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Dan and Cherie Houston, with Cayenne the Dog

Dan Houston of the Global Warming Salsa Co. has one of the most intriging tales of the spicy foods world in recent memory. He and his wife Cherie have been longtime fitness consultants with their own Michigan-based company, Houston Fitness Consultants, and have been using a “chile pepper approach to exercise” (what that is exactly is described by Dan below). Wanting to develop healthy foods and to help raise funds for an exercise and nutrition book for kids, they decided to create salsas to aide them in their quest. A portion of Global Warming’s profits also goes to help an organization that aims to help save muscle cars, as Dan is heavily into racing and classic American automobiles.

I think Global Warming has one of the cleverest themes I’ve seen in a while. Dan choose it as a play on the term heard so often today, but with much different meanings. One, the “Global” in the name is meant as flavors from around the world, as the company currently has a Japanese salsa for sale and will introduce other international flavors over the coming weeks. The “Warming” part is used to represent heat levels found in their products. A combination of these two concepts makes for one very interesting potential marketing angle.

It also doesn’t hurt that that Global Warming Salsa Co. has some really high quality and tasty products – so good, in fact, that their fire-roasted salsas have won in the Scovies and The Hot Pepper Awards.

Scott: When did you first become a chilehead?

Dan: I’ve been a chilehead since I was 10 or 11. My grandfather used to grow chile peppers, and wore rubber gloves to pick them and I thought that was cool. He was from Arkansas. It was kind of a hobby of his; he loved to garden. We grew up in the country, and we just liked to work in the garden. We liked to do the farmers markets so we did all those types of things. But my grandfather used to put on his gloves when he picked his peppers and that’s what got me interested in it. I really got into it a couple of years out of high school.

Scott: What was your diet like growing up? Did you eat a lot of traditional, American dishes but just with chiles added to them to make them spicy?

Dan: I was really a quirky eater as a kid. I avoided almost every fruit and vegetable except I liked peppers. And grapes. Weird. You can’t really explain it. I started to really get into it in my twenties.

Scott: So when did you start creating the salsas? When it something you did at home?

Dan: I always made salsas when I was single and lived alone. I like food and I liked spicy foods. I like to play around in the kitchen. My only cooking experience if working at McDonald’s in high school, so I hardly qualify as a “chef”.

I started personal training about 18 years ago. I made a chile pepper for a logo. I did it because of my interest in spicy foods, the metabolic references to turning up the heat were fun to include. And we used it to relate people to understand their tolerance for heat or how much they could handle in the gym. It helped people understand whether they were new to exercise with a milder pepper “level” used, or way up the ladder with Olympic-level training with one of the hottest peppers. I wanted an easy method on how to monitor and gauge intensity, and what was appropriate for each person’s heat level.

We were doing that for a long time. My wife and I a few years back decided to start making foods to bring to our clients to help them eat better. Salsa just happened to be one of those perfect foods that helped a lot of our clients add a lot of flavor to nutritional consulting anyway. It helped people not eat bland food. It helped them add flavor to their food, which is what we were really after. So it fit right in with our our “chile pepper approach to exercise”.

Scott: I was going to ask you what that was; I saw that on your website and thought the “chile pepper approach” sounded interesting.

Dan: Both of our training studios are themed with chile peppers. Our dog is named after a pepper. It’s kind of a hobby. Like I said we use the chile pepper as a logo for our training business, because with the name of “Houston”, people think of the Southwest; it kind of fits with people like that. It’s abstract, so people look at it without really understanding what it is right away. And when they realize what it is they understand how it fits.

We have a couple of charts on the wall – Mark Miller’s charts about peppers that relate different heat levels and the ratings. What we try to tell people, you don’t have to be at this end or that end [of the scale]; you have to find the level that you like that makes you want to come back and want to enjoy it again.

It’s the same way with eating peppers. There’s no benefit to eating the hottest one, just like there’s no benefit to eating the mildest one. You find the one that you like, and then you find yourself looking forward to it, not dreading it.

Scott: How did you come up with the name Global Warming for your products?

Dan: We work with clients on both sides of the political spectrum that are from other studios, and we generally have some entertaining debates on what’s legitimate and what isn’t, and we like the fact that nobody can get into a conversation about it without name-calling and pie-throwing and people just generally acting immature. It’s like even seasoned scientists without getting into it saying, “you’re an idiot! You don’t understand.” So we decided to have a little fun with it.

One of the ideas I had when I first started making my own salsa was exploring different global flavors. So we looked at it. We saw a couple of companies having stuff that was Asian-influenced, and a couple used some peppers from Africa, but nobody had a theme that was a global approach to exploring cuisine.

So I came up with it as a play on the term “global warming”. We thought that we could avoid the politics but still get people talking about the politics by relating it to global levels of heat by using peppers and spices from around the world. So we thought it was a fun idea. We had seen that nobody had done anything like it. We even went so far as to apply for a trademark, which is still pending, but we did get one for Michigan.

Our goal is really to just get people to celebrate global cuisine, not to get hung up on the politics, not to get dragged into an argument but just to celebrate flavors from around the world. So the first of our global recipes was a Japanese version of our salsa. And nobody had a Japanese salsa before. We even checked from Dave DeWitt from Fiery Foods; he said no one’s done that before. That was good; that’s what we were hoping. We did the research. But what we were really after was to make people think about salsa in a different way, to really add a lot of flavor to food. Not just Mexican or Southwestern flavors but exotic flavors. So I come up with 15 different recipes working at home. We explored all these different ways to incorporate elements recognizable from other cuisines, and integrated them to our Medium Salsa.

Scott: How did you develop the individual tastes from around the world? How different variations are you going to have?

Dan: We’d make a batch, take it in, and people at the studio would comment. We were very excited about the response we were getting with each of the flavors. We came up with the total of 15, we’ve got the labels done, and we’re going to start introducing them three at a time for the next 6 months. The next ones we’re going to have are an India version, we’re going to have an Italian, and then Cajun. After that phase we’re going to have Chinese, Caribbean, and Southwestern U.S.. Then we’ll go with Southeastern U.S., Brazil, Thailand. So the idea each time is we’re going to explore different culinary treats from around the world.

Scott: That will be very interesting. At the Weekend of Fire I tried the Japanese, Indian and Italian ones, and you could put I blank label on the jars and easily distinguish the flavors from the different countries. The Italian one had a unique flavor with Italian spices…

Dan: That’s the fun we’re having with this. Everyone said, “well, I never thought of doing that.” I got head in the head a lot when I used to box, so my head tends to wander in different ways than other people (laughs).

Scott: How much time do you work with your salsas, testing, tasting, working up formulas and getting them into production?

Dan: When we originally started doing the production, we created all the recipes at home. I could usually whip up a batch from scratch – once the tomatoes were fire-roasted – within twenty minutes. I knew the ratios I wanted to work with for our “base”, which is our Medium Salsa. So adding the global flavors generally will take three or four experimental batches. We usually make one or two gallons at a time. Then we would take it in and let our training clients or health fair clients try it for free and tell us what they thought. We would ask them, “what do you recognize in this food?” So I would say it’s usually not more than a couple of hours per recipe. I have a lazing approach to doing salsa! (laughs)

Scott: That sounds pretty quick compared to some of the time frames I’ve heard from other companies for their recipes.

Dan: It is, and I’m actually a little embarrassed when we went to the Weekend of Fire at Jungle Jim’s. We were talking to people who were fine-tuning their recipes for decades. And I though, “geez, I won’t want to tell them how long it took me to come up with mine.” (laughs) I just like the flavor; as I’m doing mine, I think, “ah, too much of this, a little bit more of that”. I was able to make it to where I could repeat the batch easily. My wife Cherie would love coming home when I was making fresh batches of salsa, because the whole house would smell like whatever exotic kitchen I was preparing at the time. One day it’d be Italian, the next it would be Asian, the next day perhaps Caribbean. You could smell it through the whole house. It’s just something I like to do. My revenge for working at McDonald’s while in high school is learning how to cook. (laughs)

Dan and Cherie Houston, with Cayenne the DogScott: I love the double meaning of the term “Global Warming”, that it could mean both warming from the chile peppers and food from around the world, in addition to the commonly known definition of the term.

