I’m standing in the production room of Crybaby Craig’s hot sauce and the man himself, Craig Kaiser, is standing right there on the other side. Kaiser and fellow Crybaby co-owner Sam Bonin have just wrapped up for the day, and Kaiser is explaining to me the concept of family meals. It goes back to days in the restaurant industry. Family meals are group meals served to restaurant staffs outside of peak business hours.
“Any the hard jobs I’ve had, that’s usually where the camaraderie comes from,” he says. “Being in the trenches, getting your ass kicked, seeing it through, and then licking your wounds together. When we eat together, we talk together, we start opening up together. The fast ticket to building a team is breaking bread.”
Bonin comes from the restaurant industry too, previously part of the ownership group of Eat Street Social and Northeast Social. He sold his stake in that venture a few years back to form the superteam currently running Crybaby Craig’s. He calls this “easy, cool breezin’, and sailin’.”
They come from a darker place, he adds, but he doesn’t necessarily mean in the psychological sense. He means, really, a darker world.
“We came from the nightlife,” he says. “Our bodies are set up to live in the daylight hours – the circadian rhythm and so on – but people who live on the other side of that coin like Craig and I did for so long, you kind of get into this other way of being. It’s a lot of tired days, a lot of long hours, a lot of mental stress. It’s so nice to be able to come and work during the day. I didn’t have a weekend off in like 15-20 years.”
But just like his bars became central neighborhood gathering points and garnered considerable fame (Eat Street Social’s cocktail program was named by Food and Wine Magazine in 2014 as one of the nation’s best), so too has this steel-surfaced and squeaky clean production room. Kaiser says wine company representatives, executives, brewery reps, and local food critics – and I don’t mean me, I mean the real ones – have all passed through.
Sometimes they gather around an impressive spread that takes up the whole central table; sometimes it’s just a case of Mickey’s and a rotisserie chicken with Vince Traver of Sleepy V’s, who works about 26 feet from Kaiser, after a long week of work wraps up. During my first visit, Bonin brought out a bottle of wine and poured some into a shaker pint for me.
“We get so many cool people over here all the time,” he says. “The one thing we can all agree on is we all need sustenance and we all need fellowship. To be able to come together and share a meal, drink some wine, whatever, it’s fucking enlightening, and it’s fun.”
I’m nobody’s resource for wine evaluation, but yeah: I thought that wine was pretty damn nice.
There’s a big gas oven along one wall and a machine right by the production room entrance that blends habanero peppers and a vinegar brine together. It looks like a gigantic version of the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer my wife has at home (hers is pink). Kaiser mixes hot sauce twice a week, shifts he estimates run 4-5 hours for one barrel of sauces – but that’s if his spices had already been measured and the peppers already processed beforehand.
“I press two buttons,” he says. “That’s a long time to be standing there with something rocking at 100 decibels … but it never gets old. It’s the sound of success. It’s the smell of the American dream.”
What sets Crybaby Craig’s apart is that this hot sauce isn’t cooked or pasteurized, but pickled. Vinegar, salt, and sugar are brought to a boil, but the peppers are only pickled for a couple of weeks before being seasoned and pureed with a vinegar base. Spices are toasted whole, Kaiser says, and that adds an element of variation between batches.
“It’s kind of a multi-dimensional thing,” he explains. “Especially when you have a batch that’s been sitting for a while, you pick up something different. Right now, it might taste garlicky. In a month, you might start picking up some of the cumin notes. Some of them might taste smokier than others, but there’s that human element because I’m toasting all my spices whole. Which is kind of the cool part about it, that human element.”
And people like it. Crybaby Craig’s won the Golden Chile for “Hot Sauce: Latin Style – Hot/X-Hot” in the 2017 Fiery Food Challenge, and tied for third place in the “Hot” category the same year. Add to that a third-place award in the 2017 Scovie Awards, countless fan testimonials, and features everywhere from Twin Cities Live to the Robb Report.
