral note, and I wanted to pair that with a sweet note,” McLaughlin says. Today, McLaughlin’s sauces are drawing attention from food critics and have won a number of awards from various hot sauce shows. Cook’s Illustrated recently applauded the Heartbreaking Dawns Trinidad Scorpion Cauterizer Sauce for its exceptional combination of spectacular flavor with very high heat.
Heartbreaking Dawns’ Trinidad Scorpion Sauce incorporates a variety of sweet and spicy flavors for a sauce that illustrates McLaughlin’s aesthetic. The same can be said for another of McLaughlin’s creations, his Ghost Pepper Sauce. “It’s the hottest pepper out there, but there’s so much more to it than that,” he says of the Ghost Pepper Sauce. “Ghost pepper on its own, heat aside, has an exceptionally wonderful citrus burst. I paired it up with a very nice pear and apple with soy sauce and white pepper in the background. It delivers a strong and satisfying heat, but it’s by no means extreme, so it’s a very useable sauce.”
When McLaughlin brings his sauces to the Fancy Food Show next July, he will find Case Fischer of Fischer & Wieser there waiting for him with some new hot sauces that he currently has under development. Fischer & Wieser introduced its first pepper product to the market in 1988 with a jalapeño peach jelly. “I was experimenting with peppers in our jams and jellies,” Fischer recalls. “That was a real big hit because people put it on their pork chops.”
Fischer followed that product up with the Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce that Fischer & Weiser also brought out in 1988. That sauce is currently the company’s bestseller. “We focus on sauces, so that’s where we focus our pepper experiments, and we have really enjoyed coming out with some new and exciting products,” he says. “The pepper products that we come up with have got to have a lot of flavor with them, and it’s not all about the heat.”
In developing the products that he plans to bring to the 2014 Summer Fancy Food Show, Fischer has been intrigued by the peppers at the hot end of the Scoville scale, including the ghost pepper, the scorpion pepper and the Scotch Bonnet. Still, he continues to focus on flavor as opposed to just heat. “We’re also considering different fruits beyond the mango, the peach and the papaya,” he says. “We are so far beyond red pepper flakes and jalapeños that it’s not even funny. I think that’s exciting.”
Once Fischer & Wieser’s newest hot sauces are ready for the market, you are likely to find all of them and more in Rehoboth Beach, Del., at Chip Hearn’s Peppers.com, a seriously vertically integrated company. With a very large retail store in a resort area and a strong online retail shop, Peppers.com is a wholesaler of 3,000 different zesty items, 200 different peppers, Mama Vincente brand items and a line of private label sauces.
Hearn’s hot sauces range in price from $1.99 to $1,000 a bottle, with the average hot sauce selling for $5.99 to $7.99. Hearn got into the hot sauce business 30 years ago when he was looking to increase the breakfast check average in his family’s restaurants. He did that with the Bloody Mary Smorgasbord, in which he offered customers 200 different hot sauces to doctor their vodka and tomato juice. “Customers started asking for the bottles of the hot sauces, and then it became, ‘I’m going to carry a case of that back with me,’” he recalls. “We started with 200 sauces, and now it’s 3,000.”
One of his current bestsellers is Zing Zang, a Bloody Mary mix made in Chicago, a city where bartenders are known for putting their signatures on their Bloody Mary recipes. Hearn appreciates Zing Zang because it is a Bloody Mary mix that the average New Englander has not seen before. His customers are eager to buy it just to try it. “Zing Zang does not have to have anything else mixed in it, but you can grate some ginger on it or use some horseradish. When they get hooked on it, they have to come back to you because no one else is carrying it,” he says. “It’s spicy, it’s zesty, and it’s gone pretty fast, so they have to come back to the store.”