It All Began In The Kitchen
From my own kitchen to the world: How I grew Mad Dog 357 into one of the hottest brands around
When you choose a bottle of hot sauce, you’re looking for something that not only tastes great, but also adds a bit of a kick. Sure, there are all kinds of commercially produced brands out there, but when I first started making Mad Dog 357 it wasn’t because I wanted to replicate something already on the market. I wanted to make the perfect hot sauce. For me, that meant using natural ingredients, but also crafting something that tasted great and gave people something unexpected to look forward to.
Creating Mad Dog 357
These days, Ashley Food Company makes some of the hottest products on the planet. Not only are Mad Dog 357 hot sauces and pepper products extremely popular, but they’re also packed with some of the world’s hottest peppers. The original Mad Dog 357 hot sauce contains 357,000 SHU. To put it in perspective, that’s extremely hot! To reach such a fiery level on the heat scale, we combined cayenne peppers, habanero peppers, and pepper extract into one extremely hot sauce. We’ve also added some other combinations over the years too, like Mad Dog 357 Silver Edition Hot Sauce, Mad Dog 357 Ghost Hot Sauce, and Mad Dog 357 Reaper Sriracha Hot Sauce.
We really took it to the extreme with Mad Dog 357 Gold Edition Hot Sauce. We combined Carolina Reapers, Scorpion and Ghost Peppers, then added plutonium. Mad Dog 357 Gold Edition Hot Sauce has a whopping one million SHU and is packed with nine million Scoville Plutonium Extract. Our Mad Dog 357 Plutonium No 9 itself is nine million Scoville and one of the purest and hottest pepper extracts on the planet! Just one bottle uses 1,000 ounces of raw peppers.
In addition, we now sell pepper pods, and for those who really like to take it to the extreme no matter where they go, there’s our Mad Dog 357 Pain on a Chain. Whether you’re in search of hot sauce or pepper extracts, pepper powder or pepper purees, Mad Dog 357 specializes in some of the hottest hot sauces and pepper products around.
In recent years, some of our favorite flavors and combinations have picked up countless awards. Cook’s Illustrated once deemed Mad Dog BBQ Sauce the “Original Best in USA”. In the early 2000s, Southern Living called Mad Dog the “Best Bottled BBQ Sauce” they’d ever tried. One of our most popular flavors, Mad Dog Inferno Hot Sauce, was the very first hot sauce to ever be named the World’s Hottest Sauce and Mad Cat Hot Sauce took first place in the category Habanero Hot Sauce during Fiery Foods & Barbecue Magazine’s Scovie Awards.
For me, starting Ashley Food Company and making Mad Dog 357 hot sauce wasn’t just another business venture. Making a hot sauce I knew I’d enjoy, and my friends would enjoy too, is something that grew into a real passion that’s only increased over the years. Hot sauce is something I’ve been perfecting for nearly 40 years. But the truth is, I learned some of the keys to success well before I first started experimenting with new hot sauce flavors.
In the beginning…
Sure, Mad Dog 357 may be well known among hot sauce aficionados today, but it took a lot of hard work to get where we are. I credit some of the success of Ashley Food Company to a job I first took around the mid 1970s. That’s when I started working as General Manager of Alice’s Restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The town is hardly what you’d call large. There’s only about 2,000 people in the entire town today, but I managed more than 90 people as General Manager of Alice’s. It was there I learned how to multi-task and, perhaps more importantly, to always use high-quality ingredients. That’s something that’s stuck with me in the years since.
Flashforward about a decade and I started experimenting with my own version of the perfect barbeque sauce at home. I didn’t have a big factory, so instead, I founded what turned into Ashley Food Company out of my own Brighton, Massachusetts kitchen. About five years in, I was so busy filling Mad Dog orders for my friends that my wife gave me a little friendly encouragement to move operations out of our tiny kitchen and into commercial production. In the quest for the perfect barbeque sauce, Ashley Food Company was officially born. I started a new business with credit cards, hard work and the desire to bring something to the market that I was sure other hot sauce lovers would enjoy.
The challenges along the way
Of course, there were some challenges along the way. When I first started out, I still had another job. My wife and I did a lot of press and gave out a lot of samples for the first few years, including probably about 70 shows and demos a year. Looking back, you’d probably never be able to start out the way I did all those years ago. The FDA has new rules, too. You now need to have a food lab and you must track all the ingredients from the point you first receive them to the point they go into a product. That takes more time.