At one point during our meetings, Bonin says to me, “People are so excited about Crybaby Craig’s, you can’t help being personally excited. What product do you know that people are so open and engaged [about]?”
I tell him I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Just for fun, rather than write my own experiences eating Crybaby Craig’s, here’s my experience asking friends to share theirs. I reached out to six; four got back to me within a day’s time.
When I took a bottle out of my jacket breast pocket one Sunday morning at the Mississippi Pub to put on my breakfast, I asked Jonnie the bartender (of past Minnesota Skinny fame) if she’s ever had it. Of course she has. She even remembers which restaurant and when. My buddy Wengler over at Limited Release Beer had it with chicken wings and oysters the other night. It was his first time trying it. He must have liked it, he says, because he used almost half the bottle that night.
Tyson and Mary Schnitker of Skaalvenn Distillery busted out their bottle and gave me their thoughts. Tyson put half a tablespoon in his mouth and got sweetness and acidity, followed by distinct flavors of fresh habanero peppers. There’s a seed in his mouth and he knows not to bite into it, but he does anyway. A little burn on the tongue, a little run of nose, but he takes another spoonful anyway. Mary smells a fruity, vinegary, smoky aroma that sets in salivation almost immediately. She brings up memories of falling in love with fish tacos as a late-teenager, and the inclination that she could probably just drink this as a meal replacement shake.
Another friend didn’t get back to me, but I’ll let one of his recent Instagram posts do his talking. It’s a bottle of Crybaby Craig’s at Boludo Empanadas with the caption: “Brought my own sauce cause you know I keep that MF thang on me.”
“It’s the kind of success that doesn’t just happen on accident,” is the sentence I might conclude with here, had this not happened on accident.
You’ve heard this story, right?
“Over and over again I say, ‘We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.’” says Bob Ross to kick off an episode of The Joy of Painting. “So today, let’s have a happy accident and see what we can make out of it.”
That episode aired in 1987. Over 20 years later, Cafe Maude was delivered a shipment of habanero peppers the restaurant didn’t order. Kaiser was working as a chef there at the time. Rather than just leave the peppers to rot in some trash bin, he decided to try making a hot sauce out of them.
“Being pounded and pounded by great chefs over and over [to] save everything” says Kaiser when asked about his motivations for doing so. “Everything that went into making this thing grow is wasted if you just scoop it into the trash. This was just salvaging something that was going to go bad.”
At that time, Kaiser recalls making quarterly orders of sriracha and Tabasco sauce for the restaurant. You could say they weren’t exactly hot commodities there – but the moment this accidentally-inspired hot sauce hit the back of the house, staff members ran through a half-gallon in two weeks. It didn’t slow down once the diners got a hold of it.
“They kept asking, ‘What’s in there? What is that?” he says. “That just started taking off, so I started saving the empty Tabasco bottles and started putting the hot sauce in that. If they asked for hot sauce, we would just send them the house-made. It just kept going, more and more questions.”
It’s not like Kaiser was a hot sauce-hoarding capsaicin psychopath before this. He says he had no passion for hot sauce beforehand. When his hot sauce took off, he went to Pepper Palace at MOA to sample hot sauces and try to understand why. He estimates he tried 50-60. His palate was a charred lavascape, but the answer was plain.
“What I noticed is, everything is pretty much fucking flat lined,” he says. “There’s a base, and everyone just plays in this … safe zone, but they all taste the same to me. There was nothing that had any kind of complexity, that’s when I realized, ‘Okay, I get it. Now I know why people like it.’”
While Kaiser’s method gives his product a distinct flavor profile and sets him firmly as a trailblazer in the industry, he acknowledges the downsides to manufacturing a consumable product in a method that isn’t widely understood.
Chiefly, it means a lot of extra time with the government.
