For our February Sponsor. We sit down and talk with Scott Zalkind of Lucky Dog Hot Sauces. Here is what he had to say
Where did you come from? What got you into sauce & why are you passionate about it:
First and foremost, my sauces aren’t specifically taco sauces, though they are very good on tacos.
I got into hot sauce making because I love to cook, and I’ve always loved spicy food. A little over 10 years ago I was frustrated by the lack of depth or complexity of the sauces on the market. Sauces were either flavorful, or ridiculously hot (extracts were big then) – two events led to my making sauce for the 1st time. First, at a BBQ restaurant with a hot sauce bar where I accidentally I ruined a $20 brisket plate with 8 drops of the most disgusting and hottest crap I’d ever tasted. I had to buy another dinner – and it wasn’t just the heat, but it tasted like metallic ass. I forget which of the popular “novelty” sauces it was, but it was gross and I was pissed. The next week a friend gave me a very flavorful “habanero” hot sauce loaded with garlic. It was awesome on the pizza we were eating for dinner, but if it had habs in it, they waived them over the vat. I ranted to my friend, “why can’t someone make a sauce like this that has some balls?!?”
The next weekend I was online researching how to pasteurize & hot pack, and then I was in my kitchen making what turned out to be a really, really terrible hot sauce. I didn’t look up any recipes, which is in part why my initial attempts sucked so horrifically, but this also allowed for a lot of creative freedom. Instead I started with ingredients I liked, like fire-roasted peppers & roasted garlic, and I attempted to craft sauces around them. That led to creating some original flavor profiles. Crappy ones at 1st to be sure, but original at least.
That was the beginning. I kept at it, because I found it to be very therapeutic. Project management is stressful as hell. Everyone is your boss, deadlines go whooshing by, and no one ever thanks you when a project goes right – yet you’ll hear it from 30 people if it goes wrong. So making hot sauce helped me to find some zen on the weekends. I couldn’t stress over work if I was in the kitchen prepping ingredients, with peppers in the smoker & garlic in the broiler, pots on the stove. There’s just too much multitasking with food preparation to be concerned about anything else.
My skills as a PM came into play as well. I’d conduct postmortems trying to figure out where my sauces went awry. I started taking a scientific approach to my recipes – measuring everything in gram weight so I could taste and tweak recipes as needed to dial them in. After making sauce just about every weekend for a few years my creations started tasting pretty good. Instead of asking “what the hell is that?”, people started asking “can I have some of that?” – then people started asking if they could buy it. And throughout, I started bringing it to parties and leaving the sauce anonymously with the food spread, then playing “fly on the wall” listening to the feedback. Not long after that, friends who are chefs and professional caterers started asking when I was going to sell it, and encouraged me to do so.
So after 7 years of this, I pulled from my modest savings account and started research what it would take to develop my sauces commercially. I found a commercial kitchen to work with, and from there I launched with 3 sauces, working 1 farmers market a week selling them while I continued to work full time as a project manager. Within 3 months of launching I’d won a Golden Chile in the Mild – Consumer-Ready category at Zestfest in TX for my Green Label – Mild Fire-Roasted Pepper Sauce. It was great validation for me. Instead of wondering whether or not my products were good enough, for the 1st time I had validation that they were.
While staying with friends on the big island of Hawaii, I had a moment of extreme clarity. I was on a hike and it hit me out of the blue – I realized I’d never be able to take my sauces further working 50 hours a week for someone else, nor would I ever be as effective at my day job while distracted by hot sauce and “what might be” if I really dove in. And I kept asking myself why I continued to work so much at the thing that stressed me out instead of doing more of the thing that made me happy. The answer came to me as a question: “what’s the worst thing that can happen if you quit your job of 12 years and you fall on your face?” The answer was easy: “Screw it – I’ll get another job. I didn’t light my resume on fire.”
So there it was – I gave notice 2 months later, and started working multiple farmers markets a week. A little over 2.5 years later I’m up to 7 markets a week September-April (I do 5, my employee does 2) and 11 a week May-October (I do 8, my employee does 3). I sell wholesale, on-line, and sell to restaurants at a very friendly price for the awesome marketing opportunity. I’m in ~50 stores, 11 states and 3 countries (about to launch in Canada). And I am more passionate about it now than ever before – and more passionate about it than anything I’ve ever done.
Is there is any company’s/people that you admire and seen as a mentor?
There are dozens of companies that I admire – pounding the pavement every day, I know 1st hand how hard it is to pay rent $6 at a time. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has developed their own recipes and created a company from the ground up. Neither are easy to do, and I hold those folks in extremely high regard. These people had the balls to do something very risky in an extremely crowded industry and they put their heart & soul into every product that they lovingly create from nothing – from creating unique flavor profiles,to branding, marketing, and selling their wares. There are simply too many saucemakers to name on my “who do you admire” list to name in the space I have here. It’s the passionate company owners, the ones who are self reliant and willing to risk everything because they believe in a product that they’ve created that I admire the most.
The mentor part is easier – Ann Simmons of Texas Creek Products is a saint. My recipes were largely developed by the time I’d met her, but I met her when I was just taking the next steps of releasing a commercial product. She is so knowledgeable about every facet of the industry and was so willing to share her knowledge with others. Her experience with farmers markets, production, product development, marketing, branding – the list goes on. There is no question that I would be (at least) a year behind where I am now, likely having made several costly mistakes were it not for her timely and accurate advice and guidance. . And it’s not like I’m special – she’s that free with advice to anyone who crosses her path. Ann is just a genuinely delightful person who is incredibly generous with her time and willing to share her experiences in a manner that is incredibly helpful to others. I’m honored to count her among my friends, and remain thankful for her generosity. It’s inspired me to strive to be equally generous by paying it forward when I can, helping others who’ve approached me seeking assistance.
What’s your favorite way to prepare a taco (with recipe)?
I grew up in California, so taco trucks aren’t some hipster trend to me – they’re a staple of my diet, and were pretty much the norm growing up. I’m not talking about “Vietnamese/Turkish Fusion tacos” with sweet potatoes and truffle oil (lol) – no, these were greasy as hell street tacos made by dudes with teardrop tattoos and hairnets in neighborhoods that made you wonder if the meat was “ratita” instead of “carnitas”. But they tasted so good you didn’t care and 3/$1.50 was the order of the day. It’s a bit more expensive these days of course.
That said, the perfect tacos for me are:
2 soft corn tortillas, warmed on a flatiron grill
pile of meat (pre-cooked) sauteed on the flatiron with onion
pinch of cilantro
tsp of salsa fresca
pour whatever kind of hot sauce like on them, though for the carnitas I’d highly recommend Lucky Dog Hot Sauce Pink Label. 😉
A squeeze of lime and you’re good to go.
(A little sprinke of coteja cheese is optional, but really, really tasty.)
Hot Sauce Guy
Lucky Dog Hot Sauce – it’s Food’s Best Friend!