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Dave Hirschkop of Dave's GourmetDave’s Insanity Sauce has the notoriety of not only once being the hottest sauce in the world in the 1990s, but it’s probably currently the most famous specialty hot sauce known by non-chileheads. Folks who aren’t heat freaks may be able to rattle off three or four “supermarket” pepper sauces like Frank’s, Tapatio or Tabasco, but when you press them about giving an example of a super-hot condiment, chances are they’ll name Dave’s Insanity more often than any other sauce.

It’s this distinction and mystique about Insanity Sauce that’s kept Dave near or at the top of the fiery foods game for over 15 years. But Dave’s Gourmet is far more than just their flagship product; Hirschkop’s company offers many other fine pepper sauces, plus pasta sauces, drink mixes, condiments, spicy snacks and more.

I was recently given the chance to speak with Dave to ask him a few questions. One might have expected a wild, gregarious man who once regularly wore a straightjacket to food shows and on the cover of his cookbook, Crazy from the Heat. Instead, Dave proved to be a genial, mild-mannered fellow. After conversing with him, I was given the impression that Dave would rather focus on making his company a diverse brand of gourmet food products (“more of a Trader Joe’s or Paul Newman’s” in his words) than just being makers of scorchingly hot products, something that would differentiate himself from peers such as Blair’s of CaJohn’s.

Scott: How long have you been on the West Coast?

Dave: I’ve been out here for like 16 years. I’m originally from Virginia.

Scott: When did you first become a chilehead?

Dave: I’m probably an outcast in the industry. I’m not a pure chilehead. I like spicy food and I like non-spicy food. I like most any food, actually. I’ve been eating spicy food for 17, 18 years. My family really doesn’t eat spicy food. I’m more the exception than the rule.

Scott: How did you get into the hot sauce business? Was it when you were working at the Burrito Madness restaurant in Maryland?

Dave: When I owned my own restaurant, I developed some sauces there, you probably know the story, to get drunks to leave us alone, because we were open really late at night, and the drunks were really annoying. We just made sauces to mess with them. At some point it just got to be a curiosity for me. I said why should it only be as hot as the hottest pepper [at the time, the habanero was regarded as the hottest]? Is there a way to make it hotter? What if we take the heat out of the pepper and concentrated it, and then make a hotter sauce? And that’s when we made Insanity Sauce, which was magnitudes hotter than anything out at the time.

Scott: How did you get the first extracts there were used in the Insanity Sauce?

Dave: You know, extracts were already in existence, but we made an alcohol dilution at the restaurant as an experiment. There were commercial ones already available. Pepper spray uses them. I think ginger ale uses them a little bit. There were some other uses for them. They were existing out in the world. I just had to track them down.

Scott: Around the time that you developed the original Insanity Sauce, did you see any other hot sauces use extract at all, or was Insanity pretty unique at the time?

Dave: I never saw another sauce with extract at the time. We were the first one. So when we went to the Fiery Foods Show in 1993, there were no other extract-based sauces on the market. That’s why it was very shocking to people. They ate it and it was like, “Oh my gosh! It says ‘The Hottest Sauce in the Universe’ and it actually is!” A lot of people had “the hottest” written on their label, but they really weren’t.

Scott: When you first developed the original Insanity Sauce, who were your first guinea pigs? Did people take one taste of it and say, “Oh, God, you’re crazy!”?

Dave: That’s the good thing about having a restaurant, that’s there’s always people going through it. It was in a college town, and people were open-minded, so it was easy to get people to try things. As we played with it over the better part of a year, we developed a group of people we knew were chileheads. They were very kind to tastings, and to give us their opinions. It helped us refine it into something people rather liked.

Scott: What is your favorite hot sauce that you produce yourself?

Dave: Hmmmm….I’m trying to think if we still produce it…..we had a Garlic Chile Sauce. Ginger Peach is really neat, although it’s not all that hot. And then we have our new Ghost Pepper Sauce; it’s got a really different flavor, super heat. That’s a neat sauce. I guess my favorite in defense is the Adjustable Heat Sauce, ’cause it’s so cool, you know?