“Every time an inspector comes, and they haven’t inspected me before, they come in thinking they’re going to shut me down,” he says. “They don’t know how to proceed with their standard role, and where I fit. They’re like, ‘This isn’t right’ and they come in, and I show them the documents, and I show them the field studies, and they go ‘Oh.’
“But that’s how everybody perceives it. They perceive it as I’m doing something illegal, but it’s not. It’s just, I’m the only one doing that.”
Then there’s the time a formal complaint was filed against Kaiser for selling to business without a wholesale distribution license. He says it was either 2014 or 2015 when this happened. He made the case that he was selling to the chefs, not directly to the restaurants, but the state wasn’t hearing it. He was served a cease and desist order soon after.
He worked with the Eat Street Social team (Kaiser says this was when he and Bonin connected) while getting the hot sauce business licensed – but a filing error in that process led to more trouble.
“It’s very frustrating, man,” he says. “Those are some of memories you don’t necessarily want to have, but it’s having my teeth kicked in several times that got me to where I have piles of hot sauce that aren’t going to last.”
By “last,” he means go unsold before Christmas, and by “piles” he means the 162 cases behind me as we talk in his front room that day. It’s a Saturday, and he says all 162 cases will be out for delivery Monday morning.
“I’m never ahead,” he says. “Ever.”
Kaiser hails from California and moved to Minnesota back in 1997. A couple of weekends back, he was in Atlanta for brand-building. Bottles of his hot sauce have been shipped all over the world, by the bottle, by the case, and – why not, right? – by the glass gallon jug. But one of the most important checkpoints on the Crybaby Craig’s journey was Tilia, in southwest Minneapolis.
Tilia was the first restaurant to offer Crybaby Craig’s outside Cafe Maude, and word spread from there. Before long, 40 restaurants were offering Crybaby Craig’s – and then, seemingly in an instant, 90.
“I did hit the ground a lot,” he says, “but the truth is the restaurants all did the work for me, because they were sampling it, and they would pass it on.” Crybaby Craig’s got into Gustavus Adolphus college and both Radisson Blu locations, and that’s when the big food distributors finally turned their heads Kaiser’s way.
Making the jump from a chef to running Crybaby Craig’s full-time was tricky, he says. Taking on a second full-time commitment simply wasn’t possible when he was already working 70-80 hours a week, and he and his wife had a young son, Craig Jr.
“There are people who find a way to make it work, but they’re at a different stage in their lives,” he says. “I finally worked hard enough to where my salary was livable for the three of us … but how do you make the jump, selling a $3-6 bottle of hot sauce?”
As quickly as Kaiser could hope his hot sauce would sell, it sold. He recalls people buying five times what they needed to avoid missing out on the next batch. It was a period of time he calls “four years of fucking around,” but the iron finally got hot when he transitioned to being a stay-at-home dad when his son turned two.
“[My wife was] like, ‘It’s time. Maybe take a chance on the hot sauce.’”
And so set off the golden age of whipping up hot sauce overnight, then hitting the road with Junior during the day. Junior is the real “Crybaby Craig,” but Craig Sr. is the likeness you see on the bottle. That happened when someone offered to “just goof off” and make Kaiser a label. Sure, he said, as long as it was none of the already overused hot sauce avatars (devils, pitchforks, flames, etc.) That artist was at his door the next day, asking to take a picture of him. Yada yada yada, label.
It all goes back to the communal nature learned in the restaurant game, says Kaiser. Friends do screen-printing for his clothes and hats; a neighbor designed the website. Now, Kaiser has no idea anymore how many family meals he’s been a part of.
“Even though there are people who want to bring me down, there are 10 times as many people trying to help me elevate,” he says.
You can purchase Crybaby Craig’s hot sauce on the Crybaby Craig’s website and Amazon, or buy it at several locations throughout the Twin Cities (I get mine at Lund’s and Byerly’s – not an endorsement, just a place I know for sure has it). Keep an eye out Crybaby Craig’s spicy cheese powder, which will be hitting the market soon.