West Chester Hot Sauces Fire Up The Local Palate
In the fall of 2013, residents of Irwindale, California had had enough. Enough of the headaches, the burning eyes, and the heartburn due to spicy vapors wafting throughout their close-knit community of 1400. They filed a complaint, which escalated into lawsuits between the originator of the fumes and the city of Irwindale.
The culprit was not a chemical plant or hazardous materials producer, but rather the nearby Sriracha manufacturing facility. Whenever it came time to process the seasonally harvested chilies comprising their signature hot sauce, fumes would emanate for miles, flaring up far more than just the taste buds of everyone around.
The lawsuits (somewhat) resolved in 2018, with residents dealing with the occasional teary eye and cough. Meanwhile, Huy Fuong Foods, Sriracha’s parent company, continued to churn out one of the most beloved hot sauces in the U.S., using 100 million pounds of chilies a year and amassing sales of $150 million in 2019, according to an October 2019 Fortune article. Businesswire of June 28, 2021 assessed a value of $4.5 billion for the global hot sauce market in 2020. Today, Sriracha claims 10% of all sales in the U.S.
Given our billion-dollar obsession with the condiment, are there any options to shop locally? Yep. Craft hot sauce is experiencing a moment, a trend that’s evident right here in town.
“We’re deep in flavor and frankly the best,” proclaims Frankly-Deep hot sauce co-founder Pradeep Kulkarni. “We focus on flavor, not heat. Anyone can burn you out.” His interest in spice derives from his Jamaican Indian background. “We love hot foods.”
Pradeep and his business partner, Frank Schweitzer, met at Penn State Brandywine 10 years ago. The friends loved to cook, and began experimenting with hot sauces, packing their freezers with peppers. “We tried maybe 20 different recipes and gave them away,” Pradeep recalls. “People would say ‘you should sell this.’”
So they sat down and thought about it. At the time, Frank was waiting tables at McKenzie’s Brew House. The duo made a sauce for McKenzie’s to put on their wings. It was a hit. They received their FDA certification four years ago, and in 2019, joined Artisan Exchange to scale up their operation. They pulled in $17,000 that year, largely from street fairs and local events.
Then, the pandemic brought everything to a halt. The business survived through online sales for the next two years, partly due to the nature of their product. “It’s a hot sauce, so there’s not a ton of overhead,” Pradeep explains.
“We try to source as locally as possible,” he says. “We have PA-preferred branding and are super Chester County-based.” Frank grows the organic peppers used in their sauces at his farm in Chadds Ford.
Frankly-Deep offers five sauces of varying intensity, all of which combine unexpected flavors and a little whimsy. The mildest is “The Floor is Hot Guava,” which features a sweetness from guava puree and no added sugar. Pradeep cites his Caribbean, Latino, and Spanish friends as the inspiration for this flavor.
“Malicious Mango” evokes Caribbean flavors, with Scotch Bonnets and mango. Pradeep likes to sauté it with a little olive oil and garlic and use it to marinate chicken, which he then grills over high heat. “Habanero Heaven,” which he characterizes as a “very approachable habanero,” contains four different varieties of Habanero peppers: Red, Orange, Maya, and Chocolate.
On the higher end of medium is “Welcome to Scoville.” Despite its eight-pepper, vinegar-forward profile that includes Carolina Reapers, Naga Vipers, and Scorpions, Pradeep insists that it is a jack-of-all-trades. “When you add it to a Bloody Mary, or to soup, it gives people that vinegar tang they like.”
Lastly, there is “Belligerent Butternut.” “It gives you a creamy experience. As the creaminess creeps across your palate, you get the ghost pepper,” Pradeep describes. He drizzles it on eggs and mixes it with ketchup as a topping for fries.
The pair work as a team on everything, including branding. Characters are their inspiration for the fanciful motifs that adorn their glass screw-top bottles. “For Belligerent Butternut, initial sketches had some very angry butternut squashes,” he laughs. As their company has grown, they’ve handed off some of the responsibilities, such as outsourcing their graphics. They pride themselves on names. “I’m a sucker for puns and words,” Pradeep admits. Indeed, Frankly-Deep is a play on their names.
Looking ahead, he envisions expanding their footprint, distributing locally, and getting their product in warehouses to increase their presence. Resurrecting the routine of seeing customers face to face includes a booth at the Kennett Winter Fest in February.
There’s a bigger vision for the future, too, that encompasses his original passion. “The dream is to start a small café featuring foods that pair with our hot sauce,” he rhapsodizes. “Jamaican jerk chicken. Latin-inspired pulled pork. Four-cheese mac and cheese. I’ve been cooking my whole life.”
Where to Find It
“Like anything you’d eat, it has to have depth and it has to be seasoned properly. Ours is spicy, sweet, smoky, citrusy, and flavorful,” Roots Café Chef and Co-owner Dan Merola waxes poetic about their hot sauce. “We feel like we’ve perfected the ideal, all-purpose hot sauce.”
Fellow Chef and Co-owner JT Hearn developed the recipe while working at another restaurant in 2016. When the duo first took over as owners of Roots in 2018, they initially only offered the sauce as a side upon request. Its popularity skyrocketed, however, inspiring them to create a dish around it: the hot chicken sandwich, which became Roots’ most popular lunch item (and made the cover of this publication in spring 2020).
Their approach to the sauce fits in with their overall philosophy. “We believe that every component of every dish should taste great on its own, and that makes for a really amazing meal,” says Dan. “We did not skimp on the efforts in really nailing the recipe for this hot sauce. It’s almost guaranteed that guests ask for a side when we bring their food to them.”
Freshness is a hallmark, so every two to three days, there is another new batch simmering away in a large stockpot in the kitchen. “We reduce it on medium heat until the flavors are concentrated, and the texture is where it needs to be,” he explains. “Then, when it is cooled, we blend it until smooth.”
Unlike most of the others featured in this article, the Roots sauce does not espouse a “less is more” credo. “We have a ton of ingredients in our hot sauce,” he explains. “Let’s just say that every ingredient serves a purpose, whether it’s for viscosity, sweetness, saltiness, emulsification, tanginess, heat, color and texture.”
Dan notes that their sauce is very versatile, pairing with most things on their menu. He likes to top his eggs or a breakfast sandwich with it.
Demand currently outpaces supply. “There are times where we don’t have enough in house to sell an 8- or 16-ounce jar,” he laments. “JT and I have been brainstorming the logistics of bottling our sauce and selling it in stores and markets, which includes permits and licenses from the health department and finding a partner that can handle the bottling/packaging aspects of it.”
Where to Find It
Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. In Sidney Joseph’s case, a bunch of local peppers were about to go bad in his fridge back in 2014. Not wanting to waste them, he turned them into his very first batch of hot sauce.
It might have been his first foray into hot sauce, but Sidney was no stranger to cooking. “I’d been cooking for a while, so instinctively I know what it takes to make something tasty,” he says. I think a great hot sauce has to be more than just hot. It needs flavor.”
His approach to flavor is balance. “I think what makes Satan’s Spit unique is the balance of heat and sweet,” he says. “The secret weapon is strawberries.” He uses local peppers as much as possible. All his ingredients are natural and organic, and Satan’s Spit is gluten free.
Sidney’s roots in West Chester run deep. “I’ve been connected to West Chester for over 20 years now. It started with the local music scene in the early 2000s,” he recalls. He works at The Mediterranean on Gay Street when he’s not performing music.
There is as much fire in his branding as there is within the glass bottle. “The name ‘Satan Spit’ is sort of a cheeky dig at proper marketing practices,” he laughs. “I mean, who in their right mind would use the word ‘spit’ on something that they would want other people to try?” The label features Sidney’s face with devil horns peering out from amidst flames.
His plans for Satan’s Spit include expanding into more local eateries, as well as procuring some safety equipment. “Making the hot sauce can be painful! I’m thinking of investing in a gas mask. The fumes can get pretty serious.”
Where to Find It
“Our sauce is the hot sauce for anything and everything. Goes on top of breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” declares Turk’s Head Sauce Founder Bryan Rogers. “It’s not smack-you-in-the-face heat. It is great flavor complemented by the heat. So many out there all heat, and your mouth is ruined for the next six or seven hours. Our sauce just gives your food an extra lift.”
In 2018, Bryan left the family mechanical contracting business to strike out on his own in the food industry. And Campus Chicken Food Truck was born. “I was a Chick-fil-A on wheels. We’d go out to local breweries,” he says. “What goes better with beer than a fried chicken sandwich?” He crafted custom sauce for his chicken to make it stand apart, and from the beginning, the sauce had an appeal that would eventually lead it to take on a life of its own.
Things were going great until the first few months of 2020, when not much was open, including the food truck. Bryan started cooking at a local restaurant, where he was meeting people and growing his culinary skills, and at the same time, working on rebranding his business. “We wanted to come up with a product that could be bought on shelves to grow our business,” he recalls, so they focused on the hot sauce.
Bryan handed out small bottles of it to friends and to shoppers at the farmers’ market, soliciting their feedback. Penn’s Table and Market Street Grill both placed bottles of it on their tables, which helped them gain a following. “Breakfast places in the borough gave us positive feedback on that,” he says.
In the spring of 2021, they started selling it for real. “Here’s our bottles, here’s our brand,” he says. On weekends, the food truck returned to festivals in Chester County, but today, the heart and soul of the business is the sauce.
Bryan describes the texture as thicker than Tabasco but thinner than Sriracha, leading to the choice of a slender plastic bottle with a twist top for packaging. “The plastic bottle with a twist top allows you to really control the amount that comes out,” he explains.
Turk’s Head Sauce uses a 0 to 5 scale to characterize the heat level. The original Roasted Red Fresno flavor scores a 2 out of 5. This past December, they released a second flavor, Roasted Habanero, which heats things up to a 4 out of 5. Flavor is always key. “You get the heat, but you get more of the flavor. It’s not just the heat right off the bat.” All their sauces are fully plant-based with no additives.
“I love it with breakfast, and most photos taken for sharing on social are of breakfast,” he says. “People love it with their eggs. Or on avocado toast or a breakfast sandwich. Sunny side up eggs.”
Born and raised in West Chester, along with his wife, the name—Turk’s Head—is a nod to the original name of the town, along with the venerable old tavern of the same moniker that so many locals claim as part of their early memories. “My wife and I went to WCU,” he says. “We have a daughter and another child on the way. We’ve grown to really love this town and wanted to pay homage to where we grew up.”
For 2022, Bryan is in the planning process with a co-packer to scale up production this year.
Where to Find It
Find it locally:
Penn’s Table, Market Street Grill, Ace Hardware West Chester, Beer Mill, Brandywine Ace Pet & Farm, Mae’s West Chester, Northbrook Marketplace, Pete’s Produce, Peter Clark Kitchen, West Chester Cooperative