An Interview with Alex Deighton and Janet Lee of Toluca Gourmet Hot Sauce
For how long have you been making hot sauce?
Well, all three partners have been cooking with chili peppers since we were kids. The first seeds for the company were sewn over dinner in 2002. But as with most startups we went down a couple of dead ends to get to where we are now.
What are your most popular products?
AD: We currently have two premium hot sauce products - Toluca Gourmet Salsa Casera Habanero and Toluca Gourmet Salsa Casera Jalapeño. We have a running bet as to which one is going to be the most popular. Overall it’s probably been the Habanero that has sold the most but the Jalapeño is rapidly gaining ground.
JL: My bet is on our Salsa Casera Jalapeño!
How did you get started making hot sauce?
The three partners were sitting over dinner in a restaurant and we wanted to add some hot sauce to our food. What we wanted was something fresh tasting that would complement our food. Instead, the waitress brought a bottle of something that tasted somewhere between lighter fluid and a melted car tire. We looked at each other and thought, “there has to be room in the market for a hot sauce that tastes like fresh peppers.”
When did you go commercial?
JL: We sold our first bottle about 3 years ago. I marked the date in my calendar!
AD: I remember selling the first bottle. We were having lunch next to a shop that sells hot sauce. We walked in and asked if they wanted to buy some. They ordered a couple of cases on the spot.
How many bottles of hot sauce do you produce a year?
AD: I can’t give you an exact number but we custom make and print our bottles in China. And among the stores we supply are Walmart Supercenters in the southern states from coast to coast. So that will give you a rough idea.
Do you have a preferred chili pepper as an ingredient?
AD: I love the flavor of jalapeños. But serranos are delicious and have that fresh, crisp bite to them that we love. You can read between the lines as to our next product. Remember you heard it on HotSauceMadness.com first.
JL: I don’t just like heat. For me it’s also about flavor. For example the red (sun-ripened) jalapeños are way under-appreciated in my opinion. They have amazing flavor both fruity and sweet, which you don’t really get in the green ones. If you haven’t tried them, go and find some.
Aside from chili peppers, what do you feel is the key ingredient(s) in making the perfect hot sauce?
AD: I don’t think there is a key ingredient. It’s all about good ingredients. We produce the hot sauces seasonally in Mexico. And we time our production to get the ripest jalapeno and habanero peppers. We want that sweet to heat ratio. We use high quality vinegars and salts. Nature does all the work; we’re really just trying to get that into a bottle.
JL: I don’t think I can say it better than Alex. The quality of the ingredients is essential. We are not here to make cheap hot sauces. There are plenty of those in the market already. We make super premium hot sauces that we are proud to serve at our own table.
Is there a special process you follow in making your hot sauces?
AD: First we wait until the full moon … No, okay. That bit is not true. But we do have very detailed process documents that we have developed over the years. This ensures that we always deliver a quality product. We work with more than one co-packer so it’s important to keep things consistent.
JL: What? When did we stop waiting for the full moon? I didn’t get that memo. Yeah, we are obsessive about our processes. We are at every production run to make sure everything is in order. We even have instructions on how to clean the vegetables.
Do you follow a particular philosophy to making hot sauces?
JL: We have really pioneered the super premium hot sauce market. We make a high-end, high quality sauce that we are trying to bring to all hot sauce lovers. It’s not always easy combining artisan and mass production, but that’s our philosophy.
AD: Fresh. That’s really my thing. We try and get the consumer as close to taking a bite out of a fresh pepper as possible. Without the worry of rubbing a finger in your eye after you’ve chopped up chilies at home.
Do you have any other favorite spicy foods?
AD: There aren’t any I don’t like. Chinese food, Thai, Indian, Mexican is amazing (it sort of goes without saying, right?)
JL: We are lucky to live in Los Angeles. So we don’t have to choose one only. We can have it all and we do. It is also a source of inspiration for us.
Do you have any advice for would-be hot sauce makers making sauces at home?
JL: Experiment. You can do all sorts of things that we as producers can’t do. We’re bound by shelf life constraints and product costs and such. Don’t make sauces to substitute what you can buy, make sauces that are not available in the market.
Imagine this sad reality: If you could have only one chili pepper the rest of your life, which would you choose?
JL: Easy. Red Jalapeños. I can eat lots of them without my tongue going on strike.
AD: I’d have to agree. There are peppers that are amazing. But to eat everyday, there’s only one choice for me: Jalapeños.
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?
AD: Er, Janet just suggested Jude Law and the title Hot Stuff. But I think she was being sarcastic.
JL: Yes, I was. J
Any other parting thoughts?
Mike, we love your site and thanks for reaching out to us, this has been such great fun. I guess we’d better get back to work.
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