FireTalkers – Interview with John Dilley of Defcon Sauces
Defcon Creator, AKA John Dilley, stands in his “Mad Max meets the Matrix” outfit at the 2009 Weekend of Fire at Jungle Jim’s.
Purveyors of some of the mightiest wing sauces on the planet and mainstays at hot sauce trade shows, Defcon Sauces owners John “The Creator” Dilley and his wife Maggie “The Createss” have racked up an impressive array of awards for their fiery products and have become a cult chilehead favorite. Eat some wings with a generous coating of one of their unique Defense Condition sauces and it’s highly likely they’ll become one of your favorites, too.
I recently asked John some questions and he didn’t disappoint as he responded in his usual humorous and eloquent way about a variety of topics.
Scott: How did you get started making wing sauces?
John: It all started in the late 1980’s. I had wings for the first time at a restaurant. They were no where near as popular as they are now. I really liked them. I had grown up learning how to cook from my grandmother as well as my mother, and really enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen. Well, the wing things were tasty, and I figured I could make them myself.
Every year, we throw a large Superbowl party at my house, and I would serve up my newest incarnation to the masses at each gathering. Well, what a great test market, a bunch of drunk idiots watching football. If some thing sucked, they’d be more than honest, their forwardness perpetuated by the intake of many lagers. Well, it did suck at first, but through years of tweaking, I came out with something everyone really liked. The popularity really started growing amongst friends and families, and I found myself making the stuff on a regular basis for them.
Scott: At what point did you want to sell your sauce commercially?
John: About 5 or 6 years ago, over a couple of beers with a buddy of mine, he suggested I start a company. I looked at him like he had two heads and said, “Dude, I’m a finance guy, what the hell do I know about the food industry?!” Well, he put the bug in my ear. I took the idea back to the boss, The Wife Unit, a.k.a. The Createss. She asked how much it would cost. I didn’t have a clue. Well, we wadded up some cash, threw it at the idea, and here we are.
It was a giant step into a pretty scary void. Maggie and I kind of got a crash course in food industry. Looking back, there were a few things I would have done differently, but I just consider it a true learning experience.
The Creator and Createss in the Defcon Booth
Scott: Many people don’t know that you have a marketing degree. How do you think that’s helped you out in promoting Defcon Sauces?
John: Oh man, it has really helped. I graduated with the International Marketing degree back in 1996, and actually never used it. Well, I can’t actually say that, I did kind of use it when I was forced to sell stereo equipment out of a van to make ends meet for a short time! But with the inception of Defcon Sauces, I allowed myself to let my imagination take over. I have a pretty solid knowledge of chemistry related stuff as well, so pool the two together, with a dash of twistedness, and you’ll find us at the top of the food chain.
Scott: What do you think has been your most effective marketing trick or method thus far?
John: I think it’s how we present ourselves at many of our events and trade shows. We are out in left field with what we do. Why be normal? As many have witnessed at various shows, our booth looks like something out of a Mad Max meets The Matrix movie. We have a blast with it, and it has gotten us a lot of recognition. Recognition is the name of the game. If someone doesn’t know you exist, they won’t buy your product. You have to reach out and grab their attention, we do.
Scott: How much do you think interaction with the online chilehead community effects your business?
John: I think the interaction I have on many blog sites helps us quite bit. A few years back, a couple of other manufacturers had warned me about becoming too familiar with the goings on inside the chilehead blogging nation. I agree, if not done correctly, a few misplaced words can lead to bad publicity. I think I’ve pretty much been able to walk that tightrope pretty well.
From the blog sites I’ve gotten a TON of questions from newer companies about starting up, marketing themselves, etc., and they feel good knowing they have a go-to guy they can bounce stuff off of. I don’t consider myself a guru by any means, but I can give them advice based on what I’ve experienced.
Scott: What advice would you give to any up-and-coming sauce maker?
