Wall Street Journal, Monday, May 15, 2000
In the Hot-Sauce Biz, When You’re Hot, It May Not Be Enough
Dave and Cathy Lutes Go Past Tabasco to Insane; At the Fiery Food Show
Dave Lutes sells about 8,000 cases of ultra-hot hot sauce a year.
The last time he tried some of it himself was three years ago, on a tortilla chip in Albuquerque. “I almost went down,” Mr. Lutes says, recalling the fit of wheezing, tearing and hiccuping the stuff caused.
That’s because “hot” doesn’t quite describe the latest hot sauces. Things have gone way beyond Tabasco, the Louisiana red-pepper standby, as hot-sauce makers escalate the most absurd arms race in the history of condiments. Even the sauce makers admit it’s hard for anybody to make fine distinctions between products that are so much hotter than hot. And is something truly palatable when it is as potent as the pepper spray used for self-defense?
The quest makes business sense: Every day, all across the country, macho guys walk into little stores that specialize in hot sauce, puff themselves up and ask: “What’s the hottest thing you got?”
The little stores get their products from purveyors like Mr. Lutes (pronounced “Loots”), a burly 49-year old who runs Hot Shots with his wife, Cathy, 50, from an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in Charlotte, N.C. The Lutes don’t make the hot sauce; they distribute it. Cathy Lutes, a former high-school teacher, has also sworn off the ultrahot. “You see what it does even when it gets on your skin,” she says. (It burns.) The Lutes also sell a fire extinguisher -- in the form of BurnAway, spray bottles of hot-sauce antidote (soaps and oils) to spray on the affected skin.
And the Luteses ask customers to sign optional disclaimers before buying certain brands, particularly Dave’s Insanity Private Reserve and Pure Cap, which are among the hottest of the hot. It’s a “food additive,” the disclaimer warns. Don’t drink the stuff or you’ll regret it.
Or worse. The hottest hots, stuff like Blair’s 3 a.m. Reserve, could kill you, says Marlin Bensinger, a chemical engineer at Chromtec in North Palm Beach, Fla., who tests pepper extract -- a resin of capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot and gives some of the ultrahots their kick. (It’s also used in repellents that halt charging grizzly bears.) Mr. Bensinger fears that somebody might swill ultrahot pepper sauce on a dare, get it into his lungs and go into respiratory arrest.
Consumers, meanwhile, still clamor for the hottest. So the Luteses’ suppliers -- manufacturers of such brands as Ground Zero, Cyanide D.O.A., and Sudden Death -- vie for the honor. To stay on the cutting edge, the Luteses rely on friends, including Grant Lane, 39, who runs PyroPepper.com from his house on Lake Lure in the North Carolina mountains. “It has to do with taste buds,” he says.
Mr. Lane dabs toothpick samples onto his tongue. A half-second later the grenade goes off in his mouth. “I enjoy it, and I crave it,” he says. When he makes spaghetti sauce, he has to cook up a milder batch for his wife.
The Lutes also take to the road to gather intelligence, as they did in March at the annual Fiery Foods trade show in Nevada. There, at the Reno Hilton, hot-sauce maker Paul Feagan presents Mr. Lutes with a 4-inch-tall bottle of his latest concoction, Da’Bomb…The Final Answer. It’s got a drawing of flaming A-bomb super-imposed on a background of skulls and cross-bones. Da’ Bomb claims to be the hottest sauce ever, scoring 1.5 million “Scovilles.”
Wilbur Scoville invented the heat gauge in 1912. His method was to ask a five-person tasting panel to see how much sugar water it took to eliminate the hotness of a pepper. On this scale, it would require 1,981 gallons of sweetened water to neutralize a teaspoon of Da’ Bomb. High-pressure liquid chromatography, or HPLC, is a more modern, albeit expensive, way to accomplish the same objective. But as in DNA testing, results are usually challenged if they don’t go your way.
