Sudbury firm gets fired up about its hot sauces

By Bob Tremblay/Daily News staff

The MetroWest Daily News
Posted Feb 01, 2010 @ 12:22 AM

SUDBURY — There’s hot sauce and then there’s the 357 Mad Dog Hot Sauce, Silver Collector's Edition.

Created by David "Mad Dog" Ashley, the sauce lays claim to being the world’s hottest, boasting a tongue-singeing 750,000 Scoville heat units. These units indicate the amount of capsaicin present in a sauce with capsaicin being the heat-producing component in chili peppers.

For comparison’s sake, a typical tabasco sauce has between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville. During a hot wing eating contest at Jake’s Dixie Roadhouse in Waltham in October, Ashley unleashed a variety of his hot sauces on nine competitors. Contestants quickly dropped out as the sauces became hotter with each round. The final round showcased the Collector’s Edition and the eventual winner probably felt like she had lost as her face had "pain" etched on it in capital letters. Ashley takes all this in stride.

"I get paid to torture people for a living," says the hot sauce guru with a gleam in his eye. He started his company, Ashley Food Co. Inc., in his Brighton apartment in 1991. He now operates it out of his Sudbury home where he concocts his incendiary Mad Dog sauces and other products in his basement workshop.

The catalyst for the company, however, had nothing to do with hot sauces. "I’ve been eating natural foods since 1970 and I couldn’t find a decent natural barbecue sauce, one that had any flavor so I started tinkering in my kitchen around 1985 and made this sauce," Ashley recalls. "My friends loved it and they suggested I should market this. So I put it on the market and incorporated the company in 1991 on the same day the Gulf War started."

Ashley called his debut product Mad Dog Barbecue Sauce in honor of the "Mad Dog" nickname he received while working at Children’s Hospital in Boston. "They called a lot of people ‘Mad Dog,’ but I was one of the madder dogs," he says, adding that he has mellowed over the years.

"We originally tried three barbecue sauces - original hot, ultra-hot and mild Á but mild never did very well. I guess the name ‘Mad Dog’ and the word ‘mild’ don’t go together well."

While the barbecue sauce sold well and the company still sells it, the tomato-based product is expensive to produce due to the fluctuating prices of tomatoes and packaging costs. Producing hot sauces, on the other hand, where the main ingredient is a chili pepper, is less costly.

So, about three years after starting his company, Ashley introduced his first hot sauce - Liquid Fire, containing around 40,000 Scoville. "It did really well and the owner of Le Saucier in Quincy Market, Lisa Lamme, who was selling it at her store, kept urging me to make hotter and hotter sauces," says Ashley. "So I was fooling around with all kinds of recipes and started fooling around with pepper extract. Then I was half-asleep one night and I decided to use molasses as a base, providing something cool against the heat."

The result was Mad Dog Inferno, a hot sauce with almost 90,000 Scoville which Ashley brought in 1994 to the Fancy Food Show in New York where it was well-received. So well in fact that other companies started getting into the hot sauce business.

"Tim Eidson of Mo Hotta Mo Betta (a mail-order business specializing in hot and spicy food) was getting tired of everybody’s claims of having the world’s hottest sauce," says Ashley. "So he tested around 700 sauces using high-pressure liquid chromatography. It’s the most accurate way to test Scoville heat units.

"So Tim calls me up one day and says, ‘I have some pretty amazing news to tell you. Your sauce is hotter than anything we’ve sold worldwide. It’s so much hotter than anybody else’s on the market it’s ridiculous." At the time, the nearest competitor to Mad Dog Inferno was a sauce with a "paltry" 52,000 Scoville, according to Ashley.

Soon, the hot sauce war began heating up, so to speak. Unfortunately, Ashley got burned in the battle. The company which had manufactured his products was sold and the new owners wanted to help themselves to his accounts, including one that was earning Ashley about $250,000 a year, according to the chili pepper guru.

"They wanted to put me out of business," Ashley says. "I lost everything I had built up. I fought them off to stay in business, but I paid the price. Fortunately, I had a strong brand and I had killer lawyers. At that point in my business, they saved my derriere, no question about it."

When the matter was settled, Ashley ended up losing about $500,000. A pepper extract company he had partnered with also folded. "So I had to start over with much debt and with a much smaller business," says Ashley. "Then Joe Perry approached me about making a sauce for him." That would be Joe Perry, the Aerosmith guitarist who grew up in Hopedale. The result was Joe Perry’s Rock Your World Boneyard Brew Hot Sauce. Ashley also made a Mango-Peach Tango sauce for Perry.

