CaJohns Fiery Foods has been a staple of the specialty foods industry since its inception in 1996. Now offering over 150 unique products that have won hundreds of awards, CaJohns owner John Hard has often been referred to as the Godfather of the hot sauce industry. He received a special Appreciation Award this year at ZestFest, where he will also be returning again next year to serve as Senior Product Consultant in the Fiery Food Challenge. He's also one of 10 exceptional individuals who are nominated to be inducted into the first-ever Hot Sauce Fall of Fame this year, which takes place at the 2015 NYC Hot Sauce Expo. Although he’s obviously a super busy guy, he responded to my email right away saying he would be more than happy to answer my questions. I used my old, tired joke “I know I’m not exactly the New York Times, but I'd really appreciate it if you could take a few moments to answer my questions!”, and he was so kind to say he’d rather be interviewed by me than the New York Times! My brother actually works for the New York Times, so I felt a healthy dose of little-sister glee to read that—even though I do love my big bro.
Anyway, John gave such thorough and thoughtful answers, that the best way to do them justice is to simply put them out there exactly as he said them, so that’s what I’m going to do. He talked about his nomination to the Hot Sauce Hall of Fame, the Execution Station, and of course his lovely wife, Sue. A special thanks to both John and Sue Hard for their time in making this interview happen.
Mary: The Execution Station is a staple at trade shows and events. How did it first come about and become the big draw that it is today?
John: It started out as a demo thing we did in our retail store at the North Market in Columbus. It originally was called "Climb the Ladder of Heat." It started with one of our Louisiana Style Cayenne sauces and got progressively hotter as you went from sauce to sauce, culminating with a Ghost Chile sauce as it was the world's hottest pepper at the time. We had an optional extract sauce at the end for those that were inclined to go one higher. It was a huge attraction and we decided to make it part of our exhibit at the trade/public events we would attend. The climb the ladder thing became too passe for many of the attendees as they wanted to skip the low heat and go right to the high heat.
So we re-imagined the gauntlet and now start with ghost chile and go up from there. We renamed it the "Execution Station" and it even has it's own graphics. We have used purees from the hottest 7 chilies in the world, but usually use our hottest natural pepper sauces on the Station. It was never intended to be the sensation it is, but in this day of eating challenges, it fits right in! It is kind of funny how there are others trying to emulate our station at the shows. It is said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery! Vic Clinco has settled in as our main Executioner. We are very proud to have a Chef/Chilehead of his caliber involved with us! He brings a twisted sense of humor to go along with his chile pepper/hot sauce expertise. The tasters love him! One of the rewards we offer is a product discount for those who have completed it at the shows to go along with the coozie and other nicknacks. We will be doing it from now on I suppose, it is an integral part of what our fans expect to see.
Mary: How do you feel about being nominated for the first-ever Hot Sauce Hall of Fame?
John: I am extremely honored to have been included on the first ballot! If you look at the list of people nominated, it is the "royalty" of the industry today--and of course the guy who got this commercial pepper sauce thing started. Mr E, A. McIlhenny. If I am elected, I will be even more honored (if that is possible). I think the time has come to honor those who have made it their life work to advance their companies and the industry as a whole. The neat thing is that marketers, writers and promoters are included as well. I just hope that people place the personalities aside and measure what these individuals have done to advance the hot sauce effort in our world, what impact they have had on us and the consumer, and not whether they like or dislike the person.
Mary: How do you come up with new sauces?
John: I try to stay in front of my customers as much as possible and learn where their tastes are going. I also read and pay attention to what is trending, although I try to get ahead of the trend in many instances. There are the known entities and the possible entities. It is really tough to "invent or create" a new product. Lately, I have been researching historical data to come up with ideas for sauces. So much of what is out there today is a rehash of something that has been out for a long time. "What is your hottest?" has been the question of the day, and although it still is, flavor is making a huge move forward!
I'd say we are riding the Sriracha wave currently. Its popularity has grown exponentially because it is unlike our "father's hot sauce." It is thick, sweet and garlicky instead of thin, salty and vinegary. More people have turned on to this profile and are looking at other tastes in the same genre. Our biggest growing segment is the mid-range heat level. The war for the hottest has taken a back seat, in part to the inability to get a consensus champ from the super-hot chiles. And NO, we will not be introducing a Sriracha sauce ever! “Me too” is way too prevalent these days!
Mary: Do you have any new sauce flavors coming out soon?
John: We have a bunch coming out right now. We have a trio of Caribbean sauces using the yellow chinense pods of the region, the Yellow Moruga Scorpion, Yellow 7 Pot and the Yellow Scotch Bonnet. It is known as the Formidable Line, Fear, Dread & Apprehension. We are also introducing some Asian/Polynesian style sauces as well. The Al Buddah duo and the Tiki Bar sauces/salsa. The other thing we are getting back into is the marinade area. Asian, Caribbean and Southwest are all represented.
Mary: Can you share a cooking recipe that uses one of your sauces as an ingredient?
John: How about a real easy one or two? Here is a dip, 8oz of Velveeta, 8oz of cream cheese one bottle of Angry Cock or another Hot Sauce, place in a slow cooker or a double boiler and melt stirring occasionally until melted and combined. Serve with chips! Here is another using our new Smoked Chile Cooking Sauce/Marinade. Cube up a small sirloin roast and place in a oven safe container. Cover with CaJohns Smoked Chile sauce and set oven at 225, cook for 8 hours and serve over rice. You will have an outstanding Cuban Style beef meal! We have a whole cookbook of recipes on cajohns.com if you are interested.
Mary: If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself back when you were growing up, what would it be?
John: Eat, at least taste that weird food! Growing up in the meat & potatoes Midwest was not the ultimate gustatory experience. I carried way too many inhibitions food-wise forward into my teens and later! I'm much better, but I still have some today. Spice should definitely be included. When I was young, it was completely excluded!
Mary: What makes your wife, Sue, so awesome?
John: It would take way too many pages to answer that question, and the bad thing is I would forget something and get in trouble anyway! Sue has been a pillar for me throughout not only this career, but my previous one as a Fire Protection Engineer as well. She has supported my efforts, put up with me being away from home, and filling in to get things done while I was away. She has believed in me and helped us to achieve our dreams. She has nursed me back to health, and has always been there to offer the opposing view when necessary. She definitely knows this industry as well as anyone I know, and she is the best sales person anyone could ever ask for! She is my partner in this business and "Wicked Wanza" (Her real first name is Wanza, a Comanche name meaning "desert flower") has been influential since the beginning. She is my most precious asset.