Dan: That has attracted some relatively interesting attention for us. We’ve got a call from a journalist in Vancouver about something coming up with the Olympics. They’re doing something about how people are reacting and responding to global warming. They’re setting up an interview with us tomorrow. We never even sold any salsa in Canada, so we were flattered that they took an interest in it. They found it very much a cool novelty.

We also got the attention of one of the largest advertising agencies in the country, the W.B. Donner Advertising Agency. They’re in seven countries and they do all of Serta and Mazda with all these different massive, international advertising schemes. Well, they came across our website and couldn’t believe we were local. They contacted us and they said, “we wanna do something for you guys.” We said, “yeah, right, but how much is that going to cost?” They said, “Nope, it’s free. We’re doing this off the clock. This is the coolest idea.” They said, “the fact that somebody is finally able to step up and with a little tongue-in-cheek humor, get people talking about this. We would just enjoy being affiliated with this.”

So we just talked to them today. They’re going to have a national ad campaign that they want to roll out for us at their expense to promote the idea of Global Warming our way. It’s kind of fun. We’ll see where it goes.

Scott: Could you describe a typical day for you?

Dan: My wife and I have two personal training studios. We usually start working one-on-one with training clients at 6 o’clock in the morning. Generally we’ll work with 6 to 8 clients by lunchtime. We like to come home for lunch, take the dog for a walk, sit in the hot tub, and just relax a little.

We’ll then make our phone calls, we’ll stop in and check on a couple of our customers. We will play around a bit with some marketing ideas, and then go back and train our evening clients. That’s usually what we’ll do Monday through Friday.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I am actually am an instructor at a private school, and we teach a fitness education course for 6th and 7th graders. We teach them about exercise and about how their body works, how food works in their body, and what food is. It’s been one of the most requested electives in the school for the past three years. We get to have a lot of influence on a lot of young kids that are going to be adults soon, and our goal with the salsa from the very beginning was a way to proactively attack childhood obesity. We teach kids where food comes from.

Some of the money from the salsa we’re using to publish a book on nutrition and exercise for kids. We’ve got a lot of great reviews from our programs from the kids that we’ve worked with, along with the parents and families of the kids.

That was the goal to get started. We’re in a state where obesity is very high. The government is constantly battling to not lose more money in the school systems. They’re always cutting back on programs. We just figured instead of asking the state to help us do this program, we’d just do it out of our own pocket. Right now our programs are in about 30 schools, which we donated all the materials for free. We regularly meet from people from the county’s executives office and do health fair programs and promotions for the students, parents and communities.

Scott: That’s fantastic.

Dan: It feels good. I’m very fortunate that I get to combine a couple of my interests and really help people that may not be able to afford the type of food that might need. If we get to then first, get them thinking about it and having a little fun with it, we really get to make a difference. It’s been fun.

Scott: What’s your favorite product that you make?

Dan: The End of the World is the one I did first. I did that with a couple of dried bhut jolokias, and I wanted to be the first person to make the bhut jolokia work in a salsa. I wanted to make a really hot salsa. I designed the label on a napkin whole we were at dinner one night. Before I came up with the Global Warming theme, I wanted to do a salsa called End of the World, and that’s why we thought Global Warming was a fun way to play on it. So if you see that logo, it’s planet Earth engulfed in flames, with the skull superimposed and grinning on the front of it.

Scott: Have you ever worked with extracts?

