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An Interview with CaJohn Hard, Cajohns Fiery Foods

For how long have you been making hot sauce?

I started making hot sauce in 1998. I was using two co-packers at the time, one in Louisville, Kentucky and Jim Campbell of Mild to Wild Pepper & Herb Company in the Indianapolis area. Before that, I had an online store that sold other peoples products. After a not so successful first year, I decided that if I was ever going to get anywhere with my business, I would need to have my own labels. I first private labeled some sauces I really liked, but felt guilty about calling them my own. That is when I started developing my own recipes in the summer of 1998. The growth we experienced those first few years was overwhelming the time I was allotted by my co-packers, so I built my kitchen in the first months of 2002 and produced my first batch of product in late June of that year.

What are your most popular products?

I have quite a few products in different categories that do really well. Holy Jolokia is my best selling hot sauce. I can credit my association with the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University for a lot of this success. Our best selling salsa is my Black Bean & Corn Mild. The Apple Smoked Chipotle Bourbon BBQ sauce leads in the barbeque category, and Chop House in the spices. We have quite a following in Europe for our Vicious Viper hot sauce and the extract sauces do very well here in the US as well. I really don’t like extract, but those sauces are a big part of my sales.

How did you get started making hot sauce?

I traveled a lot in my former career in Fire Protection. Growing up in Ohio there was not much spicy in my Mom & Dad’s pantry. It was during those travels that I acquired a taste for the hotter cuisine. I would gather up a few sauces and bring them home. I began to look for the more unusual blends and began to wonder if I could “deconstruct” them and duplicate the recipes. My Mom was a great cook and instilled me with a love for cooking. I also worked in a restaurant when I was in college, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to duplicate/fabricate my own sauces. I had contacted several contract packagers at the food shows where we would exhibit, our fire suppression systems and they scared me with the minimums they required. It all changed when I went to the Fiery Food Show in Albuquerque in 1997. I met the small batch co-packers that I spoke of earlier. They convinced me I could give it a shot. The biggest step was my own production facility, it gave me the place and the time to play. My product offerings took off the latter part of 2002. Not necessarily a good thing!

When did you go commercial?

In 1998, I had a local food critic cover our little operation and thankfully that Thursday was a slow day on the restaurant news scene for Columbus. We had a prominent position in the article, and two photos of us and our products published. The Frigidaire Corporation had their home office in the Columbus are at that time. One of their National Sales Managers saw the article and approached us about making a premium gift pack for their customers who bought a range. We closed that deal and our packs were sent all over the country. We provided the fulfillment and were allowed to put a catalog in each pack. This gave us the exposure and the mailing list we needed to head into the Big Time! It was truly a fantastic break for us and increased our annual sales tenfold!

How many bottles of hot sauce do you produce a year? 

Around 300,000 at this point in hot sauce alone. Salsa, spices and barbeque sauce put us in the 500,000 range. This includes the work we do for private label and contract sales as well.

Do you have a preferred chili pepper as an ingredient? 

Not really, I prefer working with the chiles in the upper ranges of the heat scale. One of my biggest gripes from Corporate America producers is what they label as HOT! I like to say that when we say HOT, we mean HOT! Our tagline from the very beginning was “Flavor with Fire”. The number one thing I hear from the consumers is that they want flavor. It is a challenge I take very seriously. Habaneros do taste good! Fataliis taste good! Bhut Jolokias taste good! Lets keep their heat, but temper it with other flavors. I surprise a lot of people when I tell them what my favorite pods are. Jalapeños & serranos. I think it goes back to my first days of heat, that’s what I could find readily available. I love the hotter varieties, but these are my old stand-bys.

Aside from chili peppers, what do you feel is the key ingredient(s) in making the perfect hot sauce? 

That is a great question. Justin Wilson was one of my early heroes, and he always said “take away my onion and garlic, and I can’t cook!” I am in full agreement. The pungent flavors actually meld VERY nicely together and produce an exquisite taste. The next requirement is a citrus element. It works with the taste buds and allows all the wonderful things to happen in your mouth. Most of all, you need good quality chiles to make a tasty sauce. Go very easy on the salt!

Is there a special process you follow in making your hot sauces? 

