My mother is South American and my father is from the Middle East, and dinner at our house while I was growing up often involved a number of table condiments both spicy and not. For example, my father introduced me to schug (pronounced “skoog”) at a young age, which is a thick paste of chili, cumin, thyme, sumac and olive oil that is often lightly smeared on bread and eaten with food at meals, and my mother introduced me to pebre, which is a tomato, chile and olive oil mixture that’s used as a condiment for various dishes, from grilled meat to bread. Those were my first connections to spicy food and are also most likely why I view our own sauces as condiments and complements to food more than anything else.
My first actual attempt at making a batch of hot sauce was when I tried to copy a sauce for a family recipe I had a lot while growing up, which was peri peri. Only I put my own spin on it – our family recipe used a lot of lemon in it and I wanted to see what happened if I took the lemon out, so I made it without lemon and it turned out better than expected. At least I thought so, though not many in my family agreed.
Beyond that, like a lot of sauce makers, I also attempted to make an assortment of sauces from the surplus of chilies that grew in our garden. At first I just stemmed and tossed everything into a blender with some vinegar until it was smooth. Certainly nothing nuanced but it was fun and had a freshness to it. From there, it became a game of ratios, cooking methods (roasting, drying, smoking, etc.) seeing what happened if I added more of this and less of that and so forth.
My wife and I love to grill and entertain and have always made sauces for the food we grill – kind of like the same way my parents did while I was growing up. Our guests, friends and neighbors always raved about our sauces when we had them over and some even asked us to make extra so they could use them at their own cookouts (as their own “special sauce,” if you will). When the requests started coming in more regularly, it seemed like a natural next step to see if we could make a business from it. Plus, we love cats and felt the “Foodie + Cat-Lover” demographic was an untapped market.
I think a lot of food producers start the same way – with a recipe and some good intentions. But from there you learn quickly that there’s a lot more to it when you take the next step and choose to become a company. You have to get the permits, licenses, insurances and whatnot and have the prototypes tested and learn about compliance and spend a little capital to get trademarks, process notes, shelf stability tests and the rest. That kind of opens your eyes as how things have to be done vs. what you originally thought and it changes your thinking some, I think. From that point, you kind of transform from a cook, if you will, into a sort of scientist and manufacturer.
So much of the food industry is performed through middlemen, so we don’t always know where our products end up. Because of that, we really love it when people tell us they found our sauces in some exotic location because otherwise I would have had no idea about it. For example, one person said they saw our stuff at a gift shop at the Grand Tetons National Park one day, that was pretty cool!
Hot sauce producers, more than anything else, are a pretty tight group as a whole. What’s unique about them is how supportive most of them tend to be, even though at heart they are competitors. Often you can reach out to one you’ve met in the past and ask him or her questions about sourcing or process questions or something like that and they’ll be straight up with you and tell you what you need to know. Also, after shows or festivals, they’re always eager to trade sauces or show off something they recently created and are proud of -- I haven’t seen that sort of connection with other food producers, who sometimes get standoffish or suspicious of your intentions when you chat with them.
Locally in Florida, you’ll find a large community of saucemakers, ranging from super small hobbyists to market guys to large scale supermarket companies and everything in between. The mix of cultures here, especially from the Caribbean, makes it a spicy food lovers haven really. We’ve been in business more than 10 years now and have met a lot of Florida saucemakers along the way and have even helped a number of them with startup questions, sourcing questions, shipping questions and such whenever asked. The notion is that they helped me when we were in that position so it’s our duty to do the same now that we have the experience to share.
It’s hard to think of eating without some sort of condiment or sauce to go with it, and we love to cook and to eat food that blends flavor and spice – it’s just another dimension of the eating experience, I think – so making hot sauce seems like a natural extension of that. Our sauces focus on that more than anything – complementing flavor and fire as opposed to just making something as hot as it can be and nothing else. We see a lot of people with the same mindset, looking to expand their flavor pallet, and hot sauce as a whole has become an entryway to do that -- you see a ton of craft sauce makers out there these days, some with some very unique and very delicious sauces, and I think that’s just going to continue in the coming years.
More than anything, make sure you are legal when you start. Get the permits, insurances and such and make sure you’re not using trademarked materials in your marketing. It takes money and effort to start a company and I’ve seen too many people try to shortcut the process and get burned in the end because of it.
Also don’t be afraid to make phone calls and make mistakes. Food as a whole is a slow moving industry so be patient, make calls, ask questions, get answers and know that you’ll make mistakes along the way. For many, this type of industry will be a new experience and there isn’t really a handbook to follow, so know that going in.
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Cottage Lane Kitchen was founded by me in 2010, and it isn't only my business name, but also refers to a secret lane in Chapel Hill, NC where our family homestead was built in the 1950s. Four generations of my family have cooked and preserved spicy peppers out of love and tradition in that kitchen.
The last homemade batch of my family's spicy pepper relish was made by my Grandfather in the early 1990s. He grew chilies around the outside of the house and harvested and pickled them during my summer visits. I remember him watering the empty tin cans he buried beside each pepper plant.
Normally the Craft Hot Sauce Podcast interviews hot sauce makers all over the world. This episode is more of a riff from Brian the host about some of the things his hot sauce company Craic Sauce got up this summer.