-Written by Mike from Rising Smoke Sauceworks in North Carolina
I grew up in a house divided. My father was a lover of spice, at least on his terms. Not too many meals went by without the bottle of Frank’s Red Hot or the jar of crushed red pepper making an appearance at the table. Beyond that, he would not tolerate any other flavors being introduced to his food, such as garlic or onion. My mother on the other hand loved to cook with garlic and onions, but did not care for the heat.
In our kitchen, there would often be two different versions of the same meal being prepared. As for me, I wanted the best of both worlds. When I was old enough to learn that there were options beyond what was available in my childhood refrigerator, my curiosity peaked. A chilehead was born.
A few years later, I started growing peppers in a window box outside my apartment and became amazed at the overwhelming variety of flavor that existed. Every growing season I would explore new varieties as well as adding the latest record breaker for the hottest pepper in the world. My exploration was limited only by the amount of window boxes I could fill.
When a new job opportunity offered my family the chance to relocate to North Carolina and leave behind the harsh climate of the northeast, little did I know, my fate was sealed.
The first thing I did once we purchased our home in NC was to put in a garden that would house more peppers than I could have handled in my earlier window box gardens. The second thing I did was to buy a smoker.
Now that I was a “southerner”, I had to learn how to smoke BBQ. It wasn’t long before I started combining my passions and marveling in the flavor profiles that I could achieve by smoking the peppers. At first I used the yield from my garden to spice up my meals with fresh flavor and whatever I couldn’t use I would either freeze or dehydrate and turn into powder. Then I decided to take a stab at making my own hot sauces.
Early on I was a bit of a mad scientist. In some ways I still am. I would experiment with all different types of recipes and flavor profiles and then I would take each of those and break them down into sub experiments tinkering with each ingredient amount. When I would have friends come over for a tasting party for feedback on my creations, they knew they were in for a long night. Things were still at the hobby stage for me at this point, but the feedback from friends and family was encouraging me to take the leap and see if my sauces were worthy of being sold to the public.
I have wanted to start my own business for as long as I can remember, but I must admit if I had attempted this venture fifteen, or even ten years ago, I would have had very little chance for success. I have been blessed to gain a lot of experience in managing a business and more importantly, managing projects, in my professional life. That experience helped me ensure I did the necessary research, understood all of the requirements, and knew exactly what I was getting into before making the leap.
I still have my day job today and have no illusions that this business is the path to riches and early retirement. This is my pursuit of a passion. It requires long nights, travelling and working weekends, personal sacrifices for my family and I, and yet we love every minute of it. My hope is only that it is successful enough, people enjoy my products, and my kids can learn all the different aspects of running a business.
There are certain things about this business that create such enjoyment for me that I probably would not have experienced had I chosen to start a company in any other field. First is the chilehead community. What an amazing group of people they are! Your age, race, religion, political affiliation, etc. do not matter when we start talking hot sauce. I have also met some incredible people in the industry that have helped guide my footsteps to avoid the mistakes that they made early on. There has been an overwhelming amount of support from fellow business owners.
The second part that I truly enjoy is the interaction with the customers. While working job one all week then setting up at festivals and working job two all weekend is exhausting, it flies by so quick. I love encountering people as they come up to our booth and sample our sauces, even pushing their own limits of heat consumption. My wife and I have such a good time meeting each of them and seeing the same faces pop up at later events, it has been such a blessing.
This industry has just exploded since I was young. Take a stroll down any aisle of your grocery store and tell me you can’t find something spicy. Spice consumption has evolved from hot sauce and spread into potato chips, cheese, deli meats, candy, you name it! The world is becoming spicier each and every day.
That is why I felt like we could take a chance entering the market. One would argue that there is so much competition out there, how can you expect to survive? I believe our success comes from converting customers that would not normally purchase hot sauce, rather than by poaching customers from another brand.
Our sauces truly focus on the flavor over the heat and we have something for everyone’s level of tolerance. We use all natural ingredients and no preservatives and all of our savory sauces utilize either smoked or roasted peppers. When someone comes up to us and says “I don’t do hot sauce,” but we encourage them to try some of our milder sauces and they end up loving them, what an amazing feeling that is. I like to think we are helping to grow the industry by converting people to chileheads one at a time.
While we are a very young company just beginning our journey, initial support and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We are starting to gain shelf space in a few stores and have been picked up by a few of the larger online hot sauce retailers. With our amazing customers and the truly outstanding support of my wife and children, I know nothing but bright days lie ahead. Stay tuned as we roll out a few versions of BBQ sauce as well as a new hot sauce later this summer.
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