Posted May 11, 2006 by eman in Reviews

Spotlight: Figuero’s International Gourmet Foods

In a small historical town just west of St. Louis, lies an inconspicuous monster in the hot sauce industry. At first glance, it looks like just another antiques store in a long line of shops along this cobble stone street.

But as you step inside, you are immediately greeted with a great coffee gallery and some incredible aromas! We started with a coffee shop about 18 years ago, says owner John Figueroa. It is well stocked from floor to ceiling and nicely arranged by John’s wife, Lisa. After looking at the endless types of coffee you slowly wander into the world of spicy foods. This room was the original hot sauce room until it [the display of hot sauces] got to large. Now it is home to 100’s of BBQ’s, rubs, jerks, etc. If you are looking for a new sauce or rub to kick up your next meal a notch, this is the place to go.

As I tried to keep my attention in the condiment room, the mother load from the next room started calling my name! Not being able to take it anymore, I had to go into the mother of all hot sauce rooms. “We have just over 2100 different varieties,” John exclaimed “and have room for about 5000.” Trying not to get drool on myself, I picked a corner of the room and started looking there. Up and down, back and forth, I slowly made my way around the entire store. Even after I thought I had seen everything, something new would jump out at me. With just about every manufacturer being represented, and Blair’s and CaJohn’s being nicely stocked, I declared this as my new favorite place.

So how did this all start?
Coffee and hot sauce? Don’t sound like they would go well together. Well, for owner of Figuero’s Gourmet Coffee and International Foods they go together very well. Eighteen years ago, John Figueroa opened a coffee shop in St. Charles, Missouri. This coffee shop is known for the gourmet coffees and drinks. With online sales and people wandering in off the street, it is a very successful business. So how would you get from coffee to hot sauce?

“I am the world’s happiest guy when I get my coffee and Wall Street Journal each morning.” One day while looking at the Caribbean foods section about 7 years ago, John read that the hot sauce industry was predicted to grow 7-8 % over the next 10-15 years. John figured that was more growth than a CD so he decided to give it a shot. He took out an ad in Chili Pepper magazine that he was opening a store and within 2 months he had enough samples to completely fill 2 shelves. John saw another hot sauce store in a different part of St. Louis at the same time. He figured they had done it, so why couldn’t he? He decided to open his own store instead of buying a franchise of another store. The hot sauce part of the store originally started with just one wall towards the back of coffee shop.

John’s Personal Collection
John not only has a hot sauce store, he also has his own personal hot sauce collection. His collection includes several different manufacturers and duplicates of most of their products. His personal collection is not a way for him to make money, it is something he respects and values. When offered money for a particular item in his collection, he will politely refuse and state that it is not about the money, it is about the product. He is the proud owner of several very rare items, and you can see the glow radiate from his face as he talks about some of them. Items like the infamous Beyond Death (I am so jealous), a Hot Pot with a rasta hat, and a Scorned Woman with a white label, to just mention a few, are prized sauces in his collection.

Lessons Learned
We all know that certain hot sauces are valuable. Imagine yourself bringing one of your prized possessions to a playground full of kids. Sounds like a bad idea right? Well John would agree with you. Unfortunately he once made the mistake of taking one of his more valuable collectible hot sauces, a Blair’s Caldera, into the store to show customers. Normally he would leave his personal collection at home, but he had three Calderas and he figured he would take one into his store for others to see. I am sure you can all see where this is going… a customer and his son were admiring the sauce. When the little boy was given a chance to hold the bottle, he dropped it and the bottle broke. The bottle did not shatter; it just cracked the wrapper that holds the bottles together. Now John keeps that bottle in his store as a reminder never to bring his personal collection to work. As John likes to say, “Learn from your mistakes, believe me, I made plenty.”

Knowing Your Limits
From the beginning of his hot sauce endeavor, John has been passionate about this undertaking. When he first began selling hot sauces, he attended lots of trade shows. “I attended practically every show there was.” With locations like Albuquerque and New Orleans, they were not very close to home, but he attended regardless. He made connections with manufacturers, distributors, and other retailers, all in the name of hot sauce. John now has connections with more companies than I have ever heard of. John says, “Hot sauce people are the best to deal with.” Passion for hot sauce is not all that a business owner needs. He also needs and has a strong will to survive and a great business sense. According to John, “Knock on wood- we’re making a good living at it.” He has had to expand his display for hot sauces more than once. As he expands he gets closer and closer to what he calls his wife’s coffee area. She informed him that no matter what, he was not going to put any of his hot sauces in her coffee bar.

For John Figueroa, coffee and hot sauce have been very profitable. He has a website where customers can place orders for both. And with the great personality of these two, they make it a very inviting place to be. So next time you are in the Midwest, stop buy and say hello.

Figuero’s International Gourmet Foods
524 South Main Street
St. Charles, MO 63301