The last couple of years have also brought about some other challenges for all of us. Certainly, a lot of businesses are dealing with supply chain issues right now, as well as increased freight costs and other increased costs. Just since last year extracts have seen a price jump of 50-100%. We can’t control things like this, but like other businesses out there, we figure out how to make it work.
There are other challenges that are directly tied to things like the weather, which we obviously can’t control. Because of the business we’re in, we rely on quality peppers. In 2013, we worked with UMASS Amherst to grow some of the best seeds from Trinidad. From our test crop, we yielded around 2,500 pounds of Trinidad Moruga Scorpion peppers, which we used to make Mad Dog 357 Scorpion Pepper Hot Sauce. Up until a couple of years ago, we used JP Bartlett Co in Sudbury. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t always want to cooperate. In seven years of growing peppers, I still remember a frost one year that almost wiped out our crop.
We’ve learned a lot over the years, though. We’ve grown peppers locally and in Las Cruces, New Mexico. In fact, at one point we used the same seed stock in both locations, but when we dried and tested them, the Massachusetts peppers tested 50% hotter than the peppers grown in New Mexico. Perhaps the cold nights and warm days ended up stressing the northern peppers, creating an even hotter pepper. To prove it, in our last year of growing in Sudbury, we almost beat the true heat record at my testing lab. The good news is, we now have enough peppers in the freezer to last for years to come, and we use an overseas source, too. As the company grew, I never lost sight of what made Mad Dog such a success in the beginning. That’s why, even today, we rely on the best ingredients.
For years, we sold large pallets to distributors, but about 26 years into the process, we became a retail company. Now, we have three web stores, we sell on Amazon and we’re selling to the EU. Whereas just five years ago only about 10% of our business was retail, it’s now 70% retail and the rest wholesale. We deal directly with plants in India, and we sell to manufacturers and restaurants. It seems like we’re now getting inquiries for large orders all the time. We’ve even been supplying large bird seed companies.
Ashley Food Company is one of a kind, and I’ve been fortunate to meet a few famous faces and make some great connections over the years, especially those in the Rock and Roll biz. I’ve had business partnerships with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. Perry approached me a while back to create a new sauce. We called it Joe Perry’s Rock Your World Boneyard Brew Hot Sauce. I also partnered with Weir and his line of Wok Sauces.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of my Mad Dog products appear on national television, too. You may have seen a glimpse or two on shows like “Everyone Loves Raymond”, “The Drew Carey Show”, “King of Queens” and “Friends”. On “Friends” alone we were featured on more than 30 episodes. Next time it comes on, watch for a scene in Chandler’s office. That’s my favorite because we had three bottles of my hot sauce out on the set.
We’ve also been shown in the past on “The Today Show”, “Regis & Kathie Lee”, and in such publications and magazines as The Wall Street Journal, Cook’s Illustrated, Southern Living and Playboy, as well as some closer to home, like the Boston Globe. More recently, Mad Dog 357 was featured in several episodes of YouTube’s “Hot Ones”, where celebrities challenge themselves to answer questions while sampling hotter and hotter chicken wings. At last count, all the fan videos on YouTube and elsewhere have topped at least 200 million views!
My advice to other entrepreneurs
When it comes to starting your own business, I’ve learned a few things over the years. I think probably my biggest recommendation has to do with costing out your product. When most people think about starting up a business, they don’t include things like overhead or their own labor. You need money to make it work, but don’t always just listen to the experts either. My advice is to really believe in your own product. It took me awhile to figure it all out, but I’d probably say don’t try and give customers what YOU think they want. You need to give customers what THEY want.
I started Ashley Food Company as a business, but since then I’ve also figured out you need to do some other things to get your product noticed. For example, to get people to come to your website, you need to either learn about SEO or hire someone who does. You also need to be willing to go the extra mile. Sometimes it takes multiple phone calls and multiple letters just to get a new account. If you’re going to make it, you need thick skin.
I had my wife’s help and support from the beginning, and my son has also helped the business through the years. Ashley Food Company may have started off small in my kitchen, but it’s really grown into something unique and special. Of course, we’re still tied to Massachusetts, but I’m now able to share our products all over the world.