Posted April 3, 2006 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Reeling in business with hot sauces

Special to The Miami Herald

You could say the perfect storm of Donna Wilson’s love of fishing, a taste for spicy foods and a familiarity with Cajun seasonings led to the flaming success of her small business venture, Reel Heat.

She started the commercial venture in the kitchen of her Coconut Grove home only a year ago, but already her prowess with chile peppers, jalapeños and other spicy ingredients has been recognized with top national awards for three new products she created and introduced in the hot sauce market.

Forty-six-year-old Wilson trusts her own taste buds when creating sauces that give an extra zing to chicken, meats, fruit and especially fish.

So far Wilson says Reel Heat is breaking even, and she hopes to turn a profit by next year. At $5.99 to $6.99 a bottle, Reel Heat sauces are pricier than most on the shelf because they fall into the gourmet-style category.

But Wilson’s success at recent spicy food competitions indicates she’s hit on some winning combinations.


At the 2006 Fiery Food Challenge in Albuquerque, N.M., her Meltdown Marlin Hot Sauce picked up the Golden Chile Award as the first place finisher in the best medium hot sauce category. Her Too Hot Tuna Hot Sauce won second place in the Asian division.

More than 600 hot sauces and related spicy products such as relishes, salsas and mustards vied for honors in 80 different divisions at the Fiery Food Challenge. The annual competition is sponsored by the Food Network and Chile Pepper magazine.

In addition to honors at the Fiery Foods Challenge, Wilson also picked up an award in Fort Worth, Texas. There judges at the 2006 Scovie Award national hot products competition sponsored by Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine selected her Wailing Wahoo Hot Sauce as the best of all Fruit Hot Sauce entries. That concoction is a combination of mango, citrus and chocolate habanero. In addition, Reel Heat’s label was named a winner in the logo division.
Wilson’s entrance into the hot sauce market comes at a time when spicy products are enjoying new popularity.

Dave DeWitt, president of Sunbelt Shows, which publishes Fiery Foods magazine and sponsors the Fiery Food Challenge, says Americans are becoming more sophisticated about spicy foods.

DeWitt, who has written 32 books on spicy foods, says the Internet has played a big role in educating people on ways to enjoy spicy products. The Fiery Food website, for example, had 2 million visitors last year.

”There is a potential,” DeWitt said, “of trying to convert the tastes of middle America.”

”The world is getting smaller,” said Marie Dalby, editor-in-chief of Chile Pepper magazine, “and people are not just interested in the same old, same old, like salt and pepper. They’re learning there are a lot more ingredients and distinctive flavors.”

Wilson came to her new business venture in a roundabout way but the ingredients for a prize-winning hot sauce entrepreneur, who especially likes to zip up fish, were always there.

”I take after my dad, who loved food, especially spicy food,” Wilson said. Dad was the late George Wilson, longtime CEO of Holsum Bakers.

Donna Wilson also picked up her father’s interest in deep-sea fishing during outings on his 48-foot Hatteras when she was a teenager.

In 1984, when she married and moved to Louisiana, where Cajun seasonings are king, her love of spicy foods grew.

But making and marketing her own brand of hot stuff didn’t cross her mind until several years later.

In the interlude, Wilson divorced and moved to Atlanta where she owned a quarter horse farm. But an accident — a kick by one of the horses that shattered her leg so badly it almost had to be amputated — contributed to her decision to come home to Miami.

”I kept riding for a year,” Wilson recalled, ‘but my body said, `Stop,’ and I came back to Miami.”

Once here, marine interests captivated her anew and she invented and patented a telescopic outrigger that keeps fishing lines from getting entangled during sport fishing. The outrigger is sold nationwide by a boat supplier and has become standard equipment on fishing boats.

In 2000, she sold the patent for the outrigger to Taco Metals, a marine supplier. Now she is a manufacturer’s representative for Ocean Marketing. When not making her hot sauces, she travels throughout Florida conducting seminars and training sessions to market marine products.

While still living in the Atlanta area, she began experimenting with hot sauces. But the project began in earnest when she moved back to Miami. She invested $15,000 of her own money and tested and re-tested recipes.

To get her products in the marketplace, she decided to work with a co-packer, Prima Foods, which has a kitchen approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

”I sent them samples and they did a chemical analysis of the contents,” Wilson said. “They reproduce the sauce and add preservatives. Then it is sent back and forth between us until I think it tastes like my recipe. When something is produced in large quantities, it can change the taste.”

The next steps were designing labels and picking a name for her enterprise.

”I decided on Reel Heat because it combines my interest in sports fishing and the hot sauces,” Wilson said./p>

For now she’s distributing the sauces herself. Her associations in the marine industry due to her outrigger invention have proved helpful. Wilson often also promotes her sauces at nautical shows.

Reel Heat sauces aren’t currently available in local groceries, but Wilson has sold her products at tackle shops, pro shops and stores selling marine supplies. Another local customer is the Tijuana Flats restaurant in Pompano Beach.

Wilson is pleased with the current spicy trends in food circles and hopes her hot sauce business grows.

”But in the meantime,” she said, “I’m not quitting my day job.”

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog