“Did I mention that this will be the next Hot Ones sauce?”
How a single statement from Heatonist’s Noah Chaimberg changed the game for Karma Sauce.
First, some backstory:
It was a simple enough start with a healthy dose of serendipity.
My optical engineering work on the James Webb Space Telescope was wrapping up after thirteen years. I had been thinking about a transition into the spicy food business full-time for a few years. The final straw for the plunge into all-Karma-all-the-time came in 2017: It’s difficult to run a farm-to-bottle sauce operation when half of your summer is spent 1,550 miles away in Houston, Texas. “I’ll have some free time on evenings and weekends again,” I thought. Ha! That hasn't work out, but no more will the business be making-do with whatever time I can spare in the margins.
Just as I was planning the end of the current chapter of my Space Telescope career and planning the company’s future, enter: Heatonist, the world renowned Brooklyn-based hot sauce purveyor offering all-natural and small-batch hot sauces, and one of Karma Sauce’s best customers since 2013. The shop’s owners, Noah Chaimberg and Tyler McKusick, came to me with a simple enough offer: develop a new sauce for the shop. The stars were aligning and pulling me toward the center of the spice universe!
“What kind of sauce are you looking for?” I asked. “Something with fennel,” replied Tyler. This was not an insignificant challenge: fennel has a distinctive anise flavor likened to licorice. “This is what I wanted, right?” I mused.
A couple weeks of mad science in the Karma kitchen produced Fennelo, the world’s first and only strawberry and habanero pepper fennel sauce with bergamot oil. While sensationally unique and delicious, the product is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea (Earl Grey or otherwise).
Noah and Tyler asked if I had time for a conference call. “This has never happened before... crap, what did I do now?” My fears subsided when their initial question was, “Have you heard of Hot Ones?” Well, YES! Every hot sauce producer with two eyes and an internet connection knows of the holy grail that is Hot Ones. The super popular YouTube show features celebrity guests answering thought-provoking questions from host Sean Evans while suffering through increasingly hot chicken wings. Collectively, the show’s episodes have about as many views in a year as the Superbowl. Heatonist happens to be the show’s sauce curators. Noah and Tyler asked if I would be interested in having Extreme Karma in the show’s “lineup of death.” YES AGAIN!
My hardened Production Specialist Olivia and I thus began stockpiling pallets of Extreme Karma. At the time the quantity was umpteen times more product than we’d ever made of anything ever. In fact, the product itself was kind of a fluke. Extreme Karma was created simply at the request of one local customer, Red Bird Market in Fairport, NY. Upon its release in 2016, Red Bird Market and Heatonist were our only wholesale customers for it. On top of that, the Hot Ones placement was not certain until the first episode aired. I was still preparing for optical consulting work just in case.
What occurred next was like being shot out of a cannon. Extreme Karma entered the Hot Ones lineup in the number six spot. Two weeks later Karma Sauce Products won 14 awards at The Fiery Food Challenge including Best in Show for Funken Hot. The phone is ringing off the hook and we’re shipping pallets instead of four packs of not only Extreme Karma, but other Karma Sauces (we still love shipping four packs). My wife Kelly tells me to stop working on engineering proposals; I should probably stick to sauce.
Early spring arrives and the two-person production team is busier than ever thanks to the Hot Ones exposure. Then Noah calls. He has an idea for a new project: “More of an everyday sauce. Think Acapulco barbecue.” He ends with, “I'll send you a brief.”
The simplified framework is serrano chiles, a little smoke, a little sweet, some fruit, and maybe an herb like culantro (aka, cilantro’s cousin). “Play around with it,” says Noah. Then, “ Did I mention that this will be the next Hot Ones branded sauce?” and “Can you make a gazillion bottles per week?” Mindful that our two people’s current production capacity allowed for much less than a gazillion to be made and bottled in 12 hours, this was going to be a defining challenge for Karma Sauce Co. One on hand, creating and manufacturing a branded product for the show would be a huge feather in the Karmic Cap. On the other hand, I anguished over the “Can we really handle this?” question. Ultimately I reasoned that there’s only one way to find out!
