When You're Hot, It May Not Be Enough
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 19 May 100 18:21:28 -0700
Subject: When You're Hot, It May Not Be Enough
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From: WSJ, 15-May-2000
In the Hot-Sauce Biz, When You're Hot, It May Not Be Enough
Dave and Cathy Lutes Go Past Tabasco to Insane; At the Fiery Food Show
By DAN MORSE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Dave Lutes sells about 8,000 cases of ultra-hot sauce a year.
The last time he tried some of it himself was three years ago, on a tortilla
chip in Albuquerque. "I almost went down," Mr. Lutes says, recalling the
fit of wheezing, tearing and hiccuping the stuff caused.
That's because "hot" doesn't quite describe the latest hot sauces. Things
have gone way beyond Tabasco, the Louisiana red-pepper standby, as hot-sauce
makers escalate the most absurd arms race in the history of condiments.
Even the sauce makers admit it's hard for anybody to make fine distinctions
between products that are so much hotter than hot. And is something truly
palatable when it is as potent as the pepper spray used for self-defense?
The quest makes business sense: Every day, all across the country, macho
guys walk into little stores that specialize in hot sauce, puff themselves
up and ask: "What's the hottest thing you got?"
The little stores get their products from purveyors like Mr. Lutes
(pronounced "Loots"), a burly 49-year-old who runs Hot Shots with his wife,
Cathy, 50, from an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in Charlotte, N.C. The
Luteses don't make the hot sauce; they distribute it. Cathy Lutes, a former
high-school teacher, has also sworn off the ultrahots. "You see what it
does even when it gets on your skin," she says. (it burns.) The Luteses
also sell a fire extinguisher -- in the form of BurnAway, spray bottles of
hot-sauce antidote (soaps and oils) to spray on affected skin.
And the Luteses ask customers to sign optional disclaimers before buying
certain brands, particularly Dave's Insanity Private Reserve and Pure Cap,
which are among the hottest of the hot. It's a "food additive," the
disclaimer warns. Don't rink the stuff or you'll regret it.
Or worse. The hottest hots, stuff like Blair's 3 a.m. Reserve, could kill
you, says Marlin Bensinger, a chemical engineer at Chromtec in North Palm
Beach, Fla., who tests pepper extract-a resin of capsaicin, the chemical
that makes peppers hot and gives some of the ultrahots their kick. (It's
also used in repellents that halt charging grizzly bears.) Mr. Bensinger
fears that somebody might swill ultrahot pepper sauce on a dare, get it
into his lungs and go into respiratory arrest.
Consumers, meanwhile, still clamor for the hottest. So the Luteses'
suppliers -- manufacturers of such brands as Ground Zero, Cyanide D.O.A.,
and Sudden Death -- vie for the honor. To stay on the cutting edge, the
Luteses rely on friends, including Grant Lane, 39, who runs PyroPepper.com
from his house on Lake Lure in the North Carolina mountains. "It has to do
with taste buds," he says.
Mr. Lane dabs toothpick samples onto his tongue. A half-second later the
grenade goes off in his mouth. "I enjoy it, and I crave it," he says. When
he makes spaghetti sauce, he has to cook up a milder batch for his wife.
The Luteses also take to the road to gather intelligence, as they did in
March at the annual Fiery Foods trade show in Nevada. There, at the Reno
Hilton, hotsauce maker Paul Feagan presents Mr. Lutes with a 4-inch-tall
bottle of his latest concoction, Da' Bomb ... The Final Answer. It's got
a drawing of flaming A-bomb superimposed on a background of skulls and
crossbones. Da' Bomb claims to be the hottest sauce ever, scoring 1.5
Wilbur Scoville invented the heat gauge in 1912. His method was to ask a
five-person tasting panel to see how much sugar water it took to eliminate
the hotness of a pepper. On this scale, it would require 1,981 gallons of
sweetened water to neutralize a teaspoon of Da' Bomb. High-pressure liquid
chromatography, or HPLC, is a more modern, albeit expensive, way to
accomplish the same objective. But as, in DNA testing, results are usually
challenged if they don't go your way.
Mr. Lutes looks at Da' Bomb, and eventually carries it over to a booth
occupied by the legendary Dave Hirschkop, the 32-year-old, baby-faced
granddaddy of ultrahot sauces. "Still the HOTTEST. Still the Best,"
proclaims a sign at his booth. "Shake Well and Good Luck!" the labels add.
Mr. Hirschkop's Insanity Sauce is the Luteses' No. 1 seller. The two men
stand on either side of a counter, exchanging pleasantries. Mr. Lutes
suddenly rolls Da' Bomb toward his good friend.
Mr. Hirschkop picks it up, with utter disdain. "Ffffumphhhh," he says.
"Says it's 1.5 million Scovilles."
"Send it to a lab," Mr. Hirschkop says. "Let's see."
Mr. Lutes himself is concerned about Da' Bomb's awesome retail price-$40
for one little bottle. Most of the sauces he carries retail for less than
$10. But he tries never to underestimate the consumer appeal of
combustibility -- something that was hammered home to him seven years ago
by a cop.
At the time, Mr. Lutes was starting up Hot Shots, having spent years in
the restaurant-supply business. He had just pitched some Insanity Sauce to
a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta. The owners had insisted everyone share a
fingertip taste. Mr. Lutes joined in this camaraderie to seal the deal.
But while driving home, he rubbed his right eye, and the tears started
streaming down his face. He pulled his car off the road and flushed his
burning eye with water. He remembers the incident so well, he says, because
he had to explain it to the policeman who stopped to check on him.
The cop said he was from Texas and could handle anything. He stuck out his
finger. Mr. Lutes poured on some hot sauce. The cop gave it a lick and
started dancing and twitching in a fairly dramatic demonstration of acute
discomfort. When the pain subsided, he bought the last three bottles Mr.
Lutes had on him.
Ultrahot is a small niche of the $500 million-a-year salsa and hot-sauce
market And the Luteses were in the right place a the right time in the
early '90s when hot sauce sales took off. The mainstream suppliers were
doing well, too, led by Tabasco sauce, made by McIlhenny Co. of Avery
Island, La. The company today claims to have a 30% share in supermarkets
and more than 50% in the whole "food service' category, which includes
restaurants. Pau C.P. McIlhenny, the company's current president and chief
executive calls the hottest upstart superhots "the lunatic fringe labels."
As the Luteses' business grew, they added hundreds of sauces to their lineup
many with wacky labels such as Liquid Stupid, PMS in a Bottle and Pain Is
Good. To get the stuff hotter than a habanero pepper, some sauce makers
started to add distilled pepper extracts. And the boasts broke out like
the sweat from jalapeno.
By 1998, hot-sauce middleman Tim Eidson had had enough. From his Mo' Hotta
Mo' Betta office in San Luis Obispo, Calif. he sent 120 hot sauces out for
HPLC testing, which can cost $60 a bottle and gets results that are reported
in Scoville units. Even as Mo' Hotta published its findings (the winner
was Mad Dog Inferno), the race toward mutual assured destruction grew
hotter, eventually passing 100-times Tabasco on the Scoville scale.
Labeling and memorable names are important, even with the fairly hots,
which make up about 35% to 40% of the Luteses' business. "We can send you
some Screaming Sphincter inventory if you need it," Mr. Lutes tells a couple
he runs into in Reno. Andrew Przlomski, an urgent-care physician from
Manitowish Waters, Wis., and his wife, Pepper Przlomski, own two locations
of Doc's Hot Shop. Customers arrive by pontoon boats in the summer,
snowmobiles in the winter. "Biggest hot shops in Wisconsin," Pepper
"Chef Ivo. He killed me," Dr. Przlomski says, explaining a recent tasting.
"They get you pretty good?" Mr. Lutes asks.
"Yah, he nooked me."
Still in Reno, it's time to go see Chef Ivo Puidak of the Galena Canning
Co. of Chicago, which makes salsas and hot sauces, among other things.
"I got some people telling me about your Blasting Sauce," Mr. Lutes tells
him. The two start putting together a deal. Mr. Lutes orders a bunch of
cases of Blasting Sauce, and Chef Ivo tosses in some dynamite blasting
Chef Ivo also sells Mr. Lutes on still other combustible comestibles,
including Blasting Powder, a barbecue meat rub, and some fiery salsas and
Further up the heat scale, though, flavor is sacrificed to what's known as
the "Burnt Cat Hair" effect. There's a product called Habanero 750 (meaning,
750,000 Scovilles) that has an eyedropper for its lid. Habanero chilies,
of which California's red savina is a popular variety, are often said to
be the hottest of them all.
Clearly, Habanero 750 is a food additive to be used with discretion, as
stated on a detailed warning label hammered out by a team of Boston
attorneys. "I agree, as indicated by my opening of this box, as follows in
connection with my purchase of this product: Due to the extreme hot nature
of this product, this product shall be used only as a food additive. This
product can cause serious injury if directly consumed, ingested or applied
to the body... This product is to be used only at my own risk.... I am not
inebriated or otherwise not of a sound mind."
Then there's The Final Answer. It's got a small serving straw hanging down
from the inside of the cap and a warning label, features that only serve
to entice some people. "They say, 'This is perfect for my idiot friend Ed
who always claims to eat hotter foods than anyone else,'" says Dave DeWitt,
who runs the Fiery Foods show.
Mr. DeWitt, known as the Pope of Peppers, has written 25 books on the
subject, but at home in New Mexico, he has only one use for the ultrahots,
and it's not on food. Every spring, he and his wife, Mary Jane line the
bottom of their doorways with it. "We've noticed we have fewer roaches when
we do that," he says.
For now at least, humans seem to be holding up. Blair Lazar makes 3 a.m.
Reserve, a recent batch of which topped the charts at two million
Scoville's. Mr. Lazar says he has seen people eat a full teaspoon before,
and walk away: "I don't know what planet they're from."
Perhaps Sparks, Nev. Forrest Hill first picked up some Insanity Sauce three
years ago at a gourmet food store in Toledo, Ohio. Sampled one drop. Says
it seared him off for six months. Now, the 39-year-old hotel executive eats
the stuff twice a day. In the morning, with his bacon and eggs. At night,
a thin layer mixed with dinner, to his wife's dismay.
Mr. Hill says when he was five, growing up in Sparks, his father tried to
get him to quit sucking his thumb by dousing it with Tabasco. Young Forrest
only asked for more.
© 2000 Peter Langston