Dan: I don’t like to work with pepper extracts, primarily because I live in my house, and you can’t work around after you use the stuff, for a good day or so. But we’re going to do a special Global Warming End of the World 2012 edition of the salsa. Our goal is to use a little pepper extract, and a total of 12 peppers; right now we’ve got seven peppers in the regular version of End of the World. We’re able to work where it’s not musty and it tastes very fresh. And it’s very hot. We’re wanting to play on the 2012 theme everybody’s probably going to beat into the ground the next couple of years.

Scott: And I can only imagine how strong the heat in the salsa is going to be. I can remember there were three things I ate at the Weekend of Fire that lit me up. I was eating habanero and jolokia sauces all day and none of them really phased me. One that did was the Buck in Rut Extreme Horseradish made by Bald Eagle Foods, another was CaJohn’s Execution Station, and then third was your End of the World Salsa. I don’t know if it was that I took an extra large scoop of the salsa, but the heat in my mouth was much more than I was expecting.

Dan: It surprises a lot of people. It just explodes and then it radiates afterwards. The heat doesn’t go away for a long time. It was how we introduced peppers into the mix. It’s fun when we do these tasting events and when we do other events, and everyone says, “oh, I’ve had hotter than that” and we tell them “come back in about 30 seconds, and we’ll talk”. (laughs)

I can certainly make it hotter, but it’s flavor that’s important. The goal is flavor with everything we do, not just heat.

Scott: Exactly.

Dan: Anybody who is familiar with peppers can make it explosively hot. But to make it where you want to come back and eat another chip, and another one, and also when you try to find ways where you can add it to your food, that is what we want to do with Global Warming Salsa. It’s to really get people to start thinking of salsas as a way to add flavor to everything.

Scott: I think some manufacturers out there miss that. They just put out heat for heat’s sake.

Dan: Yeah, you get some peppers, vinegar and sugar, and we’ve always said that even a monkey can make it hot that way.

Our salsa, we apparently make it well enough that even our dog likes to eat it! She won’t eat the hot, but she’ll eat the Mild and the Medium. We were going to put a video on our website, because no one would believe us. She’ll sit on the couch, and I’ll have the bowl of salsa on my legs and a bag of chips on the other side, sand she’ll reach across and tap on the bag with her paw when she wants one. But if you don’t dip the chip in salsa first she’ll turn her head away.

Scott: Wow! (laughs)

Dan: You can’t teach them that. We know there are certain ingredients in regular salsas that can be harmful to dogs, so we don’t let her eat very much. We don’t use a lot of onion or a lot of garlic which can have a blood-thinning effect on dogs. We use roasted garlic and use green onions, so it lacks a lot of the pugency, but it provides a much smoother taste at the end.

Scott: I’d love to see that video (laughs).

Dan: We’re gonna have to do it. It’s really funny. If you ignore Cayenne, she’ll really tap hard on the bag. We usually don’t ignore her; she’s kind of entertaining.

She also jogs on the treadmill. We don’t know where she gets it. We don’t make her do it. One day she was looking at the treadmill. We turned it on for her. She jumped on, jumped off, jumped on again, and now she runs 30 minutes three times a week.

Scott: That’s cool.

Dan and Cherie Houston, with Cayenne the Dog

Dan: Weird dog. But she’s a great mascot. We take her with us when we do a lot of the salsa tastings, or when we do deliveries we’ll cruise her around in the Jeep. She has a good time with it. She loves people.

Scott: And you said her name was Cayenne?

Dan: Yep. We’re not obsessed or anything, it just worked out that way. (laughs)

I had a cat before and his name was Turbo, and he actually ate salsa, too. So I told Cherie when we had to put my cat down a couple a years ago, that whatever pet we get next, let’s name it for something that has to do with cars, which I’m heavily into. There’s a Porsche Cayenne, and Turbo was a Porsche. That’ll be fine for a name. So, we named her Cayenne. It also fit in with the whole pepper theme. Cherie wanted something with a Southwestern sound to it, like an Indian name such as Cheyenne. Cayenne sounded like Cheyenne. So all the bases were covered. (laughs)

Scott: Going back to food…what is the average level of heat you could personally eat with your food daily?

Dan: I put the End of the World on almost everything. There are times where I want to add less heat, if I’m making something relatively delicate like crab cakes, salmon or white fish where I don’t want to overwhelm it. When it comes to making just chili, or adding flavor to a burger or whatever, I almost always go for End of the World. It really was my favorite.

Scott: Being a longtime chilehead, what would you say is the hottest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Dan: Not counting pepper extracts?

Scott: You can include those, and you kind of have to nowadays when there are numerous super-hot sauces available that get their heat from extract.

Dan: Well, the first time I had Dave’s Insanity, I didn’t know how hot it was going to be, and I ate it like a regular hot sauce. That was the only time I momentarily panicked at how hot it was. Nowadays, there’s a lot of good ones out there. Blair’s and lot of the other guys that are good with extract do a great job with it. Any time when there’s a show, that’s the first thing I go to. I go, “let’s see how I like it…yep, that’s just as blistering hot as I thought it’d be, that’s good.”

I developed a fairly high tolerance for the heat. But I always end up coming back to the ones that were more flavorful every time.

Scott: What would you say is the strangest thing you’ve eaten salsa with?

Dan: I did a shot of salsa with tequila once. I played beach volleyball; once you were qualified for the pro tour, that’;s what they required you to drink. They called it a “prairie fire”. It contained salsa, Tabasco Sauce, and tequila. and you had to shoot it. That was probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever done with it.

Scott: Was the salsa you were using a fairly hot one?

Dan: It was decent. It was just a really weird combination of flavors. can’t say that I liked it too much.

Other than that, I can’t say that I’ve found too many foods I don’t like it on. There are a lot of foods, and I don’t eat a lot of desserts; but I have put a habanero-based sauces and peppers on ice cream just to experiment. You actually kind of like it after you’ve tried it a couple of times.

Scott: I love hot stuff on ice cream. It’s a match made in heaven.

Dan: Yeah, outside of the occasional dry food like cereal, I couldn’t think of too many things that wouldn’t go well with salsa or hot sauce.

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

We have a bit of smart-aleck sense of humor about things. We probably don’t work as hard as we should at it. We’ve been very fortunate. We came up with a clever name, and got lucky with a good recipe that a lot of people seem to like. The fact that we’re able to come into an industry that we knew nothing about and get the recognition and the acceptance that we’ve gotten has been a very motivating start for a number of our clients, and a lot of them are starting their own, “out of this world” type businesses that they didn’t think they would do.

I think the connection between the fitness and the chile pepper approach is really the thing that sets us apart.

Scott: What do you think is the biggest challenge or hurdle you’ve faced so far?

Dan: Time. We could probably sell the salsa to every store we present it to. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but it’s a fun label, it jumps off the shelf, people seem to respond to the flavor. There’s a pretty good margin built into it because we designed it as a premium salsa. The problem is our training business, which is our primary job, makes us busy most of the day. So we don’t get a lot of opportunity to go meet with new stores and do a lot of events that would get us more business with salsa. There’s days I just kick myself for not being more productive.

But I do recognize that even in this economy we’ve been able to grow. Our training business has been able to stay very consistent. Both of our locations are staying busy. I can’t complain, but that would be the one thing if I could.

Scott: What’s the most commonly asked question that you get?

Dan: Why Global Warming? When we do the public tasting events, that’s the first thing everybody asks. They think that it’s associated with Al Gore or climate change, and when they find out it’s not most of the people respond favorably to it. there’s a lot of political divide over the “science” of global warming. We do recognize the need to study climate change. But the marketing of it, that they think it’s Al Gore’s thing, it tends to rile a lot of people. So once they find out we have nothing to do with any of the politics, that we’re trying to have fun, they seem to respond better.

