I’ve respected Jim Campbell for a long time. The guy’s done a great many things which make him an excellent all-around ambassador of the fiery foods industry. If you’re relatively new to the hot sauce world, you may or may not know that he has worn many hats (no pun intended) in addition to running the Mild to Wild Pepper and Herb Company. His day job is being a firefighter with the Pike Township Fire Department in Indianapolis, Indiana, which instantly earns him the title of “hero” in my book. Jim has founded the Step Up for Charity organization a not-for-profit group that raises funds for charitable organizations, and he once held the world record for stair climbing (106,000 stairs in one 24-hour period!) that he used to help promote this great cause. On his commercial fields, he grows chile peppers that supplies chiles to a large segment of the U.S. specialty hot sauce market. On his fields he also hosts the annual Woodstock-like “Open Fields” pepper event every fall, where chileheads converge for a weekend to pick chiles and to celebrate the spicy life. Overall, Jim is an intriguing individual, so I’m pleased to have been able to ask Jim a few questions, and he was more than happy to provide his often humorous, always knowledgeable insight:
Scott: When did you first become a chilehead?
Jim: If that is defined as “first playing with fire”, then it would be about 1960. As one of ten kids in the house, we had a victory garden out back and all got to choose something to plant. My earliest memories are of planting chiles – not so much because I ate them, but I was fascinated by the fun you could have with them when other people ate them unawares 🙂
Scott: How did you get started growing and selling chile peppers?
Jim: As with about 99.8% of the rest of the industry, I hold a “real job” in addition to dealing with the chile peppers. I’m a professional firefighter on the northwest side of Indianapolis. More on that in a minute.
Mild to Wild Pepper & Herb Company® started off rather modestly. I had been selling dried chile peppers that I’d grown in my backyard to fellow firefighters for several years as a hobby. Each successive year I was planting more and more to keep up with demand. While on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico with another firefighter we stopped by the flea market and picked up several different kinds of fresh chile powders. Trying them out on a steak dinner later that evening, the idea for a formal business venture was formed. I planted a handful of about 500 Orange Habanero seeds on a friend of mine’s farm and anxiously awaited the harvest. At the same time I ordered a sampler set of hot sauces and started making phone calls to the numbers on the labels trying to find anyone who was interested. I was mainly concentrating on the Chicago and New York areas – most of the habaneros at that time were coming out of the Yucatan and California and I figured I could fill a niche market here, saving folks a fortune in shipping costs. I found a few folks who were interested and kind of took off from there as – through sheer dumb luck – I ended up with a couple of folks who went on to become some of the bigger names in the business.
About this same time, I seemed to have run afoul of the fire chief. To this day I don’t know what his problem was with me, but he looked me in the eye one time and stated “as long as I’m chief of this department, you will NEVER be promoted and I intend to be here for 32 years”. At that point it seemed like a good idea to concentrate on the chile pepper business 🙂
Scott: Before you created sauces of your own, what were a couple of your favorite products made by others? Were any of them inspirations for what Mild to Wild currently sells?
Jim: Three of my all time favorite sauces, that remain so to this day, were also three of the ones I had the incredible good fortune to sell chiles to early on. The “Road to Hell”, from Two Chefs Inc., was/is an absolutely outstanding sauce! I knew nothing about it when they ordered a pick up truck load of chiles from me back about 1996. They were in Denver, Colorado at the time. I got off duty at the firehouse, drove by the chile fields, picked up the chiles, and headed off to Denver. As partial payment, they gave me a case of the sauce. I found myself drinking it straight from the bottle on the way back to Indy on the all night drive to make it to the firehouse on time for my next shift. What an incredible sauce! Chunky, a bit of cumin, and not all that hot, with a wonderful fresh flavor. After that, I took payment for chiles in hot sauce 🙂
My other early favorite was made by a waiter out at some fancy-dance restaurant on the East Coast. Again, he was an early chile pepper purchaser and taught me much of what I now know about making mash. He produced a super nice habanero sauce in the “Louisiana style”, heavy on the vinegar, and about the perfect (for me) everyday heat range. Some fellow by the name of Blair Lazar 🙂 “Death Sauce” it was called. He also made one of the best tasting extract sauces there was, called “Beyond Death”. I bought the very last of it he had and had him sign one of the bottles as “The world’s last”. It proudly sits in my display case. I’d like to chalk the purchasing of it up to incredible acumen on my part, but it was more like ‘dumb luck’ 🙂
A third favorite, and one I liked so much I stole it, is CaJohn’s “Sparky”, also known as “Little Kick”. It was one of the sauces I used to make for him when I still worked as a co-packer, making sauces for other folks as well as myself. It was Cayenne based, Louisiana style, a bit of garlic – think “Frank’s” or “Durkee’s” with more attitude – with just the right amount of heat. I tweaked it (doubled the garlic – can’t have too much garlic) and labeled it as my “Rookie Orientation”. It just won People’s Choice “Best Hot Sauce” at Chile Pepper Magazine’s “Zest Fest” in September this year.
Scott: So what made you decide to jump into the hot sauce making business?
Jim: Aside from the likes of Blair, Dave, Two Chef’s and CaJohn’s, I was also accepting hot sauce as payment for chiles from a lot of other folks. Unfortunately, or “fortunately”, depending on what you think of my stuff, some of the sauces I was receiving in those days were pretty bad. After getting payment in what was my opinion some pretty poor hot sauce from one or two folks, I decided to try my own hand at it figuring I couldn’t do any worse. The very first sauce I did was my “Original Finishing Sauce”. “Ralph’s Righteous Habanero Sauce” was next. My “Smokin’ Chipotle Sauce” soon followed, though I later discovered calling it that was a no-no. It got shortened to just “Chipotle Sauce” as I was informed that the previous name was stepping on Mr. Chuck Evans’ trademark. Oops. My bad. Apology given and accepted 🙂
Other sauces followed as I tried to round out the line and give folks what they wanted. I also made sauces mostly to suit my tastes. Got a lot of awards in a hurry and so the farming side of things got cut back a bit and the hot sauce side of things picked up. I also had a lot of people contacting me about making sauces for them, either my sauce with their label or their own recipe, and thought that side of the business would be more profitable – not to mention less labor intensive! – than farming.
Scott: How did Step Up For Charity come about?
Jim: Approaching the age of 50 rather rapidly, I was a bit unhappy with how far out of shape I’d fallen. I was pushing 190 lbs on a 5′ 9″ frame and there wasn’t much of it that was muscle with a body fat that was close to 30%. We had a “StepMill” at the firehouse and so I decided to get on it to lose some weight and try to build up some cardio. The first few sessions absolutely sucked, managing only about 5 minutes before I was totally winded and spent. I’m nothing else though, if not thick headed and before too long 5 minutes became 10, and 10 became 20.
About the time I was up to 45 minutes – after about 3 months – I saw an article on one of the firehouse news sites, talking about a Seattle area firefighter named Bill Ekse who managed 66,000 stairs in 24 hours on the machine. I decided that sounded like as good a goal as anything and set about seeing what it would take to do that. Knowing that “a record for the sake of a record” wasn’t likely to prove enough motivation for me, and seeing that Mr. Ekse did his climb for charity, I too decided to do it as a fund raiser. Looking about, it wasn’t hard to come up with several charities that would benefit and that had personal meaning for me. I tried contacting several folks to see if they’d be interested in sponsorship/donating and politely got the “kiss off” from most of them. Nautilus, the folks who made the StairMaster, were an exception… and exceptional! They donated generously and account for about half of the money raised. Chileheads made up the rest of it. A big shout out here to several chileheads who were instrumental in the efforts, including Jeff Shickowski, John “CaJohn” Hard, and Blair Lazar. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Blair and CaJohn collaborated on a “one of a kind” collectible set that was to be auctioned off by Nick Lindauer (formerly of the Hot Sauce Blog), with the #1 set selling for an unheard of price of over $3,000! For a bottle of hot sauce!!
Scott: And you completely obliterated the old stair-climbing record with a new record of 106,000. What was going through your mind whenever you made the record-breaking stepping sessions for Step Up?
Jim: Krispy Kremes and/or Vintage Port 🙂 My two vices. Seriously though, not much was going through my head during the event itself. I tried really hard to “zone out” and just concentrate on keeping up a monster pace – I passed the previous record of 66,000 stairs within the first 12 hours. There were a lot of distractions though – people coming through to wish me well, which I appreciated, a couple of “on air” interviews, and the usual good natured razzing from my fellow firefighters 🙂 Prior to that, it was all about trying to maximize the returns for the charities. These are fairly small charities and I really wanted to do a good job for them, especially since I was so personally attached to them. I hadn’t a clue as to all the logistical support that was needed for the event itself, as well as what was required on the fund raising end of it! I was also very surprised at the amount of effort that the charity side of it took. Fortunately, my web guru Jeff Shickowski managed most of that. It’s his artwork and design that you see at the StepUp site.
Scott: How and when did Open Fields start?
Jim: The “how” it started is a lot easier to answer than the “when”! It started fairly early on in my commercial chile growing ventures. After a year or two of watching the chiles wither and rot after the first hard frost of the season, and thinking what a waste it was, I put out a note on the ChileHeads list that anybody that wanted was welcome to come over and help themselves to anything that was salvageable. As I was dependent upon the weather folks and the accuracy of their forecasts in order to put out the invite, not many people showed up those first couple of years as it was “on again/off again” depending on the prediction of frost. “Show up – frost predicted. Ooops – no frost, don’t come.”
I then decided to pick a fixed date based on a point in the season where I thought that I had enough chiles harvested that I could spare the rest. That date too, was weather dependent but it at least allowed a few days notice.
The attendance picked up quite a bit at that point and the thing started to take on a life of its’ own. There were a few years though, where I had to put restrictions on what was harvested based on the fact that occasionally I still needed some of the chiles! “Pick this, but not that.” After a few years of that it reached its’ current “official” form. The acre of chiles that I plant – my “hobby patch” – exists for no other reason than this event. Whatever people don’t pick for themselves on this weekend gets plowed under.
Most people attending for the first time are totally blown away by the generosity of the other Chileheads attending. There is food, food, and more food, drink, good company, and about 10,000 chiles of 60 different varieties to pick from. And it’s all FREE. No admission charges, no cost for the chiles, no nothing. The only cost is what it takes to get yourself here and stay, and what you choose to spend on food and stuff to share. Several items are now considered staples at the event: “hog wings” by the Ft. Wayne, Indiana crowd, “peach/habanero ice cream” by two well known ChileHeads folks (Mr. and Mrs. Hobby Farmer) from Michigan, fresh fried catfish and boudan from some cajun fellow (ButchT) up from Mississippi, Jalapeno poppers by Gordon from California, assorted trinkets from Beth BayouTrader up from Texas, and on and on and on!
There’s quite a bit of debate as to when Open Fields actually started. For quite a number of years, it was/is believed that there was/is a regular who had attended more of the events than I did! I had to miss one of the first “official” ones in 2001 due to having to bury a family member that was killed in the attacks on 9-11. I refused to let the bastards have the upper hand and let the event go on without me. I now use it as proof that I’m irrelevant to the event 🙂 I can’t state strongly enough, that it is the people who attend this that make the event what it is, NOT me. The official “historian” of the event is Alex Siljaboris, who has attended every one except for possibly the first one. The official “documentarian” is Jeff Shickowski, who has attend nearly all of them and has photos of every year he has been. About as near as anyone can figure, it probably started about 1995 or so.
Scott: How many people regularly attend Open Fields every year?
Jim: There’s probably 50 to 60 folks that can be counted on to be there year after year. Crowds have varied from a low of about 60, when it was just the die-hards picking in 36 F with driving rain/snow and 30 MPH winds, to a high of probably 200. I don’t really keep a head count as many folks are “day trippers” that show up for a few hours and leave. At any given hour of the event, you can count on a fair number of people… and more food than you could ever imagine! The states best represented are Wisconsin and Ohio. Tennessee sends up a crew, as does Kentucky. New York is most always represented, as is Missouri. In more years than not, there’s usually an international contingent as well! Folks have been here from England, The Netherlands, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada.
Scott: In addition to the fact that it’s completely non-commercial, part of the mystique or appeal of Open Fields, as I’ve been told by a few fellow chileheads, is that you keep the location secretive by holding it at your chile fields “somewhere in central Indiana”. Do you ever see a point where the location might be made public?
Jim: It being made public would be entirely up to my landlord. I’d kinda doubt it. The fields are in a bit of a remote location and there are a LOT of things there other than chiles! My landlord makes his living off this ground and so he’s a bit protective of it… especially since there’ve been several serious episodes of vandalism and theft over the years, though none attributed to chileheads or this event. I’m required to personally vouch for every single person that attends, and make good on any damages and missing produce. Part of the terms are that I must also leave the fields cleaner than when we showed up. A last day tradition is a walk of the entire property, picking up anything that isn’t vegetation.
Scott: What are all of chile varieties you grow?
Jim: I grow 40 to 60 varieties in any given year. Adding them up over the years, I’m probably closing in on the 1,000 mark. The greatest variety are found in my “hobby patch”, which is the one I use for the Open Fields. In addition to several consistent favorites like Chimayo, Red Savina(R), Aconcagua, and New Mex, I’m all the time looking for the “next big thing” in chiles. In addition, many of the discoveries have come through chileheads sending me seed saying “try this” or “try that”. That’s how I came across the Trinidad Scorpion and 7-Pot years before most other folks had heard of them and how CaJohn and I came across the Fatalii. Just a few of the others that I’ve grown include Zimbabwe Bird, African Fish Pepper, Peter Peppers, Explosive Ember, Twilight, Cherry Hot, Cayenne, Jalapeno, Tormenta, Chocolate Habanero, Mustard Habanero, Thai Dragon, Zavory, Spanish Spice, Pimiento, Pepperoncini, DeArbol, Pointsettia, Bhut Jolokia, Big Jim’s, 6-4, Sandia, Marconi, Malagueta, Manzano, Cubanelle, Corno di Toro, Tabasco, Bolivian Rainbow, Marbles, and on and on. There’s probably about half of them get changed out from year to year. It’s all driven by what the folks that attend want… aside from the ones I grow for my own home use.
Scott: Getting back to hot sauce talk, how many recipes do you go through on average before settling on a final one when creating a new sauce?
Jim: One. Maybe two. I have a pretty good idea what I’m after when I set out to make a sauce. It’s expensive to experiment in full scale and after almost 20 years in the kitchen, I’m usually fairly happy with how things turn out the first time. I also not above copying what CaJohn does, occasionally “tweaking” one of his recipes to suit my needs 🙂 He returns the favor now and again, so it’s all good. His company and mine are so hopelessly intertwined, it would be quite chore to separate them!
Scott: Any new products for Mild to Wild in the near future?
Jim: Have to see if CaJohn has anything worth stealing again 🙂 I’ve long wanted to do a roasted chile sauce. I’d also like to get another couple on the milder side as well as kick up a hotter one. The biggest issue with new products is “ideas are the cheap part”. I could sit here and think of a half-dozen things I’d like to do, but seeing them through to a finished product is the expensive part. The next thing due out is the return of my wildly popular (and always out of stock!) Apple Smoked Red Savina(R) powder. It’s so labor intensive that I can only produce a bit at a time. As a consequence, it’s usually gone within a few days of being available.
Scott: What’s your favorite product that you produce?
Jim: I would have to say my Chipotle Sauce and the Rookie Orientation, if that question is geared towards as in what I use. My favorite one that I don’t use is my Stupid Hot. Four years in a row, picked as the people’s choice “Hottest Sauce of the Show” at the Houston Hot Sauce Festival.
Scott: What do you think is the biggest misconception or myth surrounding chile peppers or hot sauces?
Jim: That there’s money in it 🙂 I can’t count the number of times I’ve run into folks that think they have the “next Tabasco” and that they’ll make a fortune once the right person tastes it.
Scott: What advice would you give to up-and-coming sauce makers?
Jim: The same advice I give on nearly a weekly basis, namely: do it for the friends you’ll meet, do it for the fun, do it for the love of chiles, but DO NOT do it for the money! Do your research ahead of time. And also, most importantly, DROP ME A NOTE before spending money on something! There are a few “sharks” out there that feed off of newbies, charging them outrageous prices for services that they can usually expect to get for FREE. Nutritional analysis is one of the more popular ones. That can be done for next to nothing from several sources but I’ve seen folks get charged as much as $3,000 for supposed “official” analysis. There is also a web site out there that portrays itself as an “FDA Legal” site, when in reality all it provides is a private opinion for a crazy amount of money. It kills me to see folks fall prey to this stuff, as it usually ends their dreams right then and there. Another piece of advice would be to NOT listen to show promoters! OF COURSE they’re going to tell you that you’ve got the “next Tabasco” – they are a PROMOTER!! They want your money – I do not.
Scott: If you could go back and correct one mistake or misstep you might have made, what would it be?
Jim: Getting started? 🙂
Scott: What is the amount of heat that you can tolerate on average in your everyday food?
Jim: Every day? Probably Cayenne, on occasion habanero. Mostly depends on how much money is on the table 😉 Other than the “belly churn”, I don’t have much trouble with extracts. Regular habs and fatalii absolutely slay me though. Everyone is different! No two people perceive heat the same way. If you put 4 mil extract and a run of the mill orange habanero in front of me, I’ll do two of the 4 mil before even thinking of the hab!
Scott: What’s the hottest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Jim: Pure, crystallized capsaicin, 16 million Scoville 🙂 It’s on YouTube. The powder came from three different sources – one of Blair’s 16 million Reserve, a gram from an analytical testing lab that uses it to calibrate the HPLC testing, and a commercial sample from a company in Canada. It burnt from the tip of the tongue all the way to the belly button, but not as bad as I thought it would.
Scott: With all the buzz surrounding Trinidad Scorpions and 7-Pots, along with Bhut Jolokias and others, what pepper has personally kicked your ass the hardest with its perceived intensity and heat?
Jim: That would be any of the chinense. A guy’s got to know his limits and I’m old enough to be very aware of mine… at least when it comes to chiles 😉
Scott: What do you think is your favorite overall chile pepper – for eating, for cooking, and for making sauces with?
Jim: That is an absolute no-brainer: CHIPOTLE!!!! Thank you, Mr. Evans. I eat chipotle with just about every meal in some form or another, be it powder, sauce, or salsa. Not quite sure what it is, but I seem to be drawn towards smoke. Of course, that pun is more obvious when I say it standing in full fire gear 😉
Scott: Do you try to keep up as much as you can on happenings in the fiery foods world? If so, what are some of your sources?
Jim: Absolutely! The chile pepper and hot sauce worlds are constantly evolving. I’m scanning a lot of the blogs, yours among them, as well as the news sites, trying to catch whiff of what’s next. I maintain a constant correspondence with several folks in the industry as we all sit around and try to peer into the crystal ball to see what the future holds. CaJohn and I talk on probably a daily basis about where we see the industry heading. Now that he has his own kitchen, he is quite a bit more up to date on the ever changing food regulations than I am.