Scott: What’s the hottest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Dave: We had a 15 million Scoville Heat Unit item in here, and I tried a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of. That was definitely extremely painful!

Scott: What is the process one of your products goes through from conception to final production? How many recipes and formulas before a final one is decided on?

Dave: That’s a good question. There’s been an evolution within our company of how that works. Insanity Sauce took the better part of a year to formulate. We’ve had some items that didn’t take that long to formulate. But now? Pretty much everything takes a long time to formulate, because we are just so picky. Like our Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce, which just won for the best pasta sauce in the industry. It’s won a bunch of awards. That one took the better part of two years to develop.

First we come up with the concept of things we think are a good idea. Then we run it by some people, to see if they would potentially buy it and think it would be a good idea conceptually. Then if it gets the green light at that level, then we start identifying ingredients that we think would make sense for it. And then we see if we could get a manufacturer. We would start going over the ingredients with teh manufacturer to make sure our ingredient sets are synchronized. After that we start making formulations, tasting and tweaking them, and at intervals we look back and say to ourselves, do these still make sense? Is something gonna kill it? Has it gotten too expensive that no one would be it? have the ingredients gotten so bizarre that we won’t be able to source them? And those sorts of things.

With the Butternut Squash, there’s only one puree in the world that we liked enough to use. Unfortunately this year they’re having a funny harvest (laughs) with it. So we’re scrambling to hoard whatever we can get, because we have to buy it all now, so that we would have enough to use for the next 12 months.

Scott: Are there any new products on the horizon for Dave’s Gourmet?

Dave's Insanity SauceDave: Absolutely. We’re working on a table sauce of sorts. We’re working on a couple of new hot sauces. We’re working on three or four different pasta sauces. We’re researching a couple other categories of product that we may or may not launch into.

Scott: Do you see spicy foods going mainstream? To the point where people really don’t see it as being spicy foods and more it being another “flavor”, so to speak?

Dave: I think it has reached the mainstream. The thing is, is it a matter of percentages at this point, such as 17% of the people will eat spicy food once a day, or will be 67%? I don’t see 50-plus percent of people over the age of 55 being spicy food consumers on a regular basis. I don’t see us [in the U.S.] reaching consumption levels of Thailand. I just don’t think that’s our culture.

I think as the world shrinks, you will see more spicy food eating occasions. But I don’t think it will be a leap from mild to hot. It will be slightly spicier than what it is currently.

Scott: Do you try to keep up on happenings in the fiery foods industry?

Dave: Yeah, we do a LOT of reading. (laughs) We talk to a lot of people, and [attend] seminars and webinars. And we do a lot of experimenting.

We try to [keep up], but it’s less about the personalities and those sort of aspects of the industry, and more about what people are eating, the trends and ingredients and things like that.

Scott: To you think that the whole “insane”, gonzo, extreme heat perception of hot sauces in general has detracted in any way from the high-quality, gourmet aspect that not only your company has, but a lot of other specialty sauce manufacturers have? Do you think the two sides can co-exist peacefully?

Dave: Yeah, I think the people in the super hot world have always been sort of like [the attitude where they’re like] they have nothing against anyone else. They’re just doing their thing, where they may be competitive against each other, but they have nothing against the spicy flavor people. In fact, if you look at them, a number of the companies that make the super hot have a lot of other products, if you count their SKUs. Ours are not super hot. And there are a number of good items in that bunch. We never really saw a conflict with ours. We know that some of the people that didn’t offer super hot, I think there was some resentment they had with others, because [the others’] super hot sold but they felt that their non-super hot items had better flavor and were better items. But it’s a different sale. I don’t see why they should be resentful. If everyone makes a good product and makes something special, they shouldn’t be focused on “that guy’s doing this, and thus guy is doing that”. They should be focused on making the pie bigger, because cream floats.