What we’re trying to do is help fight childhood obesity, and to get people eating more gourmet foods and to explore different cultures. Politics can divide it so quickly. So if you see our bottle, we don’t make any reference to politics at all. We actually use a temperature index like The Weather Channel would use to relate to the different heat levels. Our Mild is 80 degrees, and there’s pictures of palm trees on a beach. Medium is 96 degrees, and it looks like west Texas desert. Hot is just barren wasteland. So we play around with that on the heat index. It seems more weather-related, but once people realize it’s more about celebrating global flavors they really lighten up and have a lot of fun with it.

I think realistically when we do an event, we’ll have 400 to 500 people try it over a couple of days, we’ll get maybe two that are so angry at the name that they won’t even try it. That’s not too terrible, 2 our of 400 or so. I can irritate more people than that on the way to work every morning.

Dan and Cherie Houston, with Cayenne the Dog

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

Dan: Yes. I read your blog, I read Eat More Heat, and I get Fiery-Foods and Chile Pepper magazines. We also stay up on restaurant news. We get Supermarket Guru; we read their blog. We try to stay up on a lot of things going on in the industry, primarily because we’re so new to it. We really don’t know the potential.

In the fitness industry, I know of five people in the state of Michigan that have obtained the level of certifications that I have. I’ve co-authored two books. For years I was getting 20 different publications every month. So I knew exactly what was going on in the fitness industry; where things were heading, where the trends were.

The food industry was fairly new, so I’ve gone primarily with the commercial ones we’ve been able to find, and then based on the information that’s provided by some of the friends I’ve met in the industry. So we look for good sources of information all the time. I do not claim to have a clue to what goes on in this business. (laughs)

Scott: I agree. There is just so much, even all of of us bloggers have a hard time keeping track of everything.

Dan: Yeah, it’s overwhelming. The event we’re going to this weekend, the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland. They met us at the Weekend of Fire. They invited us down. We previously had no idea what it was. We agreed to do it, not knowing if it was a good or bad idea. We have no idea how big these food shows can get. This one is going to have over 30,000 in paid attendance. Five celebrity chefs are going to be doing cooking demonstrations and autograph signings. There’s going to be over 200 media personnel there. It’s just huge and we had no idea. We’re excited about it. It’s a whole new can of worms for us, it’ll be fun.

We’ve enjoyed every food event we’ve gone to. We’ve met great people. The fitness industry gets a bit polarizing sometimes. After you’ve been in it for 17, 18 years, there’s really nothing new that comes out in the fitness business. Mostly rehashing of old things, or someone else attaching their name to some discovery. There’s really nothing new on how the human body reacts to exercise.

But food is much more dynamic, and more more cultural, and more faster reacting than the exercise science. It’s been fun trying to accelerate my abilities to match the learnig curve of the food industry.

Scott: Do you plan to visit many hot sauce shows in the future?

Dan: Absolutely, yes. We were talking about the Houston Hot Sauce Festival, the Fiery Foods Show, which we visited the first time in 2009. We have a great time out there and got input from a lot of businesses who have been doing it for a while. We told them that we’re new, and if they minded a few questions on how they got here. And by that, I meant how they established their business and create the despite to be there. Everybody was great.

We did the Weekend of Fire. There’s ZestFest. There was a new one we heard about in New Orleans next year that we might look into. We really like it. There’s a fun group of people to hang out with. It’s a very entertaining category. And it’s real people.

Scott: That’s one thing I love about it – the community of people.

Dan: Yeah, it’s so supportive, everybody’s having a good time. And there doesn’t seem to be anybody out there with a huge chip on their shoulder. I’m sure there must be, but we haven’t come across it yet.

Scott: If you could ask the entire fiery foods community – both the companies and chilehead fans – one question, what would it be?

Dan: “What’s next?” Just two years ago we weren’t even in this industry. I’m just like a little kid at Christmas. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

FireTalkers: Interview with Dan Houston of the Global Warming Salsa Company