Since its inception about 10 years ago, all proceeds from Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce have been donated to the Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund. As of July 2015, the Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund has been able to award 108 college scholarships to high school graduates in the Palo Alto, California community as well as donate over $40,000 to local charities. I had the opportunity to interview Palo Alto Firefighter Lee Taylor, who created the recipe for Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce and asked him about his organization and his hot sauces.
Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce
Lee Taylor, a Palo Alto Firefighter from California, started growing peppers in the fire station backyard back in 1994, crafting homemade sauces at the end of each growing season. By 2003, Lee determined that he and his fellow firefighters wanted to do even more for their community and started a Scholarship Fund, which is now known as the Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund. However, he didn’t start raising money for the Scholarship Fund by selling his sauces right off the bat. During that time, Lee actually completed long-distance bicycle rides to raise the money from donations made by the Palo Alto Firefighters, their families, and their friends. So how did he go from bike-riding to selling hot sauce?
“I had been raising money for my newly-formed Scholarship Fund by doing long distance bicycle rides and had been hit by cars 3 different times, the last one somewhat serious,” Lee told me. “[My firefighter friends’] idea was to ‘get me off the bike and onto the sauce’—sort of a reverse intervention…It is an unconventional way to raise funds but ‘you won't die selling sauce’—or at least that’s what they said to me to convince me to commercially produce and sell it.”
Producing and selling the hot sauce to raise money for the fund turned out to be a little complicated: The Scholarship Fund evolved into the Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund, and the Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce LLC was born.
“There are 2 separate entities in play here,” Lee explained. “From 2006-2008, the Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund sold the sauce and disseminated the profits. The IRS contacted me and informed me that I was breaking the law by operating a 501c3 charity as a business because more than 10% of our annual income was from active sales. In fact, 100% of it was from active sales of the Pepper Sauce. So with some legal advice, I formed Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce LLC. Since 2008, PAFPS LLC has sold the Pepper Sauce and donated 100% of all profits to PAFCF. I do not now, nor have I ever, taken a salary or payment from it. A labor of love.”
Lee added, “And they were right: I have not been hit by any cars while selling my Pepper Sauce.”
The Hot Sauces
Lee’s sauces are award-winning, receiving 2 Gold, 1st-Place Scovie Awards and a 3rd-Place Bronze, Scovie Award at the 2014 and 2015 National Fiery Foods Show. You can choose from their Original Flavor or the XX Habenero.
“My pepper sauce is a sodium-free product and that has been a distinct advantage with the increasing health awareness,” Lee said. “We are an everyday table sauce that pairs with many foods and is compatible with foods from many different cultures and cuisines…We have been growing at a strong steady rate since our inception in 2006, but I believe that word of mouth has been and continues to be our biggest advertisement.”
Surprisingly, the fact that the sauces are tasty and zesty isn’t even the main selling point. Palo Alto Firefighter’s Pepper Sauce LLC has raised close to $150,000 in scholarships, as Lee notes: “It's a win-win. When you purchase our products you are assisting kids get to college (#1 win), you receive a sodium-free, versatile and absolutely delicious product (#2 win).”
After 31 years in the fire service, Lee retired from the Fire Department in 2012. Although he currently continues to work with Palo Alto Firefighter’s Pepper Sauce LLC, he’s also aware that if they are going to continue raising money for scholarships long into the future, he is going to have to be prepared to pass the torch.
“Without a doubt I am proud of providing 108 college scholarships to my community,” Lee revealed. “Knowledge is empowering. Knowing that I assisted 108 young people reach their educational goals is extraordinarily gratifying…I am looking forward to being less involved with the day to day operations of the PAFPS LLC—more time for golf, fishing, and my grandchildren. I am fortunate enough to have 2 adult children who grew up with the Pepper Sauce and are committed to continuing the charitable giving that was started in 2006. They are the future of the company. Second generation sauce makers. We are considering expanding the line of products beyond what I started in the Fire Station garden.”