Four co-workers and I are squeezed in together at a little table in our office cafeteria. We’ve got salads, sandwiches, wraps, chicken drums, and we’re trying hot sauces on all of this stuff because I have three bottles stashed in my laptop bag. Perfectly normal.
A teammate has taken a shine to Forbidden Fruit, made by Richfield-based Hellraising Hot Sauce. She applies it gratuitously to a turkey and cheese sandwich, and reads the ingredients list aloud. The first words are “apple juice.”
Another teammate is intrigued and the bottle is passed. Again, a cautious first application is followed very quickly by a proper pour. This time, it’s being used to enliven a grocery store chicken wing.
At one point, I’m asked why I don’t try making my own hot sauce. One coworker assumes it’d be pretty easy, that I could just whip some up and start my own business, kabam! I assure him it wouldn’t be. I point at the bottle of Forbidden Fruit, and start listing what their owners had to go through to get that bottle to this table today.
MEET THE TEAM
Hellraising Hot Sauce co-owners David and Leigh Taylor have perfected the skill of talking together. They’ve been married for 10 years, they both work in advertising, and they’ve done lots of what Leigh calls “scary lab work” experimenting with hot sauce recipes. I ask them about that, and together they compare those early endeavors to Walter White’s early endeavors.
David says, “We had goggles on, and …”
Leigh says, “It was like a Breaking Bad lab …”
David adds, “… it looked like we had a meth lab in our kitchen.”
Leigh adds, “… an explosion of peppers and crap everywhere.”
Hot sauce had been an interest of David’s for some time while he was growing up back in Des Moines. In addition to making his own recipes, he’d accrued a collection of hot sauces that numbered well into the hundreds. The itch never really went away, but time narrowed as it marched on. Work, kids, marriage, you know the drill.
Well, Leigh got sick of hearing David complain about crappy hot sauces and found some time for him.
“‘These are junk! I can make one better than this!’” David recalls saying. “At one point Leigh said, ‘Well, stop talking about it [and] let’s do it.”
That keyed a surge of recipe development, goggles, blenders, peppers, and sample distribution for peer review. The Taylors eventually got some hot sauce into the hands of the Sea Salt Eatery owners, and David says that sparked a “light bulb moment.”
“This wasn’t my mom saying ‘This is good’ and making us feel good,” he adds. “This was someone saying, ‘I really like this. When can I buy it?’”
All they had to do now was register for the requisite food safety classes, get the business insured, submit recipes for approval by the Food and Drug Administration, get labels approved, get labels made, figure out bottling, and find a commercial kitchen to work in – to name a few.
“It was always really stressful thinking, ‘How are we going to do this?’ says Leigh. “There are only so many hours in the week.”
In what Leigh called “crappy luck, or good luck,” the Taylors both got laid off during Spring 2014. Leigh estimates the layoffs happened two weeks apart. If there was a ever a time to get sauced, it was now.
Leigh says, “We had this time, both of us.”
David says, “A LOT of free time.”
Leigh adds, “And it was like in March or April.”
David adds, “Raining every day, cold … we looked for jobs for an hour [every day, then] it’s onto the hot sauce stuff, the fun stuff.”
The hustle took them all the way through to Mother’s Day, when the first shipment was delivered to Sea Salt. Hellraising Hot Sauce was officially out in the wild.
Sitting in an office at the Taylors’ home is a bottle of Tres Gatos hot sauce. It’s been sitting for about 20 years, and the appearance of its contents do nothing to hide that fact. On the bottle is a white paper label, decorated with three ClipArt cat silhouettes. An AOL email address is provided as a contact for David.
“It’s embarrassing to look at,” says David. “I can’t even believe I gave those away.”
The name “Hellraiser,” he says, traces back to a term of endearment used often among his family. He says he heard “Hellraiser” directed as him quite a bit as a kid, and admitted that yeah: he earned it. And while Tres Gatos never made it to market, that original recipe – a blend of habanero, serrano, or jalapeno peppers – would ultimately inspire Hellraising Hot Sauce’s Triple Inferno sauce.
Triple Inferno is, as its name suggests, the hardest hitter in the Hellraising lineup. This one singes your lips and deepens your breaths a bit. The label is yellow like warning tape, covered by a red devil head and black scribbly flames. Not quite ClipArt cats.
