Flame On

Hot-saucy legends get fired up for the festival

J.P. Hayes
J.P. Hayes (Photo By John Anderson)

J.P. Hayes is a quietly effervescent man, if such a thing can be imagined. His manner is courtly, almost antebellum, his voice gentle. He looks you right in the eye when he speaks to you and listens thoughtfully when you speak. Yet there is a constant merriment in his eyes, and his home and office both scream with vibrancy and color. His home is clearly organized with an eye to entertaining, in both senses of the word; it feels like a party, and it looks like the perfect place to throw one. This is a guy who not only loves fun, I get the feeling he doesn't think anything is fun unless it's shared. He is Sgt. Pepper of Sgt. Pepper's Hot Sauce, one of Austin's most beloved brands.

Hayes has been involved with the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival since the very beginning. He was working at the Radisson Hotel in 1990 when he first read that the Chronicle was going to hold a competition to settle once and for all (well, at least on a yearly basis), whether Austin or San Antonio boasted the best hot sauce. (That was the original idea.) The minute he read of the contest, he felt destiny.

"At that time, all there was was Tabasco and Pace," he explains. "I started making my own sauce because I couldn't find a hot sauce that was hot enough! At that time, very few people in Austin had heard of habanero peppers. I was lucky enough to be eating with my friends at Evita's Botanitas on South First, and one from our group asked the waiter to bring us a habanero from the back." Hayes began using the exotic fiery orange peppers in his homemade sauce. "As I started making a batch of sauce to enter the competition, I thought, well, I might as well make a gallon," he recalls. "Then I thought, I might as well make five gallons. I didn't win first prize that first year, but I sold out of my sauce!"

It only took Hayes exactly, um, three days to change his profession from bartender to hot-sauce mogul. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of his hot sauce (a recipe that evolved into his flagship sauce, Tejas Tears), he rented a commercial kitchen and barbecue restaurant on Burnet Road less than a week after that first competition. There he began making – and eventually bottling – his sauce. In subsequent years, Hayes has placed in all but two of the Hot Sauce Festival competitions, and in 1994 he won first prize for his Mango Ginger Mint Salsa. (The host of celebrity chefs that judged the event loved it so much, they never let his bowl of salsa out of their judging tent, a tribute that still makes Hayes smile.) The fresh Mango Ginger Mint Salsa evolved into Sgt. Pepper's Tropical Tears Mango Habanero Sauce, one of the most highly acclaimed of his sauces.

"Winning the Austin Chronicle competition is a big deal," he explains. "It isn't like a lot of other hot-sauce contests. People have heard of it; it means something. No other award, other than my Scobie Award, is as well-known. I have won other competitions, but the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival Award is one distributors and food buyers pay attention to."

Sgt. Pepper's has expanded from the one original sauce into four distinct lines. The Tejas Tears line is habenero-based; the Chipotle del Sol line features the rich, heady flavor of smoked jalapeños; and the Ancho Mama line relies on the earthy flavor of ancho peppers. The newest line is that of the seasonal sauces Hayes has been inspired to create due to his increased presence at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market. Seeing the giant blackberries at the adjoining stall, Blackberry Chipotle was created for spring, with other seasonal flavors being introduced as the seasons turned: Tomatillo Chipotle for summer, Pumpkin Chipotle for fall, and a special Cranberry Habanero for the holiday season.

This year's Hot Sauce Festival will also feature Texas Green Salsa and Texas Smoke Salsa. The Texas Smoke is a concoction of sweet pecan-smoked tomatoes and fire-roasted jalapeños. "A lot a people think we add sugar to the smoke sauce, but we don't." Hayes explains. "It's just when you smoke tomatoes that slowly, and that long, it caramelizes all the sugars." The Texas Green Salsa has won awards at the contest in the past as a fresh salsa, but this year it has been rendered shelf-stable so that it can be purchased throughout the year. Sgt. Pepper's Hot Sauces are available at Central Market, Whole Foods, Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop, and Sunset Valley Farmers Market, where Hayes mans his own booth.

