In the early 1990s, the husband and wife chef team of Mike and Diane Greening went on vacation in Arizona and stumbled upon a hot sauce store boasting supposedly great sauces and bought some to try out. Unimpressed with their lackluster purchases,the couple went on a mission to create a much better product. After a bit of trial and error, one of my personal favorite line of sauces, Ring of Fire, was born, and Mike and Diane’s Gourmet Kitchen, their namesake company, has remained one of the pre-eminent manufacturers in the fiery food industry ever since.
Mike was kind enough to give me the opportunity to ask him a few questions about himself and his passion in this inaugural “FireTalkers” interview feature.
Scott: Describe a typical day for you.
Mike: I don’t really have that many “typical” days. They all have their differences depending upon what day of the week and what is happening that day. However, a somewhat normal day would be getting into the office around 10:00 am (we usually work until midnight and don’t get to bed till around 3:00 am, so we wake up late) and firing up the computer to check e-mails and check phone messages. Then answering e-mails, returning phone calls and making whatever phone calls I have to make. After that I am usually packing orders either for UPS or freight pick up till around 3:30 pm when UPS picks up. I have about an hour to two hours of paperwork and e-mails after the orders are shipped out. After that, my day of production actually starts, usually with prepping sauce to bottle the next day. If it is a day that we are bottling sauce, the time we get that started all depends upon which sauce we are making and how much of it.
We work an average of 80 – 90 hours per week and if we are lucky we might get one or two days off per month.
Scott: If you had to pick a favorite sauce that you produce, which would it be?
Mike: It is probably a tie between the Mad Anthony’s Mustard and the Ring of Fire Steak Sauce. I eat both of those almost every day. I put one of those two on just about everything. I actually buy food to go with my mustard instead of the other way around.
Scott: Do you have any favorite sauce(s) that you don’t make yourselves?
Mike: I don’t really have a favorite that we don’t make. I use a lot of different sauces on a daily basis but they are usually new ones that we are developing so I am testing them every day and on different things.
Scott: How often do you eat your own hot sauces?
Mike: With regards to our Ring of Fire Hot Sauces, I taste every batch we make so I rarely actually use them myself. Diane does most of the cooking at home and she uses our sauces in almost everything she prepares. Her favorites to use in cooking are the “Tomatillo & Roasted Garlic” and the “Red Pepper & Roasted Garlic”. It is kind of silly that I don’t eat the hot sauces very often because when I do, I am genuinely blown away by how good they are on food and don’t understand why I don’t use them more often.
Scott: What’s the average level of heat that you personally like to eat with your food?
Mike: For the fiery food industry people such as myself, I am actually a bit of a wimp. I find flavor and texture far more important than fire. I enjoy good food. If it is spicy that is fine, if it isn’t, that’s fine too, as long as it is enjoyable to eat. For my taste buds, I would say something in the 3 to 5 range on a 1 to 10 scale is my level of comfort. Anything hotter than that, the heat gets in the way of my enjoyment of the food itself.
Scott: What is the oddest thing you put hot sauce on that you eat regularly?
Mike: I use the Ring of Fire Steak Sauce as a dipping sauce either on chicken nuggets or microwave egg rolls (usually both) at least four times per week. Now if that isn’t a sad commentary on how much I work, I don’t know what is.
Scott: How much sauce do you produce in a week?
Mike: Not as much as I would like.
Scott: In regards to obtaining greater and greater success, what would be the next “level” for you? Are there any new products on the immediate horizon from you?
Mike: We are working on an entirely new line of products to come out under a new brand name for a completely different marketplace and segment of the population.
Scott: Since I used to be a hardcore Van Halen fan, I have to ask you a few [ex-Van Halen, and current Chickenfoot bassist] Michael Anthony questions. How did you hook up with him to make his Mad Anthony sauces?
Mike: Long story. I will try to keep it short.
I had heard for years that he had a Ring of Fire tattoo but until I’ve actually seen it, I don’t believe it. Several years ago some friends of ours were going to a music trade show that Michael Anthony was going to be signing autographs at. They asked me if I wanted them to check out his tattoos. I gave them a few bottles to take with them (just in case) and they did. Low and behold, he did have our chileman tattooed on his left forearm. They took a picture of him holding a bottle of sauce next to his tattoo for me to have proof. On a whim, I e-mailed his website and said that if he ever wanted to do his own hot sauce to give me a call. I never even thought he would see the e-mail, let alone respond to it. On the very next day, he called me and said “Hell, yeah, lets do it.” The rest is pretty much history.
Scott: How much input did Michael Anthony have in the creation of his hot sauces, BBQ sauces and mustards?
Mike: At the onset with Michael, I told him that if he was looking to slap his face on a bottle of hot sauce just to make money on it, I was the wrong guy to work with. My only concern was to make a superior quality product, regardless of how much it sells. He was in total agreement. He wanted a product that he would be proud to have his name on and it wasn’t about making money.
With that part out of the way, I would come up with a type of base for a sauce, a background if you will, and send it to him and see what he thinks. From there, we go back and forth adding things to it until we get a sauce that we are both happy with. He usually only has two requests for the sauce. “HOTTER! And more garlic.” Once we get the garlic where we want it, he just says “HOTTER!”. The man can eat some seriously hot foods. He can down a half a bottle of his XXXHot at a sitting, without it even phasing him. Me, one taste of that sauce and I’m done. This is how we pretty much did all of his sauces.
Scott: Were you a big Van Halen fan before you and Michael collaborated? What do you think of the new Chickenfoot album?
Mike: To be honest, I wasn’t much of a Van Halen fan at all. Diane still has their first two albums. (yes vinyl albums). I liked their music but never thought about it much, except for the Hot For Teacher video. That was hot.
I really do like the new Chickenfoot CD. I actually bought a copy of it because I didn’t want to wait for Michael to send me one. I am also extremely happy for Michael because he is having so much fun with the new band and they are all having a blast playing the concerts. For them, this was about making music and having fun and they really are.
Scott: Do you try to stay up-to-date on happenings in the spicy food world? If so, what are some of your info sources?
Mike: No. Like I said, I only have time to pay attention to what I am doing and how well I am taking care of my customers. That is all that matters to me. I don’t have any control over the rest of the industry, so I only focus on what I can control. I hear bits and pieces of what is going on from the retailers that I deal with, but that’s about it. If I were to watch what a certain company is doing, it would be Dave’s Gourmet. I think Dave is an extremely smart and savvy business man and has a very clear vision of who he is and what his business is about.
Scott: What is the most asked question you get?
Mike: “Is it Hot?” It sounds like a silly question since it says Ring of Fire Hot Sauce on the label and has a chileman breathing fire, but we’ve learned what people are really asking is; “Is it going to be too hot for me?” We usually respond with “Do you like hot food and if so how hot do you like it?”
Scott: You probably get quite a bit of input from fans of Ring of Fire sauces. Any questions or feedback you’re surprised you don’t hear more of? Are there any particular questions you wish you could ask the chilehead community in general?
Mike: To be honest, I think we have the best customers in the world. They are so supportive of us and we feel like they are part of our family. This is why I don’t really like the word “Customer”. They are much more than that to us. We have developed very close relationships with many people that we met through them buying our sauces. We try to have really open communication with all of them, so we hear all kinds of feedback. I can’t think of any questions for the chilehad community, other than “Why aren’t you eating more Ring of Fire?” Just kidding!
Scott: Who can stand more heat, you or Diane?
Mike: Diane, without a doubt. I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to spicy foods. Medium heat is just fine with me.
Scott: What’s the hottest thing you’ve eaten, whether it be a sauce, pepper, or dish?
Mike: I was playing around making a fresh Habanero Mash the other night and in a moment of stupidity I tasted it. I think it is what napalm would taste like. I have never tried any of the sauces like Blair’s or Dave’s since I am keenly aware of my limits and don’t find much reason to push them for something just to prove I’m a man.
Scott: What has been your biggest hurdle or challenge you’ve faced so far?
Mike: Lack of capital. There are so many things I want to do and can’t do them because of not having enough cash flow. I don’t really care about money for my own purposes. It is just a tool for me to do more, and I hate it when I am held back from doing what I want.
The other hurdle which I face every day is trying to convince buyers of stores that they can sell a 12.5 oz bottle of hot sauce for $10.00. We’ve been doing it for over 15 years and the hurdle never seems to go away.
Scott: If you hadn’t got into hot sauces, what do you think you would be doing nowadays? Still a chef or in the restaurant industry?
Mike: Ooh, tough question. If I hadn’t ever gotten into the fiery food industry, I don’t really know what I would be doing. At the time we developed the hot sauces, I was a certified personal fitness trainer and working in the restaurant. My plan was to open a personal training center that also made diet plans for the clients and then the hot sauce took off, taking us with it, so that never materialized. I would like to think that my fate would have gone in that direction, but who knows. Diane and I have also been going to school for five years studying Interior Design and Architecture, so if we were to do something else now, it would be in that field.
Scott: How do you feel about the current state of the hot sauce industry? Are there any trends you don’t particularly care for? Anything you would change if you could?
Mike: Unfortunately, I don’t really have time to pay attention to what is happening in the industry. However the trend with all the obscene labels does kind of annoy me. I think that all the junk labels that are out there are giving the entire hot sauce industry a bad name and holding it back from being accepted in more mainstream markets. The buyers for an upscale store see the words “Hot Sauce” on whatever you send them and instantly think that it won’t appeal to their clientele and don’t want it in their store regardless of how good it may be. It makes it very difficult for anyone with a high quality product that happens to be Hot Sauce to get it on store shelves. As far as me wanting to change anything, that’s not my place to say or to place any judgments on others. I just focus on what I am doing and how well I am servicing my customers. That’s my only concern.
Interested in Ring of Fire sauces, Mad Anthony’s sauces, or any of the other products Mike and Diane’s sell? Go to the Mike and Diane’s Gourmet Kitchen website.
View my recent review of Mad Anthony’s XXXTRA HOT Private Reserve Hot Sauce.