Mike & Diane’s Gourmet Kitchen are the ones that bring us Ring of Fire as well as their latest product line It’s.Real.Good.Stuff. Their drive to make people happy extends well beyond their goal of producing high-quality hot sauces and condiments—they also donate to multiple charities every year.
I had the chance to speak with Mike Greening himself, who shared the story behind their sauces and how they’re giving back to the community. (Side note: I just can’t type “Mike & Diane” without getting that John Mellencamp song “Jack & Diane” stuck in my head.) Below is the full story of Mike & Diane’s, in his own words:
The History of Mike & Diane's Gourmet Kitchen As Told By Mike
“Mike & Diane's Gourmet Kitchen started when I returned from working the summer as an Executive Chef at a high-end fishing lodge in Alaska. I made good money when I was there, but being young and stupid, I blew it all on dumb things…At Christmas, I didn't have much money for gifts so I brought home empty, clear glass wine bottles from work. We cleaned them all and filled them with different herb and vinegar combinations. Diane made pretty labels for them and we gave several sets of them to friends and family as gifts.”
“Other people saw them and kept saying that they wanted a set, and by February, our dining room table was covered in wine bottles. Then a friend said I should start selling them. Diane had the bright idea to paint pretty designs on them that matched each flavor and to write a cute little poem about it on the back of each bottle. I took a set of those first ones around to some stores to see if they would be interested in them; they all told me that once I got them into production to come back and they would buy them. It took another 9 months to get all our proper FDA approvals and things before we had a sellable product, but it took off. Within a year, we had 17 different flavors of herbed vinegars and oils and were selling them all across Southern California.”
“The following October, Diane and I took a trip with my sister and her boyfriend to Sedona Arizona where we stumbled into a shop that only sold hot sauces. They had a huge tasting bar in the middle of the store where you could sample about 30 different sauces.”
“I had no idea stores like this even existed, which to be honest, didn't really matter to me since I didn't care for spicy food. However my sister’s boyfriend Barry is a total chilehead. We sampled several sauces, took the advice of the store owner, and bought the bottles they said were the best. Now I know they said we should buy those particular sauces because they were made in Arizona and were what they sold to all the stupid tourists!”
“The next morning, Barry and I went fishing and brought back some rainbow trout. We used the hot sauces on the trout, and I was very disappointed with them. I kept ranting about how bad they were and saying the line all hot sauce makers have said before they started their journey into the hot sauce world: ‘I can make a better hot sauce than this!’ Evidently, I ranted a bit much and Barry finally said, ‘Well, you already have a bottling company, so put up or shut up!’”
“That was the white glove slap in the face I needed. When we got home, I spent 3 days working on a recipe. Back and forth to the store for more ingredients, several times a day. I would bring my creation into work with me that night and have all my co-workers try it to see what they thought. After 3 days, I had what I wanted.”
Ring of Fire
“I was also a certified Personal Fitness Trainer at the time and was really into bodybuilding. I know that bodybuilders eat a really bland and boring diet so I wanted to make a sauce that they could use to add some flavor to their eggs, tuna fish, or plain chicken breasts. My intent was to market the sauce to bodybuilders through gyms and fitness magazines. That’s why the chileman on our label has muscles and is breathing fire: to appeal to the machismo attitude of bodybuilders. Unfortunately, that plan never worked out because we didn't have the money it would take to advertise in those magazines.”
“We ended up putting our new Ring of Fire Hot Sauce into the same specialty gourmet stores and wineries that we sold our vinegars to and it took off. Boy did it take off! Within one year, we were so busy making hot sauce that we had to discontinue all of our vinegars and oils so we could concentrate on the hot sauce.”
“The rest as they say is history…”
“After several years, I kept hearing that Michael Anthony from Van Halen had a Ring of Fire tattoo on his arm. I never believed it because it wasn't something I had seen for myself. Then one day some friends of ours were heading to a music convention in Anaheim, and they said that Michael Anthony would be there signing autographs. I gave them a few bottles to take with them and give to Michael if they saw him. They waited in the hour-long line and gave him the sauces, which got him very excited. He took pictures with them and a picture holding the bottle next to his tattoo. As it turns out, it was his very first tattoo that he gave to himself for his 40th birthday present."
“Once I knew it truly was a Ring of Fire tattoo, I e-mailed his website and said ‘If you ever want to make your own hot sauce, let me know.’ I never, ever thought it would even get to him…He called the next day. He was really excited and super nice, so we set out making a recipe that he liked, which took several months and then we expanded the line from there. Currently, we manufacture and distribute his Mad Anthony's line of sauces.”