I hit the ground running and worked up five different sample directions in three days. The family and crew love them; my wife Kelly says, “Don’t send them the green one, that one’s mine!” But of course, I do (I must!). The Heatonist team graciously endures my seemingly endless blind samples (up to four or more variations at a time) and inquisitions for feedback: “Which do you like best?” “Can you tell what’s different?” “Can you guess the secret ingredient?”
The final iteration is something that could not have resulted without this collaborative process. It was an honor to work with Noah and Tyler’s team during the development stage. Their sharp palates and critical feedback had me thinking about hot sauce from a fresh perspective. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present Los Calientes.
Now it’s on to paperwork. Scheduled processes. Label designs. Locating external space. Hiring. The looming planting season. Like Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity stipulates, Los Calientes production was moving at speeds faster than all the other operations. Leading items appear to coalesce–except for the near aneurysm I had when, three weeks from the scheduled start of production, Noah asks if I can package the sauce in plastic bottles. We put a pin in that and forge ahead with glass. Now it’s on to the logistics of scaling up and qualifying new sources.
We think we’re ready to pull the trigger on heavy production. That is until the most innocuous of ingredients, apricots, decides it needs to teach me a lesson. I didn’t want apricots from concentrate, nor aseptically packaged; I wanted them as close to fresh as possible. Apricots are a little out of season in New York in May, so I locate frozen apricots grown in California. Excellent! Everything is back on track, full speed ahead. Nope. It was then that I learned the cold hard facts about freezer and refrigerated shipping. I’d given the company notice that I wanted an order in two weeks. Based on my prior experience, to me that meant I would receive the order in two weeks. The painful lesson here is that it takes at least a week to even setup the pickup appointment and possibly another week or three for paperwork and shipping time. Pro tip: When ordering transcontinental produce, plan on somewhere between four weeks and “it gets there when it gets there.”
May ends (before it does, Olivia and I miraculously manage to set 9,000 pepper transplants in the ground at the farm) and we still have no apricots or labels. Tyler is calling to inform me that Heatonist already has half-of-a-gazillion Los Calientes pre-orders. This s**t is getting real.
We do finally begin production in June, but never quite catch up to the demand despite adding four new production staff. In the first month of Los Calientes production we crank out more sauce than was made in all of 2017. And that was the “soft start.”
Sean Evans, host of Hot Ones, bills Los Calientes as “The Sauce of Summer.” The sauce is instantly popular with the show’s loyal fans but just as instant is its back-order status. Online rumblings appear from customers who are now worried that it will be a seasonal, one-and-done product. Fear not, Spice Lords!
Manufacturing is still being run out of the original Karma Sauce kitchen, a 325 sq. ft. attachment to my house. It accommodates intense saucery in sweltering summer heat, one 40 gallon batch at a time. Meanwhile my neighbors question why there are four tractor trailers visiting our house every week but miraculously there are no reported complaints. Olivia, fresh off graduating Better Process Control School, moves from Production Specialist to Production Manager seemingly overnight. She and the new production staff are entrusted to batch the bulk of Los Calientes while I work on detailing the new factory while smoking the serrano chiles. Logistics prove to be an ongoing challenge. The whole summer could be summed up by the warning, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Did we already run out of lemon juice? Did I remember to order the culantro? What do you mean the truck is late? Noah calls these “champagne problems” and the gritty team moves onward, proving their mettle every day.
By mid summer, we’ve moved into the new factory space among the cadre of food producers and retailers in the Genesee Regional Market complex. More space allows for more in-line, automated equipment. If you ask the crew, they will tell you that the heat tunnel is the most beloved of machinery.
September, October, November 2018
Summer ends and “The Sauce of Summer” is still soaring. We’ve taken a few days here and there to mill 10,000 pounds of super hot chile peppers, make some Karma Sauce products, start work on packing sauces for other third parties, and create a farm plan for next season (who’s ready to plant garlic?!). Better than I could have imagined it, the work begets more work. We hope that Los Calientes will be around for summers to come, but the summer of 2018 will always be el verano mas caluroso* to me.
*Translation: the hottest of summers
A final note
Karma Sauce expanded our people power and made equipment upgrades in no small part due to the generous support of Heatonist. Without their backing, we could have gone deep in the hole on this. We are eternally grateful to Heatonist, First We Feast, Hot Ones, Complex Media, and the horde of Spice Lords!