Scott: Very nice way of putting that.

If you could go back and change one mistake or misstep you might have made in the past, what would it be?

Dave: Gosh, it’s hard to narrow it down to one. (laughs) I think from a Dave’s Gourmet perspective I think that we may have tried too many different things. We were all over the map for a long time. I guess we weren’t focused enough. I wish I would’ve focused many years earlier, and thought through the strategy of what we were really trying to accomplish. And had more guts on how we went about it.

Scott: So you think you offered too wide of a variety of foods?

Dave: Yes. There was a fun, but utterly insane cheese, the flavored mayonnaises, the Garlic Masterpiece spread. We tried so many things that I think were not fully thought through. We ran the business for many years on “Hey, that’d be cool!” (laughs) Which was fine, but it was an expensive way of doing things. In the end we closed the items down. There was no real upside for the consumers or for us. It was almost a pointless exercise in some sense.

Scott: What do you think sets you apart from other hot sauce manufacturers?

Dave: I think to some degree we have our feet in two worlds a little more, a little better, than some. You have some hot sauce manufacturers where hot sauce is what they’re all about. And then you have some that are general line people who have do a few hot sauces. I think with us, we didn’t just dabble in hot sauces; we went all the way and created a whole category of super hot sauces. We didn’t just have three hot sauces; we’ve had around 23. We really did a lot of innovations in the hot sauce world, and really have been focused on it. We brought the ghost pepper out of India and grew it in Central America. I think we’ve shed a lot of light and helped promote the spicy food world with a lot of media attention.

At the same time, [we have gone] and sold pasta sauces, really innovated and are a strong, contending company in that arena, too. I think to have that sort of serious base of food, to focus on and really care about food while being in both the hot sauce and other parts of the food world I think is different.

Scott: Do you think the hot sauce industry, would be in it’s current state if you and Insanity Sauce would have never come along?

Dave: Yeah, I do. I don’t think we’re that important in that sense. In likewise, Tabasco has been fantastic, but they weren’t the first hot sauce, and I think the hot sauce industry would have developed without them, also. I’m not comparing ourselves to them; they’re far bigger and more impactful.

I think there are very few companies in any industry that were the true game-changers that the industry wouldn’t have developed for 50 years later if not for them.

Scott: So you don’t think Dave’s Insanity Sauce put the metaphorical ball faster into motion at the time?

Dave: I think at the time if we hadn’t done it, how much longer would it have taken before someone would have happened upon that? I think one, two, three years maybe. Maybe four. You know, people wanted hotter and hotter foods. That was clearly a trend. I think that for a lot of people they understood that trend but may not of understood how to make that happen physically and chemically with sauce. A lot of people who understood it didn’t think there was a point to it, because they thought it wouldn’t be flavorful, or had the notion of how should they make something so hot that most people couldn’t eat it. I think there were certain things that “blocked” people.

I think that with Insanity Sauce, my parents thought it was a terrible idea. If I had been actually trying to start a hot sauce business [at the time Dave was still running the Burrito Madness restaurant], I don’t know of I would have done that, either. I wasn’t smarter or anything, I think one of the things with successful entrepreneurs is they have a form of stupidity where they just don’t focus on the downside. I come up with lots of ideas and get excited about them and don’t focus on, “gosh this wouldn’t work because of this or because of that”. I just think “cool! That’s a great idea!” I get excited and go forth with it. (laughs) Most of the time it will fail and I’ll think, “Ah! What was I thinking?” And occasionally it will hit and I’ll say, “See? it was cool!”

Scott: What is your opinion on hot sauce shows nowadays, in particular the Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show?

Dave's Insanity SauceDave: Honestly, I haven’t been there in a couple of years. I think it depends on who you are and what you’re after. If you’re new to the business, it’s certainly a good way to get launched into the business and get some contacts. If you’re already been in the business a few years you already know all the people. It’s certainly a good place to go and sort of hang out with your buddies and have a good time. And if you want to sell to consumers and get consumer feedback amongst people that really like spicy foods, then it’s a great venue.

