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Posted August 5, 2007 by Anthony in Makers
 
 

Meet Your Maker #25 – Mark & Julie Riffle from Palmetto Pepper Potions


Well it has been along time coming for this interview. But we were finally able to corner Julie and Mark to see what goes on behind the scenes at Palmetto Pepper Potions.

Palmetto Pepper Potions hot sauce company was founded in 2004 by Hot Honcho Mark Riffle and Potionologist Julie Riffle. Based in Columbia, South Carolina, Palmetto Pepper Potions has earned nine food industry awards and has been featured in Chef magazine, Southern Living magazine, The Toronto Star and other publications.

Palmetto Pepper Potions

HSB Interview Questions:
1. Why hot sauce? Where did the idea come from for you to get involved doing this?
Mark: One day our friend, photographer John Mann, showed up at work with about 300 chile pepper plants. He had ordered a bunch of pepper seeds over the Internet and had asked some friends to plant them in their greenhouse. He thought they would plant a few seeds from each packet, but they planted every seed from every packet. I loaded as many as I could fit into my car and we planted them all over our yard. We landscaped with chile plants that year – along the driveway, among the wildflowers – anywhere we could plant them.

My Dad built some raised garden beds for us and even filled them with rich soil from my hometown in West Virginia.

Julie: It was serendipity all the way. Palmetto Pepper Potions would not have been born without John Mann’s generous gift of pepper plants, Mark’s passion for gardening and spicy foods and my love of cooking. When all those gorgeous peppers got ripe, we didn’t want to waste them, so I started experimenting with making hot sauce.

After a few forgettable concoctions, I soon created a few sauces that we knew we would always want to have in our refrigerator. My appreciation for the individual nuances of different varieties of chile peppers developed quickly and my love of spicy flavors began. In our early stages we used to invite friends over for hot sauce creation nights. Everyone brought ingredients, empty bottles and their favorite beverages and we had a blast.

2. If you had to pick a favorite sauce of yours, which would it be?
That depends entirely on the food we’re eating. For seafood – especially crab cakes and grilled shrimp and scallops — we love Larynx Lava. Larynx Lava also mixes well with peanut butter and honey to create an Asian-style peanut sauce. Molten Golden is our choice for pork, chicken, salmon, good southern macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs and many other foods. We reach for Daily Red for pasta, pizza, Mexican food, scrambled eggs and oysters. Trenholm Venom is our hottest flavor and we love it on grilled chicken wings, meat loaf, hummus, sweet potatoes, sausage, lasagna, soups and stews. Trenholm Venom is excellent stirred into all natural peanut butter for a savory party spread.

3. Any new products we should be ready for from your line?
We have lots of fun hot sauce flavors and spicy condiments in the works. We plan to introduce them as our budget allows.

4. Where do you see the future of hot sauce 5 years from now? 10? 20?
We see it continuing to grow. People who adore hot sauce couldn’t possibly return to the land of the bland. We have had toddlers come up to our tasting table and try our spicy appetizers and then come back for more. We also have repeat customers who are in their 80s and 90s. We see the trend toward spicy, flavorful foods escalating as more people seek bold, interesting tastes and fun ways to spice up their meals.

As our country continues to become more diverse, people are exposed to new flavors and new ways of combining ingredients to create new tastes.

5. What is your favorite sauce that you don’t make?
Julie: Scorned Woman
Mark: A homemade sauce that a buddy of ours makes.

6. Do you eat the sauce you make?
Every day! We can’t imagine not having these flavors on our table all the time. We might have Daily Red on a scrambled egg pita for breakfast, Larynx Lava over an avocado and grilled chicken salad for lunch and Molten Golden Maple Salmon for dinner. We enjoy our sauces every day, take plenty along when we travel and share them with friends, family, our favorite bands and everyone we meet.

7. What do you eat hot sauce on?
Most everything! We have customers who eat Larynx Lava and Molten Golden on ice cream and some who like to drizzle our hot sauce over popcorn.

8. What sets you aside from the other hot sauce producers out there today?
We use fresh, natural ingredients and no artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives. We also don’t use high fructose corn syrup. We make sauces that attract a strong following of loyal customers who buy them again and again. We love to hear about their favorite flavors and how they use our sauces. On our website, (www.pepperpotions.com) we share easy recipes that make it simple for even a novice cook to make delicious appetizers and meals with minimal effort. You don’t have to peel the ginger, chop the garlic, mince the herbs or add extra salt or seasonings because everything is already balanced in the bottle, just waiting to add intense flavor to your dishes.

Mark: We specialize in tasty heat, not “hurt ya” heat.

9. What is your inspiration before you embark on a new concoction?
I concoct the flavor in my head first — then think about how to bring it to life. Each of our flavors has been handcrafted to the music of a favorite band or musician. Music has a powerful effect on what we create.
Daily Red was handcrafted to the music of Sister Hazel (www.sisterhazel.com) Larynx Lava was handcrafted to the music of Mark Kano, founder and lead singer of Athenaeum Molten Golden was handcrafted to the music of Mike Garrigan (www.mikegarrigan.com) Trenholm Venom was handcrafted to the music of Danielle Howle (www.daniellehowle.com)

Before our hot sauce was on the market, we used to take along homemade bottles when we went to see our favorite bands. It was exciting to hear back from them about how much they liked the sauce.

In the case of Larynx Lava, I had received a box of fresh tangerines and citrus grown by my Dad in Florida. We had lots of beautiful ripe red habanero peppers in our garden. I had been in touch with Mark Kano about a ginger dressing he makes and I decided to develop a hot sauce with tangerines, ginger, pineapple and fresh herbs.

Mark Kano has been my favorite singer since I first heard his voice when Athenaeum was touring in support of their “Radiance” record. Because we love his music so much, I wanted to create a sauce in his honor. The first homemade batch turned out exactly as I’d imagined. The Hot Honcho came up with the name Larynx Lava because of the way the initial sweet heat seduces you before the fiery wave hits you at the back of the throat.

10. Outside of creating hot products, what else keeps you occupied or out of trouble?
We love gardening, travel and spending time with our precious “Pepper Princess”, Mia. We also have fun naming new flavors.

11. Any weird stories or uses for your hot sauce that you would like to share?
Hot Honcho: I encourage expectant mothers to imbibe a shot or two of Trenholm Venom close to their due date in the hopes that it will induce labor. This is purely anecdotal, of course! If nothing else, a good shot of hot sauce might take your mind off other things.

Palmetto Pepper Potions

Julie: My weirdest experience was dealing with a contractor who had done some work at our house and became addicted to Molten Golden. After the work was done, he kept showing up at our door, begging for sauce. This was before our sauce was on the market and each homemade bottle was a labor of love. I had to peel every mango and do all the slicing and chopping and was trying to make enough bottles for Christmas presents.

This guy would show up clutching a paper bag of shriveled green cayennes and think I could just whip up a batch of Molten Golden for him from those sad little peppers. One day he arrived when I had a couple of batches in the works. There is no mistaking those heady habanero fumes and the scent of Molten Golden in the air. He begged for sauce because he was having company that weekend and had planned his cookout menu around Molten Golden.

At this point, he had come by so often that I thought about calling the sheriff’s deputy next door. Instead, I gave him a couple of bottles to hit the road and made him promise not to come back.

We’ve never seen him since, but hope he buys Molten Golden now that it is readily available in our area.

12. How much sauce do you make in a week?
We have four flavors, so we make a batch of a particular flavor every four to six weeks as needed, depending on our supply. For us, a batch is about 120 cases. Even though our Molten Golden flavor has earned the most awards, the four flavors sell very evenly because each one has its own fans.

13. How many different recipes do you go through when developing a new sauce?
Julie: For me, creating a batch of the flavor that has been brewing in my imagination is intuitive. The difficult part happens when the recipe has to be batch-scaled in order to be made in a huge quantity. The production process is completely different from making a small batch in your home kitchen.

Mark: We have a home garden with many varieties of peppers so that we can work on new flavors of hot sauce. This year, we’re growing Bhut Jolokia and some other types we plan to experiment with.

14. How did you get started in the industry?
You reach a point where you simply cannot keep up with the demand from people you love. Just trying to make enough to keep family and friends supplied was more than we could do. Everyone wanted it and when I was making it in our kitchen for gifts, I could spend hours and only have a few bottles to show for all the work involved.

When Mark’s Grandma Betty passed away, she bequeathed a gift that allowed us to begin working toward getting our hot sauce on the market. Grandma Betty was an avid gardener and we think she would be pleased with what her gift has become.

15. What is your biggest challenge so far?
One of our biggest challenges is establishing distribution channels to get the sauces delivered to stores. Getting a store to agree to carry our sauce is the easy part.

We’ve been excited to get our sauces into stores in Canada (www.salivate.ca) (www.thespicerack.ca) and in Costa Rica (www.bananabaymarina.com).

We have the same financial challenges all young businesses face. Producing a specialty food product is a huge financial endeavor and 96 percent of all new food products fail within the first three years. It takes a long time to recoup your initial investment and a lot of capital to sustain and grow your business.

Fortunately, we’ve been very successful in getting our sauces into stores and the people who taste them become repeat buyers. We’ve also been fortunate with being featured in a number of magazines, newspapers and some television news stories. Less than six months after we launched our first flavor, an editor for Southern Living magazine discovered our website. The article was published in July 2006 and was a nice boost in sales and awareness. The Toronto Star did a wonderful review of Molten Golden in March 2007 and that created quite a buzz for us.

16. What is the most common question you get?
“Is it hot?”
Even though the Hot Honcho is decked out in full pepper attire, our table is draped in chile pepper table linens and everything on our table is decorated with chile peppers, many people still have to ask, “Is it hot?” The Hot Honcho is quick to respond – “We make hot sauce, not apple sauce.”

17. What do you want to know from the readers of the HSB?
When you’re standing in front of a big selection of hot sauces, what makes you choose a particular bottle that you’ve never tried before? Bottle shape? Cool label? Ingredients?

18. What’s a typical day for you?
We’ve become accustomed to sleep deprivation, working nights and working most weekends. On weekdays, Mark is a human resources manager for a state agency and Julie is communications coordinator for a children’s hospital. We have a 5-year-old daughter, Mia, who accompanies us to all of our tasting events and is quickly becoming a chilehead. Our desire is to “Make Every Day Sizzle” and to laugh as often as possible. Hot sauce is the most fun, creative business we could imagine and we want to enjoy this opportunity to connect with other hot sauce lovers. We’re blessed with supportive friends and family. We also enjoy great meals every day.

19. Worst burn ever?
Eating some fresh fatalii peppers that we grew last summer. It’s an entirely different kind of burn than you get from the hottest habanero. We were so intrigued that we ordered twice as many fatalii plants for this year’s home garden.

20. Best burn ever?
Celebrating our surprise Scovie Award when our first flavor – Molten Golden – won a First Place Scovie shortly after we introduced it in 2004. We were stunned that a major award could happen so quickly. We enjoyed much bubbly and many celebratory meals in honor of that win.

Awards:
Molten Golden
1st Place Golden Chile Award — Hot Sauces, International — ZestFest 2005 1st Place Golden Chile Award — Hot Sauces, International — ZestFest 2006 1st Place Scovie Award — Hot Sauces, World Beat — Fiery-Foods & Barbecue Show 2005 1st Place Scovie Award — Hot Sauces, World Beat — Fiery-Foods & Barbecue Show 2006 3rd Place Scovie Award — Hot Sauces, Caribbean Style — Fiery-Foods & Barbecue Show 2007 2nd Place Award — Hot Sauces, Caribbean Style — America’s Best Professional Food Competition 2006

Larynx Lava
1st Place Golden Chile Award — Hot Sauces, Asian Style — ZestFest 2005 3rd Place Golden Chile Award — Hot Sauces, Asian Style — ZestFest 2006 3rd Place Scovie Award — Hot Sauces, Unique — Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show 2006

Palmetto Pepper Potions

Flavors:
Palmetto Pepper Potions’ sauces are handcrafted for superbly balanced flavor, harmonized with exceptional fire. Try Daily Red’, Larynx Lava’, Molten Golden’, and Trenholm Venom’. Our sauces are inspired by the beauty, hospitality and heat of South Carolina.

Daily Red
Give us this day our Daily Red. This irresistible elixir fires up scrambled eggs, grits, oysters, burgers, hot dogs, fries, fish, shrimp, chicken, ribs, grilled vegetables, cheeses, sandwiches, wraps, quesadillas, soups, pizza and pasta dishes. Daily Red was handcrafted to the music of Sister Hazel (www.sisterhazel.com)

Larynx Lava
Larynx Lava is a journey for your tastebuds. Red habaneros are kissed with an afterglow of tangerine, ginger and fresh herbs. Try Larynx Lava on grilled scallops, crab cakes, shrimp, chicken, veal, pork, sushi, stir-fry dishes, cheeses, vegetables, wraps and sandwiches. Larynx Lava was handcrafted to the music of Mark Kano.

Molten Golden
A Caribbean treasure bursting with fresh mangoes, cumin and curry in a mustard brew. Great on chicken, beef, barbecue, ham, sausage, hot dogs, burgers, seafood, vegetables, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, pasta salad and sandwiches. Molten Golden was handcrafted to the music of Mike Garrigan (www.mikegarrigan.com)

Trenholm Venom
Trenholm* rhymes with Venom. The name of a legendary shipping captain fits our hottest sauce yet. Trenholm Venom rages with fire-roasted red peppers, red habaneros, peaches, a touch of ginger, garlic, fresh herbs and molasses. Savor it on salmon, oysters, scallops, shrimp, pork tenderloin, beef, lamb, veal, grilled chicken wings, sandwiches, cheeses and roasted vegetables. Trenholm Venom was handcrafted to the music of Danielle Howle & the Tantrums (daniellehowle.com)
*Pronounced TREN-um
Our Trenholm Venom flavor currently is featured on tables at The Inn at Palmetto Bluff (www.palmettobluffresort.com), near Hilton Head, SC, which was chosen #2 Top US Resort in the Reader’s Choice Awards 2006 in Conde Nast Travel magazine.

Palmetto Pepper Potions, LLC
PO Box 6126
Forest Acres, SC 29260
803-782-8020
www.pepperpotions.com

Would you like to be interviewed or otherwise featured on the HSB? Check out our Want to be featured page for more information. We’re waiting to hear from you!


Anthony