"Then Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead contacted me," says Ashley. The result this time was a line of Weir wok sauces. "Michael Anthony (then the bassist of Van Halen) called me, but I had enough of rock stars by then," says Ashley. "He went with somebody from the West Coast. He’s a very nice guy and had been a fan of my barbecue sauce for a long time." Ashley then introduced his 357 lines of sauces. So named "because you’re looking down the barrel of a 357 gun when you’re eating it," he says. The company now makes 24 products, including such whimsically named hot sauces as Hemorrhoid Helper. It also sells pepper extract, a wing sauce, and a mustard sauce.

Since its start, the company has sold more than 2 million jars of sauces, according to Ashley. He credits the success of his company to "quality ingredients, great graphics on the packaging, good customer service, and stubbornness.

"I found early on if you don’t give the consumers what they want you’re not staying in business. I had some really heated arguments with magazine editors who were blatantly against super hot sauces, saying they were lame. But I’m giving the consumers what they want and this is what they want. I don’t try to judge what the products people want to buy are. I try to make them with quality, with safety and label them correctly so people know what they’re getting."

Ashley sells his products online on the company’s Web site, via 24 distributors nationwide and at specialty food stores such as Duck Soup in Sudbury. Prices range from $5 to $60.

"These sauces are great," says Duck Soup manager Pierre Weiss. "I sell a lot of them. They’re hot and have good flavor and the customers like them. The most popular are the Liquid Fire and new Ghost products."

And the attraction? "They taste good," says Weiss. "I have access to a lot of sauces, but Liquid Fire is the one I prefer because when I eat something I just like to put it over the food without thinking. Some of the hotter ones you have to be more careful or you pay the price and I don’t like to pay the price."

Ashley says the appeal of hot sauces is multifaceted. "First of all, they’re good for you," he says, noting that chilis have been linked to a variety of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol.

"Yes, and it’s part macho," Ashley continues. "It’s the same attraction to exercise. It gets the endorphins going. The sauce sends a message from your tongue to your brain saying, ‘Fire! Help! Painkillers immediately!’ "

For those seeking solace, milk works best while alcohol only makes matters worse.

Revenue was down 15 percent in 2009, according to Ashley. "Last year I had to deal with a trademark issue with my biggest distributor in Germany," he says. "They were using the Mad Dog name without permission. Take that away and I was up 20 percent."

On the patriotic front, the company has donated hot sauces to American troops in Afghanistan. For the record, Ashley doesn’t just concoct the sauces. "I’ve been eating peppers since I was 5," he says. "In Chicago, our downstairs neighbors were Mexicans and breakfast was hot tortillas with honey and butter with habanero peppers."

After graduating from the High School of Art and Design in New York, Ashley built up a resume that included working as a groundskeeper, studying macrobiotics, serving as general manager of an inn owned by Alice Brock - the Alice of "Alice’s Restaurant" fame - working as a courier on the 1978 movie "The Brink’s Job" and operating as a service technician for Led Zeppelin during the band’s 1972 American tour. "That was insane," he says of his month-long Zeppelin experience. "But it’s nothing you can print in a family paper. They treated me very well, but they were crazy.... I’ve never liked regular, straight jobs."

While a company in Florida manufactures his sauces, Ashley still creates all the recipes and uses only ingredients he’s approved. While the hot sauce market features about six major players, not all of them deserve to be in the majors, according to Ashley.

"There are two grades of pepper extract: there’s crap and there’s the stuff you should use, and 95 percent of what’s on the market today is crap," he says. "I use better pepper extract. The result is a better aftertaste, better color. And I use only natural sugars - no preservatives, no chemicals, no additives, no coloring.

"Probably the best compliment I ever received was at a Fiery Foods Show. Two guys from a chili farm - they grew 60 varieties of chilis - sampled one of my 357 sauces and they were bowled over. One said, ‘How the hell did you get something that’s this hot yet you can still taste the chili pepper?’ I try to make everything have good flavor. It should taste good and look good."

For the future, Ashley is working on creating medicinal extracts with one geared toward treating arthritis and another toward treating carpal tunnel syndrome. "If you’re going to spice up food, why not spice it up and do something good for your body, too," he says.

He’s also working on creating butter-flavored oils to brush on food.

"I actually started the company to be in the natural food business," says Ashley, "but I found out that business was an incredible grind. It’s very difficult to sell into the supply chain and deal with mainstream supermarkets. I’ve been very fortunate to find this niche market - really spicy stuff and good-flavored hot sauces - and grow a decent business."

And torture people in the process.

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