Scott: A few years ago you said that increased government regulation is slowly killing the market for start-up companies in the spicy food industry. Do you still see this trend continuing?
Jim: Not only start ups, but killing a lot of established ones too! Governmental regulation is the single biggest cost and obstacle towards growing my business. You could really get me going on a soap box here, about what is and isn’t needed for food safety! The average consumer – and wannabe sauce maker – has no clue as to the depth and breadth (and sheer, utter stupidity) of the regulations that exist.
For example, as part of an audit on chile growers I had to answer a for and sign an affidavit that I wouldn’t overcharge the person I was selling chiles to… which was me! I asked the person if they understood that I was both the grower AND the end user. “Didn’t matter” I was told – a form is a form and it must be filled out. So, somewhere in the government files is a form that states that I promise not to rip myself off when I sell chiles to me.
I want to hit the folks that carry on about “big oil”, “big pharma”, “big tobacco”, but haven’t a clue about the worst big of them all – “big government”! The sheer volume and lunacy of some of the food regulations is causing more and more consolidation in manufacturing. All under the guise of “safety”, many of the small local and regional manufacturers have been forced out of business. In a very short time, if things continue, there will only be a few “mega producers”. Then when you have a problem, it won’t be just local or regional in scale, it will be national.
A good example is the tainted dog food scandal from a year or so ago. If you looked at the list of recalled products, it included a massive amount of products by what you would have thought were competing brands – all made by the same contract manufacturer! Most of the food people eat isn’t made by the folks on the label! Dirty little secret here – when it comes to commercial food brands, rarely is it made by the “brand” on the label! Most food is contract packed by a few companies that will process for several different labels and brands. Now when you have a problem – which you will have since you’re dealing with humans – the scope of the problem is massive in scale.
Scott: Do you see any other trends on the horizon for the industry?
Jim: Getting credit for answering this question, while still addressing the one above: more interference and obstacles from bureaucrats and self appointed guardians! The current direction the government is headed is towards “cradle to grave” tracking, also known as “point source” and a couple of other things. The theory is, every ingredient in any product can be tracked from end consumption all the way back to the point of production at a government inspected (approved) source. Sounds great, right? You’ll now be able to say that this jalapeno came from XYZ Farms and also went into the following other sauces. Here’s how that will play out in the real world, and is going to be a serious hurt on your local farmers’ market. The growing local trend and farmers’ markets represent a good source of fresh produce for a lot of small sauce makers. They will no longer be allowed to purchase from these small growers as the grower is not very likely to be an “approved source”. Farmer Brown can grow the best organic tomatoes in the world, but I will be in trouble for using them as they aren’t source trackable. Instead, I have to get tomatoes out of a can from “Mega-mater Corp” because they can afford to meet the paperwork demands. It’s typical of the law of unintended consequences whenever the government tries to decide what’s best for you. Can’t wait till they’re running my health care 😉
Labeling requirements seem to be changing about every two years or so. Did you know that your hot sauce is now safer because the nutritional panel is in 9 point Times New Roman instead of Sans Serif? While that is not an actual requirement, it is typical of the stuff we have to meet. No big deal right? Except when your sitting on several thousand dollars worth of labels that are no longer allowed to be used. “Use By” dating is another thing that will kill off a lot of smaller folks. They will not allow a “use by” date any further out than two years, despite any science or proof that it still isn’t good FAR beyond that date, even in spite of evidence that it IS still good! Retailers will be forced to clear out perfectly good stuff that has approached that date, because people won’t buy it. Small sauce makers will find themselves having to eat a lot of stuff that is approaching that date and that will be yet another thing that kills already tight margins. Do you want me to go on? It could be nearly endless. What the government fails to understand, is that I have little to gain in poisoning my customers. If I sicken one or two, I’m out of business. I know that believing in the free market to cure most ills isn’t in vogue at the moment, but such are my beliefs.
Scott: What one question do you wish someone would have asked you but never has?
Jim: Can I buy your company for a million dollars?