Mr. Lutes looks at Da’ Bomb and eventually carries it over to a booth occupied by the legendary Dave Hirschkop, the 32-year-old, baby-faced granddaddy of ultra-hot sauces. “Still the HOTTEST. Still the Best,” proclaims a sign at his booth. “Shake Well and Good Luck!” the labels add. Mr. Hirschkop’s Insanity Sauce is the Luteses’ No. 1 seller. The two men stand on either side of a counter, exchanging pleasantries. Mr. Lutes suddenly rolls Da’ Bomb toward his good friend.
Mr. Hirschkop picks it up, with utter disdain. “Ffffumphhhh,” he says.
“Says it’s 1.5 million Scovilles.”
“Send it to a lab,” Mr. Hirschkop says. “Let’s see.”
Mr. Lutes himself is concerned about Da’ Bomb’s awesome retail price--$40 for one little bottle. Most of the sauces he carries retail for less than $10. But he tries never to underestimate the consumer appeal of combustibility--something that was hammered home to him seven years ago by a cop.
At the time, Mr. Lutes was starting up Hot Shots, having spent years in the restaurant supply business. He had just pitched some Insanity Sauce to a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta. The owners had insisted everyone share a fingertip taste. Mr. Lutes joined in this camaraderie to seal the deal. But while driving home, he rubbed his right eye, and the tears started streaming down his face. He pulled his car off the road and flushed his burning eye with water. He remembers the incident so well, he says, because he had to explain it to the policeman who stopped to check on him.
The cop said he was from Texas and could handle anything. He stuck out his finger. Mr. Lutes poured on some hot sauce. The cop gave it a lick and started dancing and twitching in a fairly dramatic demonstration of acute discomfort. When the pain subsided, he bought the last three bottles Mr. Lutes had on him.
Ultrahot is a small niche of the $500 million-a-year salsa and hot-sauce market. And the Luteses was in the right place at the right time in the early ‘90s when hot-sauce sales took off. The mainstream suppliers were doing well, too, led by Tabasco sauce, made by McIlhenny Co. of Avery Island, La. The company today claims to have a 30% share in supermarkets and more than 50% in the whole “food service” category, which includes restaurants. Paul C.P. McIlhenny, the company’s current president and chief executive calls the hottest upstart superhots “the lunatic-fringe labels.”
As the Luteses’ business grew, they added hundreds of sauces in their lineup, many with wacky labels such as LiquidStupid, PMS in a Bottle and Pain Is Good. To get the stuff hotter than a habanero pepper, some sauce makers started to add distilled pepper extracts. And the boasts broke out like the sweat from a jalapeno.
By 1998, hot-sauce middleman Tim Eidson had had enough. From his Mo’ Hotta-Mo’ Betta office in San Luis Obispo, Calif., he sent 120 hot sauces out for the HPLC testing, which can cost $60 a bottle and gets results that are reported in Scoville units. Even as Mo’ Hotta published its findings (the winner was Mad Dog Inferno,) the race toward mutually assured destruction grew hotter, eventually passing 100-times Tabasco on the Scoville scale.
Labeling and memorable names are important, even with the fairly hots, which make up about 35% to 40% of the Luteses’ business. “We can send you some Screaming Sphincter inventory if you need it,” Mr. Lutes tells a couple he runs into in Reno. Andrew Przlomski, an urgent-care physician from Manitowish Waters, Wis., and his wife, Pepper Przlomski, own two locations of Doc’s Hot Shop. Customers arrive by pontoon boats in the summer, snowmobiles in the winter. “Biggest hot shops in Wisconsin,” Pepper Przlomski says.
“Chef Ivo. He killed me,” Dr. Przlomski says, explaining a recent tasting.
“They get you pretty good?” Mr. Lutes asks.
“Yeah, he nooked me.”
Still, in Reno, it’s time to go see Chef Ivo Puidak of the Galena Canning Co. of Chicago, which makes salsas and hot sauces, among other things.
“I got some people telling me about your Blasting Sauce,” Mr. Lutes tells him. The two start putting together a deal. Mr. Lutes orders a bunch of cases of Blasting Sauce, and Chef Ivo tosses in some dynamite blasting displays.
Chef Ivo also sells Mr. Lutes on still other combustible comestibles, including Blasting Powder, a barbecue meat rub, and some fiery salsas and jellies.