Project Hot Sauce story written by David Phillips
About 12 years ago I became interested in growing food for myself and my wife. I convinced our building manager in Bronxville, New York to let me install some raised beds in the outdoor common areas.After a few successful seasons growing vegetables, I saw that one of the crops that lingered into the Fall in the Northeast was chilies.
Having grown up in CA and traveled around the globe as a musician, I’ve always had a penchant for anything spicy so…I started making sauce from the different varieties of chilies I grew, making gifts for my friends and neighbors for the holidays. One sauce I remember from the early days was made out of lemon drop peppers which have a nice fruity character and a good medium level of heat. That batch was only a handful of bottles but it sure was fun to share as people told me they loved it.
The growing interest in sustainable agriculture and local food security
I enrolled in some sustainable ag courses at Westchester Community College. I learned more about soil science and how to grow nutrient dense food as well as how to try to help close the gap of food insecurity. I drew a one mile circle around my home and sadly, I found that there were families in every direction having a hard time putting healthy food on the table.
I decided to see if I could help with this problem and set out to build a giving garden in our town to support our neighbors. I put together a team of volunteer neighbors, enlisted the Mayor of Bronxville, found a vacant lot that would be the perfect site, and two years later,The Bronxville Giving Garden was born. At the BGG, we grow and donate vegetables to local food banks as well as teach local youth how to plant, grow and tend to their own gardens.
When the pandemic hit, the broadway show where I play bass, The Book of Mormon, shut down. So, I headed out to LA where my wife and puppy were at the time.
When I arrived, I quickly started doing research on the urban ag scene and thankfully found a great community of like minded people interested in sustainable agriculture and urban gardening. I began volunteering at local gardens and urban farms in the LA area. Simultaneously, a good friend and his family moved out to LA shortly after my arrival. One day I asked my friend Andrew if he wanted to try some of my hot sauce recipes. He replied with a resounding “yes!”. We made the first versions of our 4 main sauces that day and totally smoked out his family…oops!
What happened next was a bit of a lark. The few people we shared those beta sauces were like “hey this is really good”. We decided to look into what the steps were to start a company in Los Angeles. My friend and partner Andrew has a business degree so that made setting up our business easy. Finding our brand name? Not so much!
We spent countless hours searching domains to no avail. We would find a name we liked only to discover that it was already owned but not in use. What? Rascals! We ended up purchasing ProjectHotSauce.com from a guy in Poland….go figure.
In the meantime, we were refining our recipes and slowly scaling up...which, we are still doing.
One day I got a call from someone who needed help at a farm in Panorama City calledCottonwood Urban Farm. The owner, Elliot Kuhn, who has become a brother to me, asked if I could help him in his orchard sizing up his tree rings.
I ended up not only helping Elliot on his farm but also got to play a couple of outdoor concerts at the farm with a new Jazz band I formed called The Vaccines. Through Elliot, I met Alex Frecker, an organic farmer and mentor of Elliot’s.
As the summer waned and the growing season was ending, we asked Alex if we could go up to his farm and shoot some video footage for our upcoming Kickstarter campaign. When we arrived at the farm in Carpinteria, CA, after a stunning drive North, we were spellbound by the farm's placement in this beautiful valley. You could smell the sweet ocean breeze wafting through the rows of peppers, lettuce, kale and more.
Alex greeted us and gave us a tour which ended at several rows of Red Ember Cayenne peppers. We asked if we could do a short interview and he said, “sure”. Wow, we thought, this guy has the most generous spirit!
As we finished the interview and took a few stills of his beautiful farm he said, “Hey if you wanna pick some peppers today go for it….my wholesaler is stocked and the plants have reached their growth capacity.” “What”, I replied, “you mean right now?” “Sure, go for it. You’ll find some produce boxes over there”, he said and walked off to get back to working on his compost system.
That day we harvested 50-60 lbs of those beautiful peppers. We got back to the kitchen and I came up with a recipe for a Frecker signature sauce we called “Freckin’ Hot”. Two weeks later, we went back up to the farm and delivered the sauce to Alex, complete with its own label. Alex was floored by our dedication and gumption to throw down so quickly. The wheels in his entrepreneurial brain started turning and he agreed not only to grow all our produce for the coming year but to also sell our product at his stand in 13 weekly farmer’s markets.
With our partnership with Frecker Farm (a trusted source for high quality organic produce in the LA/Ventura county areas), our young company,Project Hot Sauce, is off to a promising start. We believe that this closed loop model of farm–>product–>farm stand is one that will be attractive to the consumer as they not only know where the sauce ingredients come from but also that the grower stands by the product enough to sell it himself. Our Kickstarter campaign was 284% funded and gave us the ability to launch our business, rent a commercial kitchen and pass our cannery license inspection. We could write a book about what that entails but it’s been a super fun challenge and experience.