Once you get to a certain level it’s not super productive as a business endeavor.

Scott: Do you see it possibly being advantageous for visiting every couple of years to see your hardcore fans and staying in touch with them? A lot of them may see their favorite hot sauce manufacturers almost as “rock stars”.

Dave: On some level, I guess that makes sense. I don’t know, I don’t think people care that much about me being there (laughs). I’m not that important.

I just have to “weigh it”…time is so precious; I have three kids. And there are so many other things we want to accomplish in the world beyond just sauce. I always want to go, but I always look at the calendar and wonder if I can actually budget the time for it.

Scott: Where do you see Dave’s Gourmet 5 or 10 years from now?

Dave: It’s always odd that people viewed us as a hot sauce company, because I never viewed us that way. We started with Insanity Sauce; that was our best-seller for 13 or 14 of our 16 years. We’ve always been more of a Trader Joe’s or Paul Newman’s sort of brand. We thought we could make items in lots of different categories. We just like to look at how people eat and try to find ways of making the whole experience more enjoyable, perhaps by making something hotter, or some unique application, or making unique or better flavors. I think you’ll see us over time probably enter more categories of food. Innovation will always be what we’re focused on. Flavor is always going to be our number one criteria.

Scott: Seems to me that a long of sauce manufacturers I’ve talk to lately mention that they want to sell a product that people consume and go through quickly, so that the customer will purchase more sooner. Obviously with super-hot sauces, that product will sit on their shelves or in a refrigerator for a couple of years and be eaten very slowly. How much does that concept play into your business strategy?

Dave: There were people who went into business in the food world at the same time as me, and had what I would call a “similar level of impact”. They were 50 – 100 million dollar companies, because they were in a higher-turn category. If Insanity Sauce was a cookie – something that would get eaten very quickly, we too would have been a 50 – 100 million dollar company. We’re in millions of refrigerators, it’s just that one bottle lasts for three years.

At some level, I guess that was annoying. We’re still very appreciative and still gratified that we’re in millions of refrigerators and that people enjoy the sauce. That was one of the impetus that pushed us into the pasta sauces.

Now, I’ve looked at lots of categories over time. But whenever we look at a category, I always ask the question, “do we have something special to give to the consumer in this category?” If we feel we don’t have something special, we just won’t do it.

The pasta sauces with the heirloom tomatoes, and the Butternut Squash sauce, I thought the category [in which they were in] lacked any innovation. I thought the products weren’t very interesting. There were still some quality products, but we thought we could really lend something, and it’s born out pretty well.

Scott: What do you think of the current fiery foods industry as it exists today?

Dave: It’s a “Tale of Two Cities” kind of thing. You’ve still got Tabasco, Crystal, Cholula and Tapatio, and to a lesser degree Huy Fong and a few others. They’re sort of chugging along on a high-volume, high-turn, lower cost type of products. And then you’ve got the specialty world of hundreds or thousands of sauces by small producers. They just function kind of different, I think. One the first group, I don’t think a lot has changed, frankly. They’ve done well as people have increasing begun to appreciate spicy foods. On the later I think they’ve had a little bit of a shaking out, as there’s only so much volume to support what was a ton of people. At a certain point there’s only so many things that were the same or similar in many of the offerings. There was a sort of natural shaking out.

Scott: What kind of advice would you give to an up-and-coming hot sauce company?

Dave: It’s pretty the same advise I’d give to any company. And that is: does your product or your service – depending on what you’re offering – really offer something special? Take a hard look at it. And that doesn’t mean something special for your mother or your father, but something for the consumers or commercial users. Are you offering something special and different, or are you offering a “me too” item? Our company grew incredibly quickly, because we were truly offering something different that people wanted. Our new Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce, it’s become our number three selling item in only a few months. That’s because it’s really different, really unique, and it’s good. Its won lots of awards. So if your item is something really special and very high quality, it saves you a lot of time, headaches, resources, and in marketing and sales. And at the end of the day, it’s something you feel good about, too.