Jill and Kevin Lewis of Austin Slow Burn Chile Products are their own bosses and are doing something that they love. What started as a way to "use up" excess hot peppers from their garden has become a thriving international business, offering a full line of chile-pepper products. Their company, Austin Slow Burn, has expanded to become a full-time job, and then some, for both of them – and one they're more than happy to do.
Jill and Kevin Lewis
Jill and Kevin Lewis (Photo By John Anderson)

Jill is a fiery, no-nonsense Texan. She couldn't be friendlier, or feistier. She has worked all her life in the restaurant business, starting at the tender age of 13, and not much gets past her. There is most often good humor and a rollicking laugh waiting to happen in her voice, and she radiates a warmth that leaves no doubt that if you stopped by their house to ask directions, she'd make you stay for dinner. She doesn't sweat the small stuff, yet she also has that certain something that lets you know her bullshit detector is finely tuned, and you better not try to hand her any.

Jill and Kevin entered the Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival competition the first year with their Salsa con Habanero. It didn't win. It didn't even place. You can imagine the effect this had on a woman of Jill's disposition. "I had to prove them wrong!" she laughs. Not winning may have been the best entrepreneurial stimulant possible. She and Kevin continued making hot sauce from their extensive home garden, continued to enter the Chronicle contest, and continued to not win or place. Every defeat merely served to strengthen their resolve. By 1994, they were ready to get serious and start bottling their salsa.

"I threw down the gauntlet," Jill remembers. "I told Kevin on New Year's Eve that if we didn't actually get to bottling it that year, we would not be allowed to speak of it again." Rather than give up what had been, until then, a speculative dream, they attended Texas A&M's food-processing school and by 1996 had their first bottle on the shelves.

From the very beginning, Austin Slow Burn hot sauce caught on with the public. Not feeling qualified to design the labels, Jill hired graphic designer Susan Manzello, and they made a mock-up jar. When she took the jar to Central Market to see if the label looked good on the shelf, a customer came right up and tried to buy it. "Well, I figured it was eye-catching enough after that," Jill says. It hasn't stopped flying off the shelves since.

From that first salsa, Austin Slow Burn has branched into a variety of chile-pepper products: salsas, spicy jellies and jams, cooking sauces and marinades. "What has made our products stand out," Jill explains, "is that we use just the right amount of fire. Our products aren't hot for the sake of hotness alone; they are intensely flavorful. It's not about proving you are a man; it's about making your food taste good! We don't just sell them; we use them all the time in our own kitchen."

Their Salsa con Habenero remains a bestseller, with their Salsa Verde coming in a close second. Austin Slow Burn's Cranberry Jam, Habanero and Rosemary Jelly, and Green Chile Jam are perennially the top-selling jams at the Tears of Joy Hot Sauce shop, and the Spiced Peach Jam and Hot Apple Pie Jam will change your mind about spicy jam in a single tasting. Once you try them, you realize that hot pepper jelly isn't a gag gift for Yankees; it's a delicious condiment that's right at home on sandwiches, grilled meats, cheese, and crackers.

Now that they have two full-time employees (Kevin quit his day job in March; Jill has been full-time for the past 10 years), Austin Slow Burn has upped production and moved to a brand-new commercial kitchen in East Austin. In addition to a 60-gallon cauldron, they have a tilting 30-gallon cauldron, two convection ovens, and a manual labeling machine. Both Jill and Kevin are putting in 60 hours a week these days, and if business gets any better, they might have to enslave their offspring.

Though they still have yet to win the coveted first-place award at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, Austin Slow Burn has been racking up awards elsewhere. Their products have garnered first-place awards at the Texas Fiery Foods Show, the National Fiery Foods Show, the Houston Hot Sauce Festival, Chile Pepper magazine's ZestFest, and Food Distributor's Magazine's salsa category.

At this year's Hot Sauce Festival, the Lewises will unveil their brand-new Green Chile con Queso, which will be sold in the refrigerator case at local markets. "It's teenager-approved!" says Jill, referring to the fact that their teenage son (and his coterie of familiars) were forced to eat queso until perfection was declared. Also new to the lineup will be a jalapeño jam. "It is different than other jalapeño jams," Jill explains. "It has the perfect heat level, and all the traditional jalapeño spices: bay leaf, oregano, and thyme."

Austin Slow Burn products are available at Central Market, Whole Foods, Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop, Grape Vine Market, and from various Internet suppliers.

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