In 1992, salsa replaced ketchup as America’s number one condiment. Since then, the “hot” market has continued to grow…hotter. Today, there are thousands of varieties made in the United States alone, not counting the number of recipes home chefs make on their own. But where did it all begin? How did the hot sauce market grow to a billion-dollar industry?
The first commercial hot sauce in the United States was Tabasco, which began in 1868 on Avery Island, La., when Edmund McIlhenny sent out 350 bottles to wholesalers as samples. Almost overnight, he had orders for thousands of bottles. The brand credits the initial popularity due to the Southern diet, which is “bland and monotonous” and the pepper sauce gives the food more flavor and some spice; as he describes it, “some excitement,”
The hot sauce industry has come a long way since the late 1800’s, growing by 150% since 2000, more than all other condiments. Tabasco is second to Frank’s RedHot in terms of hot sauce sales and new brands are entering the market daily.
There are many reasons for this but in the early 2000’s the perfect storm arose that has created this billion-dollar beast:
1. The rising Hispanic population. In the same way that pizza and spaghetti are mainstays in the average American family’s weekly menu, tacos and quesadillas now have a spot. As of 2014, people of Hispanic origin are the nation's largest ethnic or racial minority, constituting 17% of the nation's total population. This has impacted not only the dinner entrees, but also the condiments with more hot sauces, like Cholula and Valentina, coming from south of the border.
2. Beyoncé. Despite the dollars backing the industry, we all know hot sauce really made it with the single, iconic line, “Got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” Almost immediately, Instagram was overflowing with pictures of bags stuffed with bottles of different brands of hot sauce from enthusiasts (and maybe a few want-to-be enthusiasts). Even Hillary Clinton added her favorite sauce that she carries with her everywhere (it’s Whole Food’s Ninja Squirrel, for the record).
3. The makers movement. Making hot sauce is relatively easy. Most recipes begin with a simple combination of peppers, vinegar, salt and a sweetener (sugar, carrots, or some other natural sweetener to help cut the heat), making it the perfect condiment for amateur chefs to try their hand at. These recipes are used at-home but can debut at hot sauce festivals around the country. In 1990, Austin, Texas, hosted the first of these festivals, The Austin Hot Sauce Festival, which became the perfect launch pad for hot sauces.
4. The challenge. Lastly, and maybe the most important, is the very nature of the condiment. It automatically brings about a challenge. The hottest, the most unique, the hardest to find … the list goes on.
Blair Lazar has perfected the challenger spirit by introducing and maintaining the hottest sauce in the world. In 1989, he created the “Original Death Sauce” when working at a bar on the Jersey Shore. He used the sauce to get people to go home early, challenging bar-goers that, if they could eat four wings with the Death Sauce, they could eat and drink for free the rest of the night. Lazar never had to keep his end of the bargain, but since then he’s maintained his credibility with his 16 Million Reserve.
In New York, consumers can set about their own challenges in the country’s first hot sauce store, Heatonist. The store purveys and carries some of the hardest to find and best sauces on the market. Visitors can try as many sauces as they can handle and take or ship home their favorites.
Inevitably, the hot sauce industry is extending beyond just condiments. There are now Tapatio Doritos, Blue Diamond Sriracha almonds, Tabasco chocolates, and the list goes on. All of which contribute to hot sauce continuing its decades-old dominance. Other condiment brands should take note.