We prefer to buy fresh chiles and work from there. I am a huge fan of the fresh chile taste. I don’t like the salty & fermented taste of prepared mashes. So we grind our own and put them up in vinegar. It is very easy to tell a sauce that has been made from a salty, fermented mash. I believe this is what is responsible for most people saying that they don’t like the vinegary taste of sauces. Vinegar is there to act as a preservative. Some sauces say they use acetic acid, they have a huge following of consumers who want this instead of vinegar. I usually tell folks to “google” acetic acid, and then tell me what you think.

There is a new wave in the industry today that use citrus juices to achieve the initial pH required for preservation. The problem with these sauces is they lose their ability to stay stable over time. It’s great for the flavor, but weakens in the long run and can contribute to the sauce losing its viability.

Do you follow a particular philosophy to making hot sauces? 

It is a cliché, but less is more. I know makers who use as many as 30 ingredients in a single sauce. So many of these tend to work against one another to flatten the taste, or they just overpower each other. I want the chile/chiles to speak for themselves. That is another problem, when people use many similar chiles to make a “five pepper blend” or something of that ilk, they need to make sure they use chiles that compliment one another in the final product. Many times these type of sauces taste like a gruel of chile flavor. They should taste like a gumbo where each individual ingredient adds to the overall flavor.

Do you have any other favorite spicy foods? 

Oh yes, I am a fan of many cuisines. The meat and potatoes of my youth opened up to the many wonderful styles of cooking around the world. So many major styles are refined in regional interpretations of the cuisine. They are all worth a taste, and it is interesting to me to research the underlying reasons for the differences. Tell me it’s spicy and I’ll certainly give it a try!

Do you have any advice for would-be hot sauce makers making sauces at home? 

Stay true to your dream, and carry that to its fruition. So many people vary their style according to something else someone else does. If you have something you believe in, ride that horse! Don’t put your faith in someone else, you are your own best advocate. You will know if people like it or not. Most of all, play by the rules that the government agencies put out! Recalls are embarrassing and expensive. One recall could end a budding career. In all of the states I am familiar with, you cannot make it in your home kitchen and sell it to the general public. Seek assistance from a professional. Cornell University has a great resource in its Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship. You can find them online and they have a free download of a technical guide that will lead you through the whole process of bringing a food product to market.

Do you have any basic/favorite hot sauce recipes to share?

One of my all time favorites, Chile Tamulado:

  • 10-12 habaneros, fire roasted until charred and skins removed
  • ¼ cup of sour orange juice (from Seville oranges) you can substitute 2 parts lime juice ,1 part each of orange juice and grapefruit juice
  • Pinch of coarse sea salt

The Yucatan people would grind this in a Tamul, Mayan for Mortar and Pestle, but you can do this in a blender. Place all ingredients in a blender, cover with the lid, and grind until liquefied. Place in a dish, cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature. This is AWESOME! If you want to leave a bit of the charred skin on the chiles, it adds a rustic goodness to the sauce. If you have a mortar and pestle, use it. I prefer it a little more coarse than a blender will make it.

Imagine this sad reality: If you could have only one chili pepper the rest of your life, which would you choose? 

Red Habanero, I have become very adept at holding the heat back and I can let it shine if I want the fire. It can easily be tamed, but you can’t kick up the heat of the jals or serranos to this level. Plus there’s that wonderful fruitiness…

If your life could be turned into a movie, who would you like to have play YOU on the big screen? What might the movie TITLE be?

That’s an intriguing question. The title is pretty easy - ” A Different Kind of Fire”. Woody Harrelson would be a good choice. The man can be laid back and intense at the same time. That is kind of how I envision myself these days. Plus his hairline matches mine!

Any other parting thoughts? 

This is a tough business, tougher today than it was 14 years ago. I have seen many good friends and good products fade away in that amount of time. There are no “Overnight Hits” and there will never be the “Next Tabasco”. The number one thing all sauce/salsa makers should realize is that we deal with a very passionate, informed group of consumers (Chileheads). Truth is of the utmost importance! Not only in what we say, but in the products we make. They are constantly on the lookout for something to feed their passion, and they expect us to deliver what we are promising. Don’t expect everyone to buy into your vision, and don’t try to overstate your abilities. I was a Chilehead long before I was a producer, try to find the niche that is either under-satisfied, or better yet, create one of your own. That has been the framework of my success. Never lose your fire for what you do! I love what I do.

Learn More About or Contact CaJohn's Fiery Foods:

Address:816 Green Crest Drive, Westerville, Ohio, 43081

"Stop by and visit, call me or drop me a note anytime!"

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