Scott: What’s a typical day for you like?

Dave: I get up between 5:00 and 5:30. I head over to the club for some tennis or to work out. I hop on down to work in San Francisco. I spend a lot of time on the phone, a little time in meetings, a lot of time on the computer, and a lot of time talking about sauces, about sales and so forth. Then I go home for dinner with the kids, do the bedtime routine, and hang out with the wife.

Scott: What’s your personal favorite kinds of chile peppers that you like to use in your hot sauces? Any preference on one flavor over another?

Dave: I like the flavor of chipotles. But the thing about chipotles is that they’re very overrated in a sense. They’re actually not that easy to use. They don’t pair easily with a wide variety of items. I like that flavor a lot, though. I think to make a stellar item with chipotle is much harder.

Habaneros are great because they have a fruity flavor and it lends itself well with a lot of sweet things, with fruit, and so forth.

I certainly like a jalapeno/serrano type of profile. They’re easy to work with. They pair up with lots of different items. That’s certainly from where I sit very good to work with.

Scott: Do you eat a lot of your own sauces and products every day?

Dave: Dave: Very little. For me it’s kind of a weird perspective: my sauces are work. I put a ton of time and effort into the products, and there’s a lot of pressure associated with them for me. I really want them to do well; I really want people to like them. But when I’m home I really don’t want to be around them, ’cause it sort of feels like I’m working. Because if I eat it, I’ll start thinking about it like work, like “Gosh, that flavor note isn’t the way I wanted that” or “that part of the experience really needs to be tweaked” (laughs). I can’t sit and relax and enjoy it!

There are some of the products that my wife likes to use, so I’ll wind up with something with one of the products in it. Otherwise I want work to stay at work, and be separted out from my personal life.

Scott: Very interesting perspective. I actually never thought of it that way.

Dave: Yeah, I don’t think most people do. It may seem like a great item “wow” you want to eat it all the time yourself. But I’ll make an item, and at the end of the R&D cycle I’ll taste it and go, “wow, that’s actually good.” And then I’ll taste it every three months for quality control purposes. But other than that, I just don’t want it to be around me.

Scott: Do you cook a lot at home?

Dave: Nowadays my wife does most of the cooking. Obviously I had a restaurant and cooked there, but [I don’t cook] as much any more.

I was just doing an interview at lunch and was talking to this guy about it. Over time I’ve developed this ability to “mentally” cook; I can only cook in my head. So I can sit there and think that this flavor and that flavor put together this way, I can sort of “taste” the outcome without actually putting any food in my mouth. It’s a big help in R&D. I do a lot of that. I don’t do a lot of physical cooking any more, unless it’s something special, like a pig roast or something that’s exciting.

But no, I spend a lot of time thinking about food, pairing it and talking about it.

Scott: What is the strangest use you’ve ever heard for any of your products?

Dave: There are so many strange uses. Certainly, there’s a lot of people who use it for animal control. That’s a very common one.

It’s sort of fun to pop in on YouTube, type our sauce in the search box, and see all the videos of people doing things with it.

Over the years I’ve heard lots of things but trying to remember them is another situation. I’ve heard people pairing them with every food you can imagine, and lots of contests with the sauce obviously. But pet or animal uses are what you hear it being used for. And then there was the one with the barnacles and the boats.

We’ve certainly heard people using it in amorous adventures. At one point I had designed some spicy massage oils. That must’ve been 14 years ago. I had a girlfriend at the time, and apparently one of the oils was too hot. She got mad and I lost my girlfriend. (laughs)

Scott: (laughs)

Dave: She was angry! That was before I was married, obviously. But that was certainly one of the more unusual ones.

Top photo credit: Timothy Archibald

FireTalkers: Interview with Dave Hirschkop of Dave’s Gourmet