When you're hot, you're hot
Boston Globe August 10, 2008
By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
Walk beyond the computers and fax machines in the Sudbury office of David Ashley and you'll find a rudimentary science lab. Turmeric, clove, beer buds, Serrano pepper powder, and extracts such as natural butter and mango fill the shelves of an old metal cabinet. Thirteen glass bottles in varying shades of orange are lined up across a tabletop, the result of gastronomic tinkering that may soon wind up on supermarket shelves across the nation.
Ashley, founder and chief alchemist for the Ashley Food Co., has been creating barbecue and hot sauces for nearly two decades. The 57-year-old has 21 products under his name, produces sauces for 12 other companies, and has sold 1.2 million bottles of one concoction or another.
"I started tinkering with sauces in 1985 in my Brighton apartment," said Ashley. "All of my friends told me that I should bottle and sell it." After six years of cooking gallons of sauces and pouring them into fruit-juice jars, he decided to take the plunge, incorporate, and find professional space.
Some of his sauces have taken weeks to perfect, he said, and others are created entirely in his head. "I once had a dream to make a molasses-based hot sauce, which I don't think anyone had ever done at the time," said Ashley. "It was both cool yet extremely hot, and had nice textures."
His first business break came from a woman working at Le Saucier, a gourmet shop in Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, who urged him to make a hot sauce for the store. He named it "Mad Dog Inferno Hot Sauce".
While working on another sauce that he named Inferno, Ashley traversed Greater Boston searching for herbs and spices until he found the perfect clove powder at an Indian market in Central Square in Cambridge. He took his creation to the Fancy Food Show, which is put on by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, and signed a deal with a restaurant owner who had an enormous Bloody Mary bar that offered 200 varieties of hot sauces. The restaurant's owner, Chip Hearne, went on to start Peppers.com, and is one of Ashley's biggest customers, selling hot sauce via the Internet to 35 countries around the world.
In 1995, Ashley's Inferno was declared the hottest hot sauce on the market, based on the findings of a professional taster. Ashley's racked up 89,566 Scoville heat units, a system developed in 1912 for grading the pungency of chili peppers. Charlie Schandelmayer, owner of Sauce Crafters Inc. in Florida, who bottles Ashley's sauces, said the plant's atmosphere can get rather spicy.
"You're talking about producing sauces that in many cases are hotter than a can of defense spray," said Schandelmayer. "When you start to mix the sauce in the beginning of the day it kicks little micros into the air and becomes like pepper spray in the plant; the UPS guy will walk in at 10 a.m. to make a delivery and start coughing and choking."
Ashley said one of his favorite sauces is Green Amigo, which has fresh jalapeños, onions, garlic, and fresh cilantro and lime juice. His sauces range in price from $5 to $45; the top price will buy a 1.7-ounce bottle of 357 Mad Dog Pepper Extract.
One of Ashley's more memorable business moments involved the time he ordered key chains with a metal bullet to hang from the neck of his "357 Magnum" bottles, and learned, after delivery, that the bullet opened up to reveal a cocaine spoon. Stuck with many cases of nonrefundable key chains, Ashley hit upon the idea of marketing the sauce as the only one to come with its own tasting spoon.
"Lo and behold, it became a cult thing," said Ashley. "The Germans in Europe love this product." But he also received calls from his distributors saying that some customers had been arrested for selling drug paraphernalia. His 357 Mad Dog Silver Edition sauce is now one of the hottest in the world, boasting 750,000 Scoville units.
Ashley grew up on the south side of Chicago, the son of social activists who, Ashley said, were both jailed in the 1940s for defending civil rights. "At 7 days old I took part in my first peace march called 'Ban the Bomb' with the Committee for Non-Violent Action," said Ashley.
The family moved into a tiny apartment in New York City so Ashley could attend P.S. 6, known as one of the best public schools. "I could never read out loud, and didn't like to speak in public," said Ashley, who struggled with dyslexia. "I barely got out of high school and it was torture."
He attended the High School for Art and Design in Manhattan, and worked in an art supply store and did their window designs before moving to California. In line to be drafted for the Vietnam War, he was given conscientious objector status, and moved to Boston to fulfill his alternative-service requirement, working at Children's Hospital as a groundskeeper.
He also studied macrobiotics, was a caretaker for a home in the Berkshires, and bought and sold phased-out stereo equipment. While in the Berkshires, a friend suggested that he go see Alice Brock, owner of Alice's Restaurant in Stockbridge (made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song) to sell her a stereo. He did, and wound up living with her and managing the restaurant for a little under a year. When the couple split up he moved back to New York and took a number of odd jobs, including as a drum roadie for Kool and the Gang.
After numerous other jobs in the music business, Ashley went back to his job at Children's and began mixing his sauces on the side.
"David is the sultan of hot sauce," said Christopher McCarthy, a senior vice president for State Street Investors who also runs websites selling hot sauces. He credits Ashley with jump-starting his business and teaching him the ropes.
"There's no holding back with David. He'll show you everything you want to see."
For more on Ashley's sauces, visit ashleyfoods.com.
To suggest a subject for the People column, e-mail Lebovits@globe.com.
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