Berkeley’s new hot sauce shop turns up the heat

Co-owners Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons have brought a kick to Berkeley with their passion for spice. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Co-owners Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons bring a new kick to Berkeley with their passion for peppers. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A local couple has added an ample splash of spice to Berkeley’s food scene with a new shop downtown devoted to hot sauce and all things chili.

There are Atomic Fireballs, spiced nuts and fiery chocolates; mango lollipops covered in chili powder; and small bags of dehydrated chilies from a family farm. There are “warming” fruity beverages spiced with capsaicin, the ingredient that makes peppers spicy. And there are crushed and powdered peppers in a range of varieties.

Then, of course, there’s the hot sauce: more than 200 varieties from producers around the country, and around the world, many of which are small businesses.

“The ones that are widely known tend not to be as good as the ones made in small batches by the people who are really passionate about it,” said Heat co-owner Dylan Keenen. Keenen, 23, has been in the process of opening Heat Hot Sauce Shop — at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley — with girlfriend Becky Gibbons, 22, since early December. The Oakland-based couple will celebrate the shop’s grand opening Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a 10%-off sale.

Hot sauce, as far as the eye can see. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Hot sauce, as far as the eye can see. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Keenen estimated that there are at least 2,000 types of hot sauce on the market. For Heat, he looked mainly for independent brands, some of which he found on crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter. A number of the offerings are organic, and Keenen said he sought items that avoid food coloring and, when possible, preservatives, though the latter posed more of a challenge. In addition, he said, Heat offers at least five brands that aren’t available at any other retail location in the state, and some that can’t be found at any other shop in the nation.

Local offerings include several strains from Oakland-based Pretty Dog Hot SauceBandar’s spicy mango hot sauce, an Indian-style brand from Mountain View; Dave’s Gourmet and Youk’s Hot Sauce from San Francisco; KGWan’s from Santa Cruz; The Pepper Plant from Gilroy; and Lucky Dog from Hayward. Other popular brands available at Heat include Blair’s, CaJohns, Melinda’s and Heartbreaking Dawns.

One section in the store features 40 “superhot” sauces — such as Satan’s Blood, Moruga Madness Hot Sauce, and CaJohns’ Z Nothing Beyond — which Keenen said are not for the average consumer. The last has been measured at 4 million Scoville heat units. For reference, Tabasco sauce and jalapeño peppers have 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. Pure capsaicin, which is not commercially available, measures 16 million on the scale. (“There’s been somewhat of an arms race to get to the hottest hot sauce” in the past decade, observed Keenen. “It gets over the top.”)

Those with extreme tastes will also be pleased to find Pure Cap, a capsaicin extract so hot that you have to sign a waiver to purchase it. The shop will also carry the seeds of the infamous ghost pepper, as well as whole and pickled ghost peppers, and hot sauces made from the legendary vegetable. The ghost pepper had long held the title for the hottest pepper in the world, but the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend stole that record last year. And, yes, Heat carries hot sauces, barbecue sauces and salsas made from the Trinidad Scorpion, too.

The shop is organized by chili pepper, but customers can also find regional types of sauces, such as Louisiana-style and Mexican varieties, and seasonal and “dessert” hot sauces, too. And the couple have their own line of house-made, handcrafted hot sauces for sale as well; at least three new blends are currently in development. Customers in the shop, which is about a block north of Trader Joe’s, can expect to find a counter for tasting different products where a revolving variety of sauces will be featured regularly.

Most of the sauces can only be purchased in the shop, but Keenen said plans for online purchasing are in the works. And there’s also a mail-order “hot sauce of the month” club ($45 for three months and $80 for six; local pick-up prices are cheaper).

Heat Hot Sauce Shop has been in this space, at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way, since December, but has only recently opened. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Heat Hot Sauce Shop has been in this space, at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way, since December, but has only recently opened. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Keenen said his first experience with a hot pepper took place when he was in the school garden in fifth grade and someone convinced him to take a bite from a jalapeño. By high school he was eating his eggs with Tabasco. But it was freshman year in college, at UC Santa Cruz, that Keenen describes as a turning point.

“I was putting Sriracha on pretty much everything. There were no limits,” he said. “Usually I’m not into sugar in hot sauce, but they just have the right amount.”

These days, at any given time, Keenen stocks his fridge with up to 30 different hot sauce brands and has been known to burn through a five-ounce bottle in just two days. (The brand with that honor is Chicaoji, a Washington-based hot sauce company that combines chipotle chilies, raw cacao, raw apple cider vinegar, goji berries, agave nectar and sea salt.)

“I can put it on anything, really,” he said, of hot sauce in general. “I like it on ice cream. And I have this maple syrup-chipotle infused one that’s amazing on pancakes.”

Keenen said, initially, after graduating last August with a sociology degree, he started to think about creating his own hot sauce company. But he found a field already crowded with players.

