The Austin Chronicle

Food Set

By MM Pack, August 25, 2000, Food

J.P. Hayes, Mr. Sgt. Pepper's

The business card that states "Sgt. Pepper's, J.P. Hayes, Chile Connoisseur" kind of says it all. Salsa and hot sauce manufacturer, multiple Hot Sauce Festival winner, and all-around pepper aficionado, the congenial and energetic J.P. Hayes is something of a Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival institution.

Growing up in California and New Jersey, J.P. attributes his initial interest in spicy food to his mother, who, more than many people in those times and places, enjoyed experimenting with paprikas, curries, and chile powders. While he maintained an abiding interest in food and cooking, it took the combined magic of the right time, the right place, and the right planetary alignment for those sparks of interest to be fanned into hot flames. And that time and place was the first Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival in 1990.

J.P was working as a bartender at the Austin Radisson Hotel. He read about the Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival and felt that it was his destiny to enter. As it turns out, it was. While preparing the quart of sauce required for entry, J.P. decided it was just as easy to make a gallon. Hell, it was just as easy to make five gallons. Although he did not win the prize that first year, his sauce was very well-received -- he had bottled up that five gallons in recycled 10-ounce soda bottles, and it sold out the day of the festival. And with that initial sauce, which grew into the flagship Tejas Tears Hot Sauce, Sgt. Pepper was born and began a fulfilling journey down a long and winding road.

That same year, J.P. leased a commercial kitchen at the Travis County Farmer's Market to produce and sell hot sauce. There was a restaurant attached, and to support the hot sauce habit, J.P also ran a concurrent barbecue joint for three years. By 1993, he was successfully wholesaling sauces, so he closed the restaurant to devote his energy to his first love, the hot sauce business.

J.P. attended the well-known (in some circles) "Better Process Control" course at A&M to become a licensed manufacturer of shelf-stable acidified food. He taught regular classes in the Central Market Cooking School, and made his first guest-chef appearance in 1994 at L.A.'s Hot and Spicy Food Show. In 1996, in addition to the wholesale business, he opened a small retail shop on North Loop, called -- surprise -- Sgt. Pepper's Hot Sauce Shop, which carried, he recalls, hundreds of varieties of sauces and salsas. By 1998, J.P. bequeathed his retail stock and his blessing on the Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Museum (now Shop) on Sixth Street, so he could focus strictly on developing and selling his own sauce creations.

And that's where Sgt. Pepper's is today. There are three lines of bottled sauces: the habanero-based Tears line, the Chipotle del Sol group, and the Ancho Mama's family, all available at food stores around town and at the Westlake and Georgetown Farmers Markets. Future plans include making his fresh salsas shelf-stable, and making the pestos and fresh salsas available in stores. When asked if he has a favorite product, he replies, "I love my sauces like a mother loves her children; they are each unique, and I love them all equally for different reasons."

And all along the road, J.P. and Sgt. Pepper's have been racking up awards. He has placed in all but two of the Chronicle Hot Sauce Festivals, bagging the coveted first prize in 1994 for his Mango Ginger Mint Salsa, whose prodigy is now commercially available as Sgt. Pepper's Tropical Tears Mango Habanero Sauce. He has won a Scobie award, as well as prizes in Chile Pepper magazine's Fiery Foods Challenge, and in Fancy Foods magazine's Hot and Spicy Contest.

So what's the secret? "Flavor over fire," says J.P. Listen to this man. He knows hot sauce.

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