“Our new It's.Real.Good.Stuff line of products has come about because Diane and I love good food of all types. It doesn't have to be spicy; just unique, complex, and high quality. There are a bunch of product types we want to put out, but our Ring of Fire branding won't work for them. We know we have to expand in different directions to be a constantly growing, thriving company, so we will create new products under a different brand name to give us that ability. I'm passionate about desserts (yes, even more than I am hot sauce) so Dessert Sauces were something I've been dying to do for years. Diane is more into savory foods and loves to cook so the Pestos were something she really wanted to do. We’re so busy manufacturing Ring of Fire that we don't have time to make these new products ourselves so we found local companies who make similar products and partnered with them to create the items with the unique flavor profiles that we wanted. This is the line that we feel will be much bigger for us than Ring of Fire can ever be, so we plan on expanding it quite a bit. The name Ring of Fire and a chileman breathing fire can only go onto so many products and only so many stores will ever carry it; It's.Real.Good.Stuff gives us the ability to do anything we want and have it sold in outlets that will never carry our hot sauces.”
“From the start of our company we have had only one desire, To make people happy. We are not concerned with being the biggest or the most famous sauce out there. We just want to make a product that people enjoy and that brings a few minutes of pleasure to their day. People have very stressful lives and the only time we have to sit down and take a breath is when we eat. Sadly, most of that is hurried and ends up being ordered out of a clown’s mouth. If we can make those few moments more pleasurable, we've done our job.”
Mike Talks Hot Sauce: Inspiration and Recommendations
“For me, creating a new sauce is usually spurred by something I saw or tasted somewhere. It sparks my creativity and gets me thinking about a sauce that I want to make. I think about it for quite a while and run the recipes through my head over and over from all angles. When it comes time to actually make the sauce for the first time, I usually have a pretty good idea of how to do it. I can literally taste the sauce in my mind before I even try to make it. Then the hard part is trying to make it actually taste like what it does in my imagination. Sadly, it doesn't work a lot of the time. It might work when I make it but a few days later it might taste like crap. That happens a lot more than I'd like to admit. We've probably had 40-50 products we've worked on that have never gotten past the first two attempts to create it. Some are just good ideas but never translate into good sauces.”
“My favorite product we make is probably our Ring of Fire Steak Sauce; I actually make foods to go with my sauce instead of sauce to go with my food. The Spiced Dark Chocolate Dessert Sauce is also one I adore eating. Diane's favorite is the Ring of Fire Red Pepper & Roasted Garlic Hot Sauce. It isn't very spicy but is without a doubt our most versatile sauce and the one we use more than all the others combined. It really is a delightful sauce and goes fantastic in everything.”
“For someone just getting into hot sauce I highly recommend our Original Ring of Fire Hot Sauce. It's by far our biggest seller and is a medium heat level but packed with flavor. If that one is a bit hot for them, our Garden Fresh Chile Sauce is a great place to start. It's the same flavor as the Original but doesn't have Habanero Chiles in it, so it's more of a milder heat. For seasoned Chileheads, our X-tra Hot or XX-HOT Ring of Fire is the go to sauce. They also have the same bold flavor profile that the Original has but they pack an extra Habanero punch.”
“Also, when I mentioned that I wanted to make a spicy mustard for Ring of Fire, one of our customers, Al Buddah Goldenberg sent us a deli mustard from Batampte. It is AMAZING! That is probably the only jar of mustard that I've eaten the entire thing without having to toss it 2 years later, still half full. That mustard is so good that it kinda killed my desire to make one for ourselves. I was like “‘I can't compete with that, so why even try.’"
Giving Back To The Community
“We have a few charities here in San Diego that we like to help out, such as the Senior Community Center who makes meals for low income seniors. Diane and I both are the youngest in our families and we don't have children. There will be no one to help us out when we are older, so we can empathize with seniors struggling to get by. It could just as easily be us there, so we want to help them every way we can.”
“Up until a few years ago, we would mail Christmas cards to our retail customers who order sauce on our website. As time went on, the list became so large that we would spend hours a night for 2 months working on Christmas cards. We didn't mind because it was something we liked to do and felt was the right thing to do. Then Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and affected so many people, some of whom were friends and customers. We decided that year to take all the money we would spend on cards and postage (add a bunch to it) and send it to the Sandy Relief Fund in the names of our customers. We think it is a more important use of our money and our customers understand and agree."
“Now each Christmas we choose three charities to support for the year. One local, one national, and one for something that doesn't have the ability to help or speak for itself. Last year, it was the Senior Community Center, Wounded Warrior Project, and Bunny World Foundation who rescues abused bunnies, cares for them, and finds them proper homes.”