No doubt about it — hot sauces are hot.
This month alone, the 2015 NYC Hot Sauce Expo (just one of many such themed events for spicy food lovers) is scheduled to blast off at the Brooklyn Expo Center, with a full slate of demos, eating contests and ceremonies planned, and New York’s resident hipster borough will become home to a Kickstarter-funded hot sauce emporium — punningly dubbed the Heatonist and already active as a mail-order business — in the city’s oh-so-trendy Williamsburg section.
Just how hot are hot sauces? According to The NPD Group, a Port Washington, NY.-based global information company, 56 percent of households have hot sauce on hand in their kitchens. When broken down by demographics, females age 18–44 and 55–64 and males age 18–54 and 65-plus, eat more than the average amount of hot sauce over the course of a year, according to NPD’s ongoing food and beverage market research, National Eating Trends, which also found that dual-income, no-kids households, or DINKS, eat more hot sauce than any other type of household, and that consumers in the South eat more hot sauce than any other region of the country, while easterners eat the least.
“Hot sauce is clearly part of the diet of many U.S. consumers, and it’s a food that crosses gender, age, ethnicity and income,” notes Annie Roberts, VP of NPD SupplyTrack, a monthly service that tracks every product shipped from major broadline distributors to their foodservice operators.
On the retail front, Minneapolis-based Target stole a march on other retailers at the end of last year with the rollout to select SuperTarget locations of Tabasco Premium Sriracha Thai Chili Sauce, which, as lovingly described by a representative of The McIlhenny Co., on Louisiana’s Avery Island — an iconic 147-year-old enterprise that’s virtually synonymous with hot sauce — “boasts hints of sweet garlic and just the right amount of spice. Every batch is made with a small amount of Tabasco pepper mash, which has been aged in white-oak barrels for up to three years for a hint of Tabasco signature flavor.”
Just Say ‘Sriracha’
That, of course, brings us to the current flavor sensation, sriracha, made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, and named for a coastal city in eastern Thailand. The sauce is now present in 9 percent of total U.S. households and 16 percent of households headed by someone under age 35, according to NPD’s recently released audit of U.S. kitchens.
Sriracha first came to public prominence through the efforts of Irwindale, Calif.-based Huy Fong Foods, whose founder, David Tran, remains committed to keeping his company’s most popular offering super-spicy, even in the face of complaints — since dropped — from locals about the pungent odor of chilies emanating from its factory. “Hot sauce must be hot,” he insists on Huy Fong’s website. “If you don’t like it hot, use less. We don’t make mayonnaise here.” The company’s sriracha sauce is made with California-grown red jalapeño peppers and sold in bottles sporting the now well-known rooster logo.
Consumer enthusiasm regarding sriracha has prompted other sauce makers to try their hands at similar products. Along with McIlhenny, Frank’s RedHot, a brand of Chester, N.J.-based French’s Food Co., which is owned by multinational consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser, has come out with Slammin’ Sriracha, which Miguel Gonzalez, French’s VP of food, says is “great for drizzling on pizza and scrambled eggs, or as a marinade for grilled chicken or short ribs,” adding that the sauce “combines the right heat of sun-kissed chili peppers and jalapeños, with a hint of smoke.” Meanwhile, Winston-Salem, N.C.-based T.W. Garner Food Co. has its own rendition, Cha! by Texas Pete, an extension of the brand’s hot sauce line. The flavor has also migrated to other condiments, as in the case of Lee Kum Kee’s Sriracha Chili Ketchup and, amusingly enough, given Tran’s comments above, Sriracha Mayo (the Hong Kong-based company also makes a Sriracha Chile Sauce). Heinz Ketchup Blended with Sriracha Flavor is another recent introduction, available at select retailers, including Target and Walmart. “Consumers told us that they have been in search of unique and versatile flavors to add to their favorite foods,” notes Joseph Giallanella, brand manager of Heinz Tomato Ketchup at the Pittsburgh-based company. “With the growth in popularity of hot and spicy foods at home and in restaurants we knew that they would love a new bold take on their favorite condiment. The sriracha flavor brings the excitement and versatility that consumers are craving.”
Hillsboro Ore.-based Beaverton Foods, meanwhile, has brought the distinctive flavor to extra-hot mustard sold under its Inglehoffer and Beaver brands. “We are getting great feedback from our customers about the flavor of the new Sriracha Mustard,” asserts Beaverton CEO Domonic Biggi. “It’s a one-of-a-kind combination of our award-winning mustard … with sriracha — they go together great, and the customers are telling us that with their comments and in sales.”
In other pairings, Tessemae’s All Natural, based in Annapolis, Md., has teamed with self-confessed “food nerd” and cookbook author Michelle Tam’s Nom Nom Paleo blog on a forthcoming clean-label sriracha ranch Buffalo sauce, in deference to the flavor’s status as “the king of hot sauce right now,” according to VP of Production and “Youngest Brother” Matt Vetter, who points out that all of the family-owned company’s Buffalo sauces boast clean profiles.
Beyond the now omnipresent sriracha, other zesty flavors predominate; for instance, Heinz’s other flavored ketchups include blends with Real Jalapeño and Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce. Frank’s RedHot is looking ahead to perhaps the next big condiment trend with its Rajili Sweet Ginger Sauce, which, according to Gonzalez, offers an “exotic spicy flavor [that] will add excitement to all favorite foods. Its sweet, mildly hot and tangy profile has the right balance of flavor and heat that can be used as an ingredient in recipes, or alone as a topping or dipping sauce.” The item, due to hit store shelves next month, will aim to capture the taste buds of the growing number of consumers “looking for variety and big, bold flavors,” he notes, adding that sweet, savory [and] bitter” are particularly in demand.
Calling all Heat Seekers
When it comes to encouraging trial, the proof of the sauce is in the eating, to paraphrase an old saying. “Getting consumers to try our products is the best way to promote them,” says Gonzalez. “Once they try it they won’t share it with anyone. We are pleased to see that we enjoy above-average repeat rates in most of our products.” The brand likes to play up its ubiquity among fans with the somewhat saucy slogan/hashtag “I put that **** on everything”/#IPTSOE.
“We’ve found that our consumer is familiar with hot sauce as a condiment but is looking for usage ideas that utilize the product as an ingredient” notes the McIlhenny rep. “As a result we pair promotions with recipes to inspire and motivate them to create flavorful meals.” In a similar move Beaverton Foods offers appropriate recipes online featuring its spicy condiments. “You need to pair them with the appropriate foods so they complement each other” observes Biggi. “It’s important to develop easy recipes to use with the product. We like to show consumers how to best use the product.”
Asked about additional placement and promotional measures for the segment, Gonzalez responds: “Displays are always a welcome asset in the key summer season, and, of course, cross-promotions with compatible products [are] always a smart move.” Beaverton’s Biggi seconds the use of displays, singling out end caps as prime locations.
“The best promotional/merchandising tactics are those in which we are closely aligned with our retail partners to ensure strong execution in-store, online and wherever the stores’ shoppers are looking for new and exciting ideas,” explains Heinz’s Giallanella. For instance, in the case of the company’s new sriracha-flavored ketchup, “we have worked closely with our retail team to ensure it is carried nationally and can be located easily in aisle and on display.”
Sometimes, getting the word out involves some truly novel attention-grabbers. “At this point, very few people know our Buffalo sauce,” admits Tessemae’s Vetter, “so for us, the key has been to create some unexpected moments and recipes. … For instance, we have a Buffalo sauce lemonade. It’s something so rare that you almost have to try it … and once you do, we then can compete in the expected spaces (e.g., chicken wings) of extreme brand loyalty.”
Sauce of the Future
What’s in store for hot sauce? In common with Frank’s RedHot’s Gonzalez, Vetter sees the rise of more “Asian-style” products on the horizon, while the McIlhenny rep expects greater consumer demand for international flavors in general, and both Vetter and Biggi anticipate cleaner ingredient lists as people continue to try to eat more healthfully. But tastes will definitely remain in the culinary torrid zone.
“We definitely don’t see the heat trend going away,” asserts Biggi. “It’s not a fad. There’s a population of consumers out there who want hot products, and we’re going to keep looking for hot new products to offer them.”
“With the growth in popularity of hot and spicy foods at home and in restaurants, we knew that [consumers] would love a new, bold take on their favorite condiment. The sriracha flavor brings the excitement and versatility that [they] are craving.”
—Joseph Giallanella, Heinz