The Hot Sauce Revolution: An Industry with a Dash of Spice
by Gino Fanelli | published Sep. 22nd, 2015
Hot sauce, much like ketchup and mustard, has grown to become one of American cuisine's most consistently innovative products while still remaining relatively the same over the decades.
Yet, coinciding with the boom in demand for local or small-batch products in the past decade, evident in the liquor, wine and beer industries, an American hot sauce revolution has begun. Between 2000 and 2013 the hot sauce industry has grown over 150%, bringing in $1 billion annually across 163 producers.
"It really started with the large ethnic populations that have moved into the US," said Tom Falbo of Rochester's Pepper Nutz. "People from Latin America, South East Asia and India move to the US and obviously bring along these spicy foods that remind them [of] home. Eventually, the melting pot sort of takes over, and those tastes become part of something bigger."
In particular, Falbo pointed to Huy Fong Foods' nearly universally renown "Sriracha" hot sauce.
"There you have a product from a guy who immigrated here from Vietnam with a taste for this particular sauce," Falbo said. "And with Americans becoming more and more adventurous in their food choices, it had the chance to become something wildly popular. People are always coming to our stand looking for that red squeeze bottle with the green top and the rooster. We're constantly selling out of it."
The story of Sriracha is particularly telling of a spike in the industry. While Sriracha has only become a restaurant staple in recent years (reaching $80 million in sales in 2014), it remained relatively unknown outside of its hometown of Los Angeles until recent years, with founder David Tran beginning production in 1980. This could have been somewhat of a result of, as Falbo mentioned, an Asian American population growth of 45% in the 2000's. Or perhaps a widening of the typical American palate is responsible, evident in the massive trends of injecting Sriracha into a litany of traditional products, including Pringles, beer and freezes.
"A lot of the market is college kids who are eating a spoonful of Scorpion Chili sauce for YouTube," Falbo said. "But there a lot of people, mostly in the older demographic, that really want the super hot stuff. We have people that will come and buy a bottle of something that is really hot, and they'll come back a couple weeks later and say they want something hotter."
Locally, the hot sauce boom has certainly echoed through the community, with several companies opening in the past five years. Included in this list are Pittsford's Karma Sauce, the South Wedge's Forge Hot Sauce and Tounge Puncher. With a scene growing consistently, Falbo hopes to one day create an exhibition to bring spicy foods to the masses.
"In the South West, you have these festivals celebrating tacos, or just spicy foods in general," Falbo said. "That's what I want to get started here. A Spice Festival where people can come and of course try all kinds of local food, but to try out these different spices and sauces that may seem intimidating."
Falbo hopes to get the Spice Festival in the works by 2016. Regardless, the hot sauce industry has grown to a level where we can witness a new era of growth in American cuisine. Much like German sausages and Italian pizzas, the world of spice has burrowed into the catalog of American cuisine, taking notes from its immigrant roots and taking on the trademark American experimentation and extremism to become something new altogether.