“Every cool idea I came up with — goji berry, spirulina — somebody had already done. I kinda got frustrated that all my cool ideas, that I thought were original, had already been tried. So I thought: Why not have a shop that has them all in one place?”

Keenen said there are just a handful of other hot sauce shops in California. They include a chain with three southern California outposts, and a shop slated to open in San Francisco later this year.

Some of the hottest sauces in the store sport warning labels. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Some of the hottest sauces in the store sport warning labels or names that promise pain. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Keenen grew up in Ojai, Calif., an 8,000-person community of “hippies and farms” in southern California. His stepdad is an organic farmer — growing, among other crops, hot peppers — and his mother owns a small café, The Farmer and The Cook, for which she makes her own hot sauce with her husband’s peppers. Keenen said he grew up around her shop from the time he was 10, which taught him how to run a business.

And it was his father, who would often come back from trips toting “amazing hot sauces” as gifts, who also helped stoke Keenen’s passion for the pepper. His parents donated start-up money toward Heat, and Keenen noted that his father, who lives in Alameda, had been helping out locally as well. But the road hasn’t been exactly smooth.

“It’s kind of scary,” Keenen said. “Everything is always more expensive than you expect.”

In fact, the shop nearly didn’t open at all due to a range of obstacles and expenses posed by permitting issues with the city. Keenen and Gibbons moved into the space on MLK in early December, and had hoped to open before Christmas. Since then, their official opening has been delayed due to city requirements, primarily related to ADA compliance and a mop sink. In early March, the couple had decided to give up on plans to open the storefront, but a rush of community support — including help from the city’s Office of Economic Development and District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín — convinced them to change their minds.

“It’s kind of a gamble,” Keenen said. “We definitely recognize the risk. We’re doing something that’s not really being done right now. But we also feel like it’s a great opportunity.”

Keenen said he thinks the shop will work because, for one, people get really into hot sauce. It’s a relatively cheap way to dress up any kind of food. Many varieties have zero or few calories. And then there’s that addictive element. ”You kind of get the endorphin rush,” he said. “It’s definitely an addiction, but the good thing is that there’s something healthy about it.”

Keenen said partner Becky Gibbons has mostly been drawn to the milder sauces, and the positive health effects said to be associated with peppers. ”Hot sauce isn’t all about the heat,” she said Wednesday. “The flavor is just as important.” Keenen agreed, but said pushing the limits of his taste buds is a definite driver for him. Fortunately for all the “chili heads” out there, Heat Hot Sauce Shop offers a wide enough variety so everyone with an interest in spice can find an old or a new favorite in the mix.

Heat Hot Sauce Shop is located at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Learn more on Heat’s website and connect on Twitter and Facebook. The shop accepts special orders. Hours of operation are from Sunday to Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.; Friday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Please note, hours are subject to change. Call to confirm at 510- 849-1048.) Heat’s grand opening takes place Saturday; shoppers will get 10% off all purchases. 

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  • serkes

    “spiced nuts and fiery chocolates” … can’t wait to check them out!

  • Tim

    Great to see this place opening and excited to be able to buy some real-deal Bajan pepper sauce in Berkeley, as well as check out the locally produced ones…although we need to get Dylan a new hat that better matches some of the (green & gold) hot sauces on their shelves.

  • J

    “Grand Opening, Grand Closing.”

  • H. Reality

    i admire their entrepreneurial spirit. i wish them the best of luck.

    but they should have done some homework. hot sauce shops aren’t a destination. they’re something you wander into at a tourist trap. an impulse buy. you need tons of foot traffic. tons. ferry building level foot traffic. that location… ain’t even close. even if it was, how many bottles of hot sauce do you have to sell to make rent? and where’s the market, the demand? where’s your unique selling proposition? why would anybody go out of their way to go to a hot sauce shop when you can likely obtain 85% of what you stock at the bowl, BevMo!, (both have huge hot sauce shelves) and the speciality items, have you been to any of the 50+ ethnic food stores in the 20 mile radius?

    seriously, downscale. get out of your lease. make your own sauce. sell it at a farmers market and build up a clientele you can market directly. get bottles into a few local restaurants. maybe a once a month ‘tasting room’ in oakland’s first friday.

  • y_p_w

    I remember a hot sauce shop at the Great Mall in Milpitas when it opened. They had esoteric stuff that most markets didn’t have. They eventually closed, but that wasn’t a cheap location. The craziest thing they had was when they sometimes sold fresh peppers. They had the red savina hybrid habanero, which was at the time thought to be the hottest in the world.

    However, the one thing that this place has going for it is the location just a half block away from Trader Joe’s. If they have enough word of mouth, people going to TJ’s might make a stop. A lot of people live in the neighborhood and there’s a bit more foot traffic now with TJ’s.

  • The_Sharkