Posted June 16, 2006 by Nick Lindauer in Makers

Heating Up Garfield, NJ: The Three Hot Tamales


Lisa Derr knew that she needed to figure out a way to make money from home. The recently unemployed mother of three was busy caring for a terminally ill mother and a 3-year-old daughter regularly plagued with respiratory infections, making the usual nine-to-five job impossible. She needed a plan, and she found one in an unexpected place: her husband’s collection of hot sauces.

“All the hot sauces just tasted like pure heat,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s do something with flavor.’ Flavor first, then heat.”

Not one to sit around contemplating ideas for long, Derr immediately called her friend Jodie Charney, also recently unemployed, to tell her the plan and arrange the first meeting of their fledgling hot sauce company.

That was last summer. Just one year later, Derr, Charney and Kristi Smith — together, they are known as the Three Hot Tamales — have themselves a co-packer in Vermont, a first-place award for best habanero sauce, and their products on the shelves of more than a dozen specialty stores. At a time when most small startup businesses would be gasping for air, the Three Hot Tamales are breaking even. Disney has even given them a call.

“They want to use our display [for trade shows] and our sauces in a movie,” Derr said. “They’re re-enacting a chile pepper festival in the movie, Wild Hogs.”

The three Garfield moms were the stars of the National Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque last March, where they were just one of a handful of woman-owned businesses and were the first to sell out their supply. Their “Cry Baby” hot sauce won first place in the habanero category, and their “Make Me Moan Mango” sauce took third place in the fruit category of the Scovie Awards, named after the Scoville Heat Units used to measure heat in spicy foods. Prior to starting the company, they’d had little more than ketchup and Tabasco sauce in their cupboards at home. At the Fiery Foods Show, after impressing with their hot sauces, they were invited into the pepperhead fold.

“If you’re a chile head, you’re family — one big dysfunctional family,” Smith said.

This family cares for its own, even though members often compete against one another. Almost everyone the Tamales met at the show was helpful, especially their mentor, John Hard, owner of CaJohns Fiery Foods in Columbus, Ohio. Hard got a lot of help starting his company in 1997, so he returned the favor by offering the Tamales marketing and product guidance.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I was in the same boat that they’re in,” he said. “I didn’t want them to make the same mistakes I had made.”

So far, they don’t seem to be making too many. In addition to the two award-winning hot sauces, they also make a “Garlic Lovers Steak Sauce” and a “Smokin’ Chipotle BBQ Sauce.” They also have two spice rubs, both called “Rub Me the Right Way,” although one is hot, one sweet.

They try for fun, flirty names for each product; some names come easily, while others are the fruit of much brainstorming.

“People ask us, ‘Are you drinking when you come up with these names?'” Derr said. (The answer is no; at least, that’s what they say.)

While some hot sauce producers use pure capsaicin extract to get the hottest sauces possible, the Tamales prefer fresh peppers for both flavor and heat. The next sauce they’re releasing — “Pleasure, Passion and Pain,” with passion fruit and habaneros — will be their hottest yet.

“As they sit, they get a lot hotter,” Derr said. “On the bottles, it says heat can change.”

The creation of new sauces is a collective effort. The three women gather in Derr’s kitchen with fruit purees, peppers and spices and mix things until they hit on the right combination. The arguments usually begin after several hours of working together in close quarters, but none lasts more than a few minutes.

“It’s hard not mixing the business and friendship,” Derr said. “They’re like sisters, so when there’s a problem, you do take it personal.”

She met Charney when she coached Charney’s daughter’s softball team. Charney brought Smith into the business; the two had been friends for 15 years after Smith met Charney’s husband at work.

Of the three, only Smith continues to work full-time (at a salon) in addition to the hot sauce business. Charney works part-time as a teacher’s aide at a Garfield preschool, and Derr works part-time in the medical field. But all hope to sell enough to enable them to work full time on the business.

The Tamales started by mixing sauces at home and then offering samples at flea markets to get feedback; however, because New Jersey law forbids selling foods prepared in home kitchens, the women had to find a co-packer in an FDA-approved facility to help bottle their products. The closest they could find that would agree to produce in small quantities is in St. Albans, Vt. Rather than entrust the cooking to anyone else, the three women pack up every two or three months for a road trip north, where they spend a few days cooking their sauces in 100 gallon tanks.

One problem: The sauces don’t taste just like those made in Derr’s kitchen.

“We have to let go,” Charney said. “It’s not going to taste like homemade. That’s the first thing the co-packer explained. We strive to get as close to the homemade taste as possible.”

Every trip to Vermont sends them home with 200 to 250 cases of sauce, which they sell through their Web site, www.threehottamales.com, and in a few specialty shops throughout the country and in Canada.

Their next stop is the ZestFest, hosted by Chile Pepper magazine in Ft. Worth, Texas, in September. There, they’ll go up against other hot sauce makers for the coveted Golden Chile award.

“It’s kind of like the Oscars of the fiery foods,” Hard said. “In a chile-head world, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Golden Chile and the Scovies. And I’m pretty sure the girls will be able to do very well.”

Reach Carolina Bolado at 973-569-7066 or bolado@northjersey.com.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog