Ted Chung is a man who has thought long and hard about hot sauce. "It's something I take very personally and spiritually," the founder of Cashmere, a marketing agency that targets multicultural millennials, tells Fast Company.
As the son of Korean immigrants to the U.S., he noticed as far back as the 1970s that his parents put Tabasco on absolutely everything, wherever they ate. "They were longing for the spiciness that is common in Asian foods," he says. "At the time, Tabasco was the primary hot sauce available to them. It became the temporary replacement that allowed them to experience all the pleasure that capsicum can bring."
Today, the Chungs don't have to rely solely on Tabasco for their hit of heat. While Tabasco accounts for 18% of the hot sauce market, there are now hundreds of hot sauces available in the U.S., many based on the flavors of particular ethnic cuisines.
If you’re looking to spice up your omelet at your local diner, you might find Thai Sriracha, Mexican Cholula, or even Korean Gochujang alongside bottles of Tabasco. These foreign sauces have quietly crept into restaurants and supermarket shelves across the country without much fanfare. And yet, they’ve sparked an explosion in hot sauce sales, transforming the American palate forever.
Despite the strongly ethnic origins of many popular types of hot sauce, its popularity has transcended those communities, pointing to evolving American tastes. Sriracha, for instance, is perhaps the best-known Asian hot sauce, largely because it has developed a cult following among young people. In a 2013 documentary about the sauce, Americans of all backgrounds were seen zealously dousing it on their sandwiches, salads, eggs, hot dogs, and popcorn (which you can now buy prepackaged).
"Millennials are more adventurous and curious than previous generations," says Chung, who has worked on campaigns to help brands like Red Bull and Hot Pockets effectively reach the tricky-to-woo generation. He thinks that part of the success of hot sauce brands can be attributed to the fact that they haven’t been overambitious in their marketing, but have grown organically by selling in Asian or Latin grocery stores, then slowly making their way into diners and restaurants. "Hipsters like the process of discovery," he points out. "They take pleasure in feeling they are uncovering a new culture or flavor profile on their own."
Discovery, meanwhile, is becoming easier for hot-sauce aficionados. In the warmer months, hot sauce festivals now pop up in many major cities—Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago—collectively attracting hundreds of thousands of pepper aficionados from coast to coast. At the third annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo in April, for instance, 10,000 fans of the condiment showed up in Brooklyn for a two-day affair to taste the newest varieties on the market.
Jimmy Carbone, one of the New York City Expo's organizers, believes that we've just reached a turning point in hot sauce culture. "There were pockets of hot sauce lovers around the country for years, but suddenly, we're seeing that hot sauce is hitting the mainstream," Carbone says.
Indeed, hot sauce is moving from the fringe ethnic food aisles in grocery stores to become a staple of the American pantry. An NDP study published this year found that 56% of households now have hot sauce on hand in their kitchens. Once-obscure Sriracha is now stocked in 9% of total U.S households, and in 16% of households headed by millennials.
How did hot sauce conquer the American palate? Analysts suggest that the spike in hot sauce consumption is connected to America’s increasingly diverse demographics, as immigrants from Asia and Latin America search for an easy way to capture the flavors and celebrate the cultures of their countries of origin.
And for brands, success lies in making their products approachable to a larger swath of consumers, but still exotic enough to pique interest.
Gochujang, a Korean hot sauce, is a prime example of this strategy at work. Much like Sriracha, Gochujang is a generic name for a condiment that is widely used in Korean cuisine. The sauce is a fermented red pepper paste that is used in rice dishes, meat stews, and as a dipping sauce for the plethora of side dishes. In the U.S., the biggest manufacturer and distributor of the sauce is a Korean company called Chung Jung One. According to Brian Tompkins, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, Chung Jung One’s presence in the U.S. began in the mid-'90s, when it introduced products to Korean supermarkets and restaurants through importers.
Since 2005, however, the company has set up factories and headquarters in the U.S. in an effort to reach new consumers. "This coincided with when Americans were waking up to hot sauce culture," Tompkins says. As the company researched the market, they made a few minor tweaks. They made the sauce gluten-free and vegan, when it would ordinarily be made with some wheat products, to reach as large a consumer base as possible. They also decided to use a squeeze bottle, similar to a mustard or ketchup bottle, rather than the traditional glass twist-top bottles. "We made the appearance of the bottle very approachable and understandable to Americans, but left a little Korean writing on it to make sure that people understood that we are the timeless, authentic Gochujang brand."
Tompkins says the primary mechanism by which the brand is hoping to reach the market is by distributing the product in mainstream grocery stores, hoping that non-Korean consumers will be drawn to it, particularly if they have already explored the hot sauces of other cultures. "When people started using Sriracha, it wasn’t just about putting something spicy on their food," Tompkins says. "It was about a fun, cultural experience. But all hot sauce brands benefit from Americans becoming more interested in other cultures. They think of each new brand as a new adventure in an ethnic cuisine." However, for brands like Chung Jung One to capture some of this interest, they need to make their products accessible to consumers ahead of their competitors. "The key is having the first-to-market advantage," Tomkins says. "When people think of Sriracha, they immediately think of Huy Fong Foods. We want people to think of Chung Jung One when they are looking for Gochujang sauce."
For decades, Cholula has been working along similar lines to establish itself as the definitive Mexican hot sauce in the U.S. The brand was founded by a Mexican who first introduced the product to the American market in San Antonio, Texas in 1989 then expanded nationally throughout the 1990s, by distributing it at grocery stores and restaurants. "When it first came to the U.S., it naturally sold in markets where there was a larger Hispanic and Latin influence, like Texas and Southern California," explains Cholula’s director of brand marketing, Sharon Nevins. As Mexican food became widely popular in the U.S., grocery store buyers would stock Cholula alongside the taco mixes and tortillas. But Nevins says that Cholula has worked hard not to be pigeonholed as a Hispanic sauce. "Cholula has always made an effort to be put in the area where other condiments were sold," she says.
Nevins believes that part of the success of the brand has come because interest in it has spread by word of mouth, rather than through advertising. She says the company has never undertaken a national advertising campaign, but over the past decade, it has experienced consistent double-digit growth, reaching 10% of market share in the hot sauce category and selling 10 million bottles a year. "We rely on people stumbling upon it at a restaurant and trying it out," Nevin says. "Our growth has been entirely organic." This is a common pattern throughout the hot sauce industry. Many hot sauce companies have not invested in overt advertising, but fans of Sriracha, Gochujang, and Cholula have been keen to share their culinary adventures on social media channels, spurring the growth of these brands.
So where does all this leave Tabasco, America's original hot sauce—the one Ted Chung’s family poured on everything? Tony Simmons, Tabasco’s CEO and a fifth-generation McIlhenny family member, says that the company has been carefully surveying the changes in the American palate and responding to new tastes.
"What we’re seeing is that the hot sauce consumer is becoming more sophisticated in the use of hot sauce," Simmons says. Two decades ago, when Tabasco did usage studies, they found that if the average American consumed hot sauce at all, they might know of one or two varieties. "Now, when we talk to consumers, they are very enthusiastic to point out that when they make a certain dish, they want this particular hot sauce flavor and heat level, and when they make a different dish, they want a different hot sauce entirely," he says.
And so Tabasco is developing new flavors. Earlier this year, it launched its own Sriracha flavor, adding to its existing stable of seven sauces, which include chipotle, jalapeño, and habanero. It’s unclear whether Tabasco’s Sriracha will compete with the version created by Huy Fong, which is now indelibly connected with Sriracha in the U.S.; some reviews of the Tabasco Sriracha have been tepid. However, according to Simmons, Tabasco’s strategy is not necessarily to compete directly with these other hot sauce brands, but to give existing Tabasco loyalists new flavors to sample with their foods. Although Tabasco is still the hot sauce market leader, it has seen its market share diminish over the last two decades as new companies entered the industry.
New hot sauce brands are popping up every day, each with a different flavor profile and cultural heritage. And Americans are only becoming more discerning in their appreciation of hot sauces. Take Andy Dunn, the founder and executive chairman of the clothing company Bonobos. He’s a hot sauce aficionado who believes there is still room for new sauces. "If you want a great red hot sauce, the market is incredibly well-served," he says. "Where I feel we have the biggest gap in the global hot sauce community is a reliable green hot sauce."
Dunn, who is half Indian, wants to create a hot sauce that combines the flavors of cilantro, lime, and tomatillo, which are common in both Indian and Mexican cuisine. Together with his mother, Dunn has spent hours experimenting with possible green hot sauce recipes, but it’s proven to be an uphill battle, largely because they found it impossible to create a cilantro-based sauce that is shelf stable and does not need to be refrigerated. "Cilantro spoils, so it’s very hard to have it as an ingredient in a table hot sauce, which it would need to be if it is to be distributed at restaurants and stores," Dunn says. (He’s currently soliciting advice from food scientists who may be able to tackle this problem.)
While some brands have clearly emerged as winners in the space—Cholula, Huy Fung, Chung Jung One, and Tabasco among them—there are still many cuisines not yet represented by their own hot sauce, and thus plenty of ways to compete. For instance, we’ve yet to see a dominant South Asian hot sauce or African hot sauce hit the market. Hot sauce fans welcome them all. "One of the reasons I'm obsessed with hot sauce is that it reveals how connected different cultures are," says Ted Chung of Cashmere. "It's a food accoutrement that you can find across so many countries in the world. Everyone has their own interpretation, but spice, pepper, and chili are things we can all relate to."
What is America's favorite hot sauce? We want your nominations! Send us your top (commercially available) pick using the box below, and it may appear in our upcoming America's favorite hot sauce bracket.
Slideshow Credits: 05 / Photo: Flickr user Craig Morey; 06 / Photo: Flickr user Steven Depolo; 07 / Photo: Clay Williams; 08 / Photo: Julie Soefer;