Hot and Saucy: The Humboldt Hotsauce Story
By Benjamin Fordham
When it comes to food, do you prefer yours bland and boring? Or do you prefer spicy-sweet, organic, packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, farm-to-table, life-affirming food? This is a story about the latter.
It’s also a story about two friends who turned their love of good food into a successful business. They are Daniel Bixler and Cal Ferris, two men from opposite sides of the country who would meet and form a friendship in Humboldt County, of all places.
But let’s go back in time, to where this story began…
Cal Ferris was raised in Long Beach, Southern California. He grew up surfing the waves, skating the streets, and generally living the so-cal lifestyle. Growing up, Cal would make frequent visits to the Caribbean Islands with his best friend and step-dad, where he would soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of a new culture.
“I was just really into what they were eating, the music, the lifestyle,” says Ferris. “I wanted to make something that reminds me of how that feels.”
He also developed a love affair with good food. He says his grandma’s barley, lamb, and tomato stew was “the best thing in the world. As a kid, I saw how that made people feel.” It’s a love affair he would later pursue as a classically-trained saucier.
Meanwhile, across the country and a world apart, Daniel Bixler was growing up outside Washington D.C., soaking in an entirely different culture. “It was classic Americana,” recalls Bixler. “We went to the Smithsonian literally hundreds of times…we went to the White House almost every year.”
This melting pot of political and cultural influences, combined with the Great American spirit of “we can do anything we set our minds to” helped shape Daniel as an entrepreneur, and as a person.
When the two met in Humboldt, they formed and instant bond. “Cal is just one of those people you can trust your life with,” says Bixler. They lived at a house at K & Alliance for a time, where they shared their love for music (Daniel plays guitar, Cal plays bass) and good food.
It was during this time that, unbeknownst to them, the seeds of Humboldt Hotsauce were planted.
When the two parted ways to pursue separate dreams, their friendship stayed intact. Daniel remained in Humboldt, working as a marriage and substance abuse counselor, while Cal relocated to Portland, Oregon, to pursue his dream of owning and operating his own restaurant.
Ferris’ dream was realized when he and his wife opened Cool Runnings in downtown Portland. It was a slice of what Cal had fallen in love with so many years ago; the feel, the atmosphere, and the food of the Islands.
Cool Runnings was a huge success, receiving rave reviews from local publications and drawing customers from all walks of life. “There was always a line out the door,” Ferris says. But when new laws regulating hood vent systems came into effect in Oregon, Cal’s landlord was unwilling to pay for the upgrades. With Cal unable to afford them, the restaurant was forced to close its doors.
But Portland’s loss was Humboldt’s gain. Cal served a popular condiment at every table in Cool Runnings; a sweet, spicy sauce that patrons put on almost everything. It was so popular that people began asking to buy jars of it.
Bixler had purchased the Humboldt Hotsauce domain name a few years earlier, and when he pitched the idea to Cal over Thanksgiving dinner in 2006, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Adapted from Cool Runnings’ table condiment, reminiscent of the Islands, Humboldt Hotsauce’s Habanero-Mango sauce was born.
Cal was once again calling Humboldt County home, and when it came time for them to form the company, the Humboldt ethos of community and social responsibility came through in their business model.
“As a company, we’re going to have ethics,” says Bixler. “We’re going to do things right.” This includes their “farm-to-table” philosophy. Every bottle is all-natural, vegan, GMO-free, gluten-free, and preservative-free. It hasn’t always been easy in a world saturated with high-fructose corn syrup and unlabeled GMO’s, and there have been opportunities to cut corners.
“Our first co-packer (a production and packaging company) we called, I started telling them our recipe,” says Bixler. “I said, ‘Okay, first we caramelize the onions.’ They said ‘Caramelize the onions? No, no, we just throw everything into the vat and you get what you get.’” They went in another direction.
Eventually Daniel called back Sonoma Gourmet, a co-packer who initially said they wouldn’t be able to produce such small orders. “I sent him some samples, and he called me back and said ‘This is a great product, let’s do business.’”
Their first order was for 65 cases. “It was thrilling and scary…we delivered it ourselves,” says Bixler. “Before we knew it, we were in 45 stores in Humboldt.”
Humboldt Hotsauce recently took a big step forward as a company when Whole Foods, a nation-wide chain of natural food supermarkets with 30 locations in Northern California, started carrying their sauces. “I just called them on the phone, like I always do,” said Bixler.
Humboldt Hotsauce has been so successful for a reason; it’s good sauce. “It just brings this dynamic to the food,” says Ferris. “It’s all about the taste buds. I don’t like bland food.” He adds that its “awesome” in soups and stocks.
After all the hard work, praise for HHS is starting to come in. The Habanero-Mango sauce won a Bronze at the 2010 Hot Pepper Awards in the Caribbean category, and they took home a Gold medal for the Habanero-Mango and a Silver for their Island Style sauce at this year’s Humboldt County Fair.
And they haven’t had to sell their souls to become successful. “When people call me who need help, I say ‘here’s my co-packer. Here’s his name and number. And I’ll call him and tell him about you,” says Bixler. “This is the way Humboldt County works. We’re a small community and we work together.”
Ferris echoes the sentiment, saying “there’s no competition, only differences.”
It’s called Humboldt Hotsauce, and Ferris and Bixler have put down roots here. “It’s become my home,” Daniel says. “Humboldt is genuine. I miss that in other places. I can be 100% myself here. Plus we have the Oysterfest, the North Country Fair, the Kinetic Grand Championship…we have fun here.”
For fans of the Kinetic Grand Championship, you will recognize the People Powered Peppers, which HHS used as a charity fundraiser. And in typical Humboldt County fashion, the Peppers are currently parked in Daniel’s back yard.
“I definitely love this area for its way of life,” says Ferris. “In most places there’s no ‘hello’s’. You don’t make eye contact with people. Here it happens all the time.” The two also appreciate what a progressive area this is. “We’re healthy in our choices here. It’s important to us what we eat. GMO’s… those things matter to us here,” Cal says.
“For a small community, the quality of food we have here is amazing,” says Bixler.
Humboldt Hotsauce will be releasing a new sauce annually, with Cilantro-Lime sauce due out April or May of next year. They also have plans for a Jamaican Jerk sauce. And, talking with the two, the possibilities seem endless. “That’s what gives me my fire and keeps me alive,” says Ferris.
And so the seeds come to bear fruit. Hot and spicy fruit. Enjoy.
For more information, recipes, or to contact Humboldt Hotsauce visit humboldthotsauce.com
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him.”-Cesar Chavez
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