Beyoncé sings about it, Guy Fieri calls it the “essence” of Flavortown and people are snatching it off grocery store shelves. This international phenomenon is undeniable – hot sauce is enjoying an uninterrupted fiery streak in international, domestic and local markets.
In the huge, bustling space of the Chattanooga Market, people mill about the Hoff & Pepper stand with beads of sweat forming on their upper lips and tears streaming down their cheeks. No, they're not upset – they're merely experiencing the euphoric sensation of the Hoff Sauce.
“As a devoted cook, I live for flavor. One of the first things I discovered was that fresh chilis and spices create a magical concoction of flavor that complements almost any dish imaginable,” says Hoff & Pepper co-founder and hot sauce sommelier Aaron Hoffman. “So, I worked to hone the most balanced combination of all natural ingredients with an emphasis on flavor instead of heat in order to achieve the perfect everyday hot sauce.”
High quality, fresh ingredients and sweet simplicity – this is what differentiates Hoff & Pepper from your run-of-the-mill hot sauce company.
“We specialize in making every day hot sauces that go with everything,” Hoffman says. “We are not a company that makes any type of ‘super hots’ or uses any kind of chili concentrates to create ‘dare sauces.’ Instead, we pack fresh chilis in vinegar and use a lot more produce in our sauces to create a fresher, more well-rounded taste.”
Contrary to most mass-produced, commercialized hot sauces that use fermented chilis, the recipe of Hoffman’s handmade batches is rich with gusto yet surprisingly uncomplicated. Three kinds of chilis – Chipotle, Red Jalapeño and Habanero – unfermented – packed with vinegar, salt, granulated garlic and, of course, a lot of love.
Not only is Hoff & Pepper’s heat tolerance for competition more than 1.2 million Scoville heat units with the release of their new Trinidad Scorpion Pepper Sauce, they also go to great lengths to maintain a local element.
“Hot sauces should be made with the freshest locally sourced ingredients possible, and the sauces should be all natural,” Hoffman says. “We source fresh, local ingredients. We have a family farm in Dayton, Tennessee that supplies all of our chilis.”
Although Hoffman is a self-described tech guy by day, he has always had a heart for entrepreneurial endeavors.
His obsession for crafting hot sauce began in 2013, when he and his wife, Michelle “Pepper” Hoffman, Hoff & Pepper co-founder, bottled some handmade batches.
“It started off as something we made in small batches at home and custom bottled as a homemade gift for friends and family at Christmas,” Michelle says. “Then after a couple of months, they started asking when they could get more Hoff Sauce and it has just exploded from there.”
Having overgrown their original business headquarters, Hoff & Pepper have now taken root in Chattanooga’s 127,000-square-foot business “greenhouse,” the INCubator at the Hamilton County Business Development Center.
Traversing from Cherokee Boulevard on Chattanooga's Northshore into the art-deco styled Business Development Center, you exchange the hustle and bustle of a busy street for a different kind of vibration: the energetic buzz of more than 50 new businesses. The INCubator, located inside the Hamilton County Business Development Center (BDC), has graduated 556 businesses into the local economy. Inside its walls today, companies are innovating in “hot” industries, including futuristic medical uniforms, life saving CPR wraps and, of course, irresistible hot sauce.
“As a business owner, especially a manufacturer, there are things built into the INCubator that you don’t think of,” Hoffman says. “A loading dock with a freight elevator and maintenance personnel are essentials that fortunately come with the building. We receive pallets and ship pallets and without those kind of facilities, it would be an incredibly inefficient environment to work.”
With an atmosphere radiating camaraderie and positive vibes — it is difficult to be in the INCubator without feeling inspired and motivated.
“You are surrounded by other like-minded business owners who are trying to start-up a new business just like you,” Michelle says. “Having the resources, the guidance and the exposure of people coming by and touring the space during events such as Rise of the Rest, the support feels ever-present.”
Having personally visited the headquarters of Hoff & Pepper in the INCubator, I was granted the opportunity to partake in the aromatic merchandise. From the tear-inducing Smoken Ghost to the caressing, sweet heat of Hoff’s Original BBQ, I gamely indulged my taste buds in fiery nirvana – all in the name of research, of course.
To be honest, I greatly appreciate a hot sauce that offers flavor as an element equal to that of the heat, a composition that enhances and adds complexity to the dish rather than devouring all in its path. Although it may sound like a simple formula, failing to execute that recipe of balance is exactly where so many sauces fall short in my book.
But, Hoff & Pepper is undoubtedly one of the finest hot sauces I’ve had the pleasure of tasting, hitting all the right spice notes. Hoff & Pepper may be fresh off the vine, but they’re going to be around a long time.
Austin Anthony is a graduate student at UTC, the Chamber's summer Marketing & Communications Intern and an aspiring hot sauce sommelier.
Photography by Scott Veltkamp