Hot Sauce

DENVER — As I drove past Danny Cash’s little storefront in suburban Denver the other day — Danny Cash Hot Sauce – Retail Wholesale — some unseen force sucked me in. (“Use the Force, Bob.”)

Here is the gist of this column: Omigod, Omigod.

Pardon me 1,000 times — or don’t pardon me — but I love hot sauce.

Laborious academic research has shown — OK, it was me and Danny jawing over his desk for half an hour — that the U.S. hot sauce industry began exploding about the same time the craft beer business did — sometime around the turn of the century.

“I think it’s because people got a taste of quality, and then they thought, ‘Hey, I could do this myself,’” Danny said in his modest, cluttered office on a far edge of River Point mall in Sheridan, Colorado. He moved here four months ago to try to get back into retail, which accounts for only about 3% of his business.

“We have been Colorado’s largest hot sauce company for 16 years,” Danny said. “We use more red habanero peppers in a month than the state of Colorado produces in a year.”

Most of his business is making hot sauce for other companies to sell under their own labels. His 35 basic recipes, he says — all Danny’s own — are sold under 8,000 labels by roughly 3,000 companies, in every continent but Antarctica — where they probably could use some hot sauce.

Yet he barely advertises at all. “It’s mostly word of mouth,” he says. “A lot of our orders come in at 2 or 3 a.m., business owners looking for something new.”

And what’s new in hot sauce? Hot sauce as business cards. (“It’s an awesome business card.”) He designs the labels in house. Posters on the wall of the salesroom show hot sauce labels from rock and roll bands, a Roller Derby team, a volunteer Fire Department, realtors, and many a restaurant, including Taco Jesus and Davey’s Chuck Wagon Diner, on Colfax Avenue in Denver, the second force that pulled Danny into the hot sauce business.

The first impetus was being dumped by his girlfriend. He was 22.

Danny Cash tends the counter at his hot sauce company in suburban Denver.

“I honestly just needed something new in my life, so I started making hot sauce.”

At the time — 18 years ago — Danny was his father’s only employee. They sold parts washers to mechanics, but their business was dying. As Danny made the rounds, he started handing out bottles of hot sauce to his customers — not as a promo — just because he thought it would help them remember him the next time they needed a parts washer.

Pretty soon they were asking for more hot sauce.

Danny’s second push into the business came from Davey’s Chuck Wagon Diner. You can make a big batch of hot sauce in a few hours, but hot sauce comes in little bottles.

“I asked them to set aside all of their empty hot sauce bottles,” Danny said. He took them home and boiled them and filled them with hot sauce, and kicked back a few to Davey. The diner demanded more. More hot sauce, please.

So Danny, his parts-washing business failing, after he’d bought it from his father for $10, talked to his church — the Glory of God Lutheran Church in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. “I drew up a business plan and all, and presented it to them, and they said, ‘We were going to let you do it anyway.’”

So Danny cooked hot sauce in the church kitchen for a year, by which time he had 10 times as many orders as when he’d started.

He moved out and his business expanded another 10 times in year two.

Another 10 times in year three.

In year four it expanded by 20 times.

Do the math.

Today Danny has about 15 employees, including his Mom and Dad in sales, his sister-in-law, who keeps the books, and his wife, who handles the website.

He buys nearly all his peppers from Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico.

About 40% of his customers are restaurants, which “love our business, because their customers think they made it.”

Danny loves habanero peppers most of all. But though the habanero is a notoriously hot pepper, he doesn’t try to make hot hot sauce. “We shoot for the average person, because we don’t want to fry people,” he says. “We care about flavorful” more than heat.

After habaneros, Danny loves serrano peppers, which are 10 times hotter than jalapeños, which he avoids. “You can’t tell if a jalapeño will be hot or not. We don’t use jalapeños, and that’s exactly why.”

He also likes cayenne peppers — those long skinny red ones — not cayenne pepper: the peppers themselves.

His best-selling item is Garlic Serrano Hot Sauce, which he sells under all three of his house labels: Danny Cash, with a flaming motorcycle logo; High Altitude Gourmet; and Salvation Sauce, in honor of the church that helped start him on his way.

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