John: Prepare to work your ass off. If anyone thinks they’re gonna jump into this with minimal effort, and reap the rewards, the only reward you’re going to receive is abject disappointment. I started out ground-pounding for months, going bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, every friggin’ waking hour. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. At first, trying to get an order was like pulling teeth, and I did go through the disillusionment phase, where I was asking myself, “what the hell am I doing this for, I’m getting nowhere.” Well, I had to force myself to continue on, Maggie was a big factor when it came to this. Each day she would reinforce the fact that if this works, we can call it our own, and by her just saying that, there was no way I was giving up.
Scott: What’s your favorite sauce that you don’t produce yourself?
John: Hmmmm, good question. To tell you the truth, I don’t use many sauces at all, preferring to experiment on my own. There are of course a few products I do use, like Simme J’s BBQ sauce for my ribs, and Intensity Academy’s make great table sauces as well. It’s pretty cool, when we throw parties (a quite common occurrence), I put out many different manufacturers stuff. People get a real kick out of what they can choose from, and many have bought the stuff I have out on a regular basis.
Scott: What’s your favorite product you make?
John: Hmmm, would that be on the nice side or the demonic side? An honest question.
If I’m on the nice side, I love the Defense Condition #2 medium heat wing sauce, it’s an all-around nice product, with a great balance of flavor and heat. It’s the most popular by far at our many events and house parties, so that a pretty good indicator.
On the demonic side, I gotta go for the ZERO. It’s a truly evil product, each vial containing a dash of my own personal pain and agony that went in to making the stuff. It has given us hours upon hours of sadistic pleasure watching the testosterone-filled humans fall like flies in front of us, as we watch their primordial fears come to the surface, in the form of exquisite blissful agony.
Scott: What’s the average level of heat that you personally eat with your food?
John: I don’t go crazy with the heat on a regular basis. I can tell you I put cayenne on virtually everything I eat. I can hang with some of the best of ’em when it comes to heat, but if I’m going to enjoy my meal, it doesn’t have to have the heat of magma to make me happy.
Scott: How many different formulas and recipes do you go through when developing a new sauce or product?
John: Actually, very few. We gather together an idea, and really work on making the first couple batches good. We’ve been pretty lucky thus far. As you know, we don’t have very many different products, as of right now, we have 6 (the DM-MKII and ZERO are sold out). Many companies throw out a ton of different products all the time, that’s cool, it’s just not the direction we want to go in. We average about one new product every year or so, and will continue to do that for the foreseeable future.
Scott: Who are your “guinea pigs” when it comes to testing out products in development?
John: Actually, my friends that frequent our parties. They usually know what to expect, and if it’s a small gathering – usually around the fire pit – they will bring their own milk, knowing all to well that I won’t supply it.
Scott: Anything in new coming out of the Defcon Labs in the near future?
John: Actually yes, recently we retired our first product the Deathmatch Mark 2 (DM-MKII). It was intended as a limited release, and it has been retired. We are currently working on the DM-MKIII. It’s going to be a complete change from its predecessor. It should be ready by later in the year. It’s gonna be brutal, you can trust me on this one!
Scott: You’ve said before that some of the greatest things in life are football, wings and beer. Have you ever considered developing a chile beer? I know that brewing is a completely different ballgame, but I would love to see your take on it.
John: Yeah, but you have to add hockey in there as well. As for chile beer, I’ve tasted a few of them, and let’s just say, I don’t have to worry about buying it again. I don’t know, beer is beer, a true elixir of the Hoppy Gods, better left alone. All hail beer!
Scott: Have you ever done your own personal version of a Deathmatch and ate the wings yourself, just to see what the crazy mofos in the wing contests have to put up with?
John: I had to try many of those little suckers when we were screwing around with the formula. It’s not pleasant, but then again, it’s not supposed to be. I commend all those who have participated in our many Deathmatches, especially those who had the intestinal fortitude to consume all 10 of them. I get my large share of pain on a regular basis when I experiment. I refer epidermal pain, rather than gastrointestinal distress, and so does my bathroom.
The legendary Homunculuses play an important role in Defcon’s Global Assimilation. This one escaped (or was he abducted?) from Defcon Labs around 2006 and was last seen rampaging the countryside somewhere in Indiana in mid-2009. Several of his younger, smaller, oranger siblings still labor around the clock at the Defcon Compound, and are rewarded only with hefty amounts of beer.
Scott: Where did the whole idea for the Homunculuses come from?
John: The Homunculus idea was kind of a goof. A homunculus, in legend, was an artificially created small being created by an alchemist to help around the laboratory. Considering I think of myself as a Genetic Alchemist, it kind of fits. The little orange guys have kind of grown with the company, and many have asked what they were, and get a laugh when we explain it. Hey man, it’s all about having fun.
Scott: Has your insanity rubbed off on Maggie The Createss over the years, or has she been able to remain fairly sane?
John: Insanity breeds insanity. Although Maggie may have a rather strong constitution, I do think she is beginning to succumb to the effects of her husband. Kind of like at our wedding, when she said, “I do”, my father shouted out, “No refunds!”. She’s having a lot of fun with this as well, and a little inside info, she may actually be coming out with HER first product. I can’t say any more about it, for fear of her retributive strike, which, having been the target of a few times, I’ve learned to avoid it with the very fiber of my being.
Scott: What do you think sets you apart from other sauce makers?
John: Do you mean besides the laser projectors, plasma discs, blacklights, strobe lights, and overall cyberpunk theme? Hmmm, not much. But seriously, I see one difference is how we market our product, at least locally. I don’t see many other companies doing stuff like Defcon Days, where we bring the product TO the people, at restaurants, free. It’s gotten us a TON of recognition at the places we’ve been, and the crowds get larger and larger as time goes on. We’ve had a bunch of standing room only events, where there was a line to get in. It’s a feel-good thing to us. Not to mention we usually sell out of our product by the time we leave. It allows people to put a face on a product, which I feel is very important. It’s not every day you meet the actual person who makes a retail product you like to eat.
Scott: Any new surprises from the Defcon booth at any of the hot sauce shows this year? Or will be be the same controlled mayhem as before?
John: Pretty much the same. Maggie kind of pinched my “booth budget” for the time being, to my dismay. However, I do have some new ideas that may surface later in the year, Mwaaahaahaa!!
Scott: Does watching people taking a sample of ZERO on their tongues at your booth and watching their various reactions ever get old?
John: NEVER! It, to some degree, makes the trade show that much more worth it. You see, with both of us still holding down regular 9 to 5 jobs, ALL of our vacation time is spent doing trade shows. We MAKE the trade show fun, it’s our friggin’ vacation, damn it! But the simple pleasures of handing someone a stick of doom, and watching them writhe in spasmodic agony, makes my day worth it.
Scott: What’s your opinion on hot sauce trade shows in general?
John: Trade shows are fun. You get to meet a ton of people, not to mention make fun of a ton more. They aren’t cheap though. There is also a lot of work involved. Also, if it’s a newer company, they may become disappointed that they don’t make much money or get any buyers to come to their booth. They have to realize, the first year at many big shows, the buyers take note of you, if you show up the following year, they will approach you.
However, there are some very reasonable ones, like Jungle Jim’s Weekend of Fire in Ohio each August. We’re actually putting together a big demo at Peppers in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware this May 15 – 16, 2010 called “Peppers at the Beach”. No booth cost, lots of fun, and a big party Saturday night. We’ve got a number of companies coming already, so if anyone is interested, shoot me an e-mail at john at defconsauces.com, and I’ll sign you up.
I think the companies that run the large shows have to realize the many hot sauce manufacturers aren’t made out of money, and they take a real hit in the wallet when there is lack of attendance or if the show turns out to be nothing more than a “grazing session” for the public, when all they do is eat everyone’s stuff, and leave.
Scott: Outside of just becoming bigger and more popular, if you could change one thing about the fiery foods industry, what would it be?
John: Global assimilation into the Defcon Continuum. Honestly, I just wish there was a way that the industry in general could get the word out to the masses more that there are a TON of great products out there. A great number of people in the general populous don’t know anything about hot sauces, and have been indoctrinated throughout their lifetime that hot sauce only means Tabasco or Frank’s. I can’t tell you the number of people whose eyes I’ve opened to the actual industry. They are amazed that there is so much diversity in product types.
Scott: Okay, here are the obligatory “future” questions: Where do you see Defcon in 5 or 10 years?
John: Hmmmm, perhaps basking in the sun in the Cayman Islands with my multi-million dollar offshore bank account, with a mansion and a yacht. Hey, one can dream. As for where Defcon will be, well, in many more stores, and a much larger impact into other countries. We’re working on that now, and our international exposure has grown dramatically in the last year or so, but there’s still a lot of work to do, there always is.
Scott: Where do you see the hot sauce industry as a whole going in the future?
John: I think the American pallet is changing, slowly, but it is changing. I see the hot sauce industry growing at a steady rate. A good indicator of this is how many huge food companies, like Frito-Lay, are coming out with an increasing number of “hot” products. Chileheads may not think it’s hot, but the general public does. Habanero Doritos, for instance…they were very hard to find about a year ago, at least here in New Jersey, but now they are on nearly every shelf. However, with the crappy economy, with no end in sight, there are a number of companies that are really hurtin’. If they can ride this wave of dismal economy out for at least 3 more years, I think they will reap the benefits, when things get better economically.
Scott: What question do wish you would get asked more often and what would be the answer to it?
John: “Hey dude, I’m buyin’, need a beer?”, my answer would be, “Yes”.
Actually, I wish people would be more interested in flavor than heat at larger shows. It seems the majority of them, whose mental capacity has been numbed by beer and testosterone, stagger to the booth, and utter the famous words, “Hey man, gimme the hottest you got!”. I don’t have a problem hurting them, trust me, but it gets monotonous over time. I think people are starting to familiarize themselves with specific manufacturers or product type, which is a good thing, as brand loyalty is a great tool. We seem to be getting an ever-increasing number of Defcon customers that ask increasingly cool questions, like the ones I’m answering here. I don’t mind questions at all.
Scott: You said that you wish people would be more interested in flavor than heat. Obviously you didn’t start the fire (sorry, bad pun) when it came to having extreme heat in sauces. But do you feel that focusing on extreme heat things like having people take the sticks of ZERO on their tongue or having them eat ultra hot wings in the Deathmatches further encourages the trend of fire over flavor, or do you feel that the two can co-exist? I’m not saying you personally emphasize fire over flavor in Defcon Sauces, because they’re tasty, but there are those in the industry that do.
John: Which is fine. However, when it comes to extreme heat, it’s more shock value. The DM-MKII and ZERO are additives. I don’t know many people that would regularly enjoy a plate of anything coated in either one of them. However, you have to realize, that since we have no time for vacations from work, the trade shows ARE our vacation. I thoroughly enjoy watching the public voluntarily writhe in pain, it makes not sitting on a beach in the Caymans that much more easy to take, and at their expense, not mine. Some may see it as a tad sadistic, not me, I find that it keeps me mentally stable.
Scott: Outside of your 9 to 5 job and the work you put in for Defcon Sauces, what do you do with your spare time? Are you still into things like racing and SCUBA diving?
John: Yes, and always will be. Sleep is way over-rated, and you only have walkabout on this rock, so enjoy the hell out of it! Spare time doesn’t really exist. Myself and The Wife Unit are always doing something. Whether it be going to hockey games, doing Defcon events, scuba diving for lobster, going to Montana to working ranches, competition shooting matches with antique and modern arms, working on the Mustang, etc. It’s never dull around here. Many of our friends and family units ask how we do it. We don’t really have an answer, and just reply, “Does it really matter how?”.
Scott: If you could ask the whole spicy food world one question, what would it be?
John: “Have you discovered Defcon Sauces yet?”
Defcon’s excellent wing sauces, habanero horseradish sauces and smokey seasonings are available at the Defcon Sauces website.