“We just happened to have a really good designer who picked the colors,” says David. “When I gave her the empty bottles, she really studied the color and tried all these different color combinations, and that’s what we ended up with.”
Sweet Suffering is made with habanero peppers, pineapple juice and carrots. As badly as I’d like to set off the Internet and say I enjoyed it on pizza, I haven’t yet tried it on pizza. I did smear melee club-sized chunks of chicken breast through it at home, though, and was glad. It’s not stupid heat, but it lands a solid punch.
Forbidden Fruit, meanwhile, is not a sauce you’d bring to a bomb-throwing contest but it’s my favorite not-very-hot sauce by far. I watched it work on a turkey sandwich, and I’ve used it myself to bail out a blah cheeseburger. Hellraising Hot Sauces range in price from $5-7, which sounds like a lot until you consider the $12 burger I’d have trashed had Forbidden Fruit not been handy.
Habaneros with citrus fruits are a well-known flavor pair (think mango habanero wings) so it’s no surprise Sweet Suffering works as well as it does, but what’s up with those apples? In how many ways does “Forbidden Fruit” work as a title here? Why did they put apple juice in a hot sauce?
“That was just kind of inspiration,” says David. “No one’s doing an apple hot sauce. Why can’t we? We needed something a little ‘Minnesota Hot,’ that wouldn’t overwhelm people but still taste good. People really like it because it’s different. It’s not a blast of heat, and it works it works really well with certain foods.”
THE HOT SAUCE AISLE AND BEYOND
The Taylors were both back to work by Summer 2014. They work for ad agencies today, Dave as an editor and Leigh as a project manager. Leigh is from Eden Prairie originally, and the two still live in the west metro. With Hellraising Hot Sauce officially for sale in public now, the Taylors had moved operations to GIA Kitchens (where Isabel Street Heat is made). They told stories of late nights making sauce at GIA, coming home with singed hands and smelling of peppers.
“I would tell people I had this hot sauce thing,” David. “They’d be like ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ They didn’t think it was a serious thing, but it took off almost immediately.”
Already stretched thin with work and family, the Taylors decided not to debut Hellraising at farmers markets. Instead, they took aim at local restaurants and grocery stores. While they got a small foothold at local restaurants, the big call came in Fall 2014 when Kowalski’s Market invited them to give a presentation. Leigh compared that presentation to a job interview.
“That was so early on,” Leigh said, “and we didn’t even know how to talk about it. Selling it was a whole different thing.”
They nailed it nonetheless. A few months later, Hy-Vee – whose headquarters are located in David’s hometown Des Moines – brought them in. After getting on the shelves at Rochester Hy-Vee locations, they made their way north to all 10 Twin Cities-area locations. Spring of 2017 saw Lund’s and Byerly’s turn a greater focus to locally-made goods, says David, and Hellraising was one of several local condiment makers added to stock.
By this time, the Taylors had moved their production and bottling from GIA to Snappy Valley Foods in River Falls. What took them a whole weekend to produce, says Leigh, Snappy Valley can now produce in a day. The addition of Lund’s and Byerly’s also brought on the need to partner with a distributor. David jokes at one point during our chat that he probably couldn’t even name all the stores they’re in now.
But as the condiment market grows more competitive by the day, Leigh says the battle is far from over once accounts are secured.
“We never rest on our laurels,” she says. “It’s a nice foot in the door, but you have to keep earning it all the time. Even if [markets] do bring us on, we still have to fight for it. We can’t just deliver it and walk away.”
New Hellraising products are on the horizon (salsa versions of Green Fever and Sweet Suffering are set to hit shelves this year) and expansion of their supermarket footprint is imminent (Hy-Vee’s goal, according to David, is growing to 25 Twin Cities-area locations). The time to escalate the business from side hustle to full-time work hasn’t come yet, but it’s crossed their minds.
“We want to go at a measured pace,” says David. “Let’s make sure we’re solid in all areas. You go from small to medium, and suddenly you can’t keep up. If you land a huge account like a Hy-Vee or Target, or whoever, you’d better be ready to back that up.”
The last thing David tells me is, “There must always be hot sauce.”
You never know when someone’s computer bag will go empty.