May/June 2014 Artisans
de Mars’s rooster sauce is heating up
BY JENNIFER CRAIN
De Mars’s Rooster Sauce was created in the tiny kitchen of an apartment in Virginia, where first year law student John de Mars spent his evenings experimenting with a high-speed blender. He popped chile pepper stems into a paper bag on the floor, smashed garlic cloves, and measured dried spices. For two weeks he made batch after batch of hot sauce, until he was happy with the result.
The concoction soon became popular on campus. His fellow students ate the deep orange sauce in spades, livening up platefuls of potluck fare or slathering it on morning eggs from bottles de Mars sent home with them. One friend purchased in bulk, to keep up a private stash that he distributed to friends back in Cincinnati.
The popularity of the sauce was exactly what de Mars had been hoping for. Though only 24 years old at the time, and not trained as a cook, he was exploring the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. He hoped to integrate his business dreams with a lifestyle that revolved around whole foods and outdoor adventure. Given his love for outsize flavor and weeklong backpacking trips, hot sauce made sense.
“It’s something you can bring with you,” de Mars says. “When you’re out on the mountain and you’re limited to food by weight, a few ounces of something that’s spicy packs a lot of flavor.”
The typical bottled hot sauce is a thin-bodied slurry of crushed and fermented chile peppers and vinegar, great for delivering a splash of heat at the table, but de Mars wanted a thicker texture and a different flavor profile. He also wanted to avoid synthetic preservatives and processed thickeners. Aiming for a sauce that could withstand the heat of a skillet without evaporating, he decided to use an olive oil base, giving the sauce enough heft to set it apart.
Soon de Mars was preparing 10-gallon batches every couple of weeks, spending off-hours making the sauce out of the kitchen at a nearby bistro, and delivering bottles to local businesses. His online sales grew. At the end of the academic year, he took a leave of absence, packed his truck, and moved back to Washington (he grew up in Woodinville).
Olympia was an ideal place to launch his hot sauce business. De Mars found that the chile peppers were fresher and of higher quality than those in Virginia. They could also be sourced locally, for at least a portion of the year. De Mars’s supplier, Charlie’s Produce, says they work with five regional farms whenever possible to source hot peppers for the company. Two of them, Krueger Pepper Gardens and Alvarez Organic Farms, grow dozens of pepper varieties apiece.
Capsicum fruits have personality traits that go beyond the quick temper of a cayenne or the slow-rising heat of a jalapeño. They can taste tropical, peppery, pear-like, citrus spiked, nutty, or several of these at once. De Mars loves them all.
“Some are sweet and spicy, some are smoky hot, some are kind of sharp. All the peppers have their own little catch,” he says.
De Mars wanted to combine them into something fiery to appeal to the growing number of hot sauce lovers. The magic turned out to be in the proportions. The capsaicin–packing habañero forms a flavor base that’s rounded out by jalapeño, Hungarian cherry, serrano, and Anaheim chile peppers. The sauce clocks in at 110,000 Scoville heat units.
Perhaps even more than the spice level, de Mars’s Rooster Sauce is defined by a garlic and curry combination that complements an Indian masala as readily as it does a Southwestern-style omelet.
“We like to say that it’s not just a heat sauce but a flavor sauce as well,” says Mike Boroughs, de Mars’s co-strategist and chief financial officer. “That is really something we strive for.”
As the business grew, de Mars had trouble keeping up with production. When the partners decided to hire out to a small processing facility in Gold Bar, de Mars moved to Seattle. On production days, he still shows up to stem peppers, helping to process the 100-gallon batches the company makes every few months.
These days hot sauce has been in the news. In November of 2013, California-based Huy Fong Foods, maker of Sriracha, was ordered to scale back operations at its only processing facility due to complaints from community members about the smell. This set off a small panic among hot sauce lovers. De Mars heard about the situation from his own customers, who saw it as a boon for their favorite local sauce.
De Mars says the ongoing Sriracha case affirmed his dedication to small-batch processing and regional distribution. “On processing days, our facility smells good,” he laughs. “But really, in terms of the quality of the product and the ability to deliver, we just think smaller production runs mean we can produce a better, fresher, more available product.”
Judging from their quick rise in sales, customers of the two-year-old company seem to agree. Sales doubled in 2013 and they expect them to continue to rise this year.
Cully Wakelin, the company’s designer, says the sauce’s growing popularity is as much due to its Seattle locale as its universal flavor appeal.
“This product really got going because of the people, because of Olympia and because of Seattle,” Wakelin says. “It will always be something that started here and is owned by the community here.”
He adds that the next iteration of their label, which features de Mars’s own oil painting of the company rooster, may incorporate a Seattle skyline and an image of Mount Rainier. The latter would be especially fitting: in 2012 de Mars reached the summit with a bottle of the sauce intact, a symbol of the type of passion and perseverance de Mars prioritizes in his personal life and in business.
“You meet so many people who are relatively successful, but not happy,” de Mars says. “So much fulfillment and happiness is derived from a sense of connectedness, community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. I think that’s important. And I think small business can propel our society to be more connected.”
De Mars’s Rooster Sauce is available at Central Co-op, Uwajimaya, Montlake Boulevard Market, West Seattle Produce, Husky Deli, and Sunset Hill Green Market, among other locations. You can order online at hotroostersauce.com
Jennifer Crain is an Olympia freelance writer who loves food entrepreneurs and has a permanent spot in the fridge for many of their products, including a bottle of de Mars’s Rooster Sauce. Her food-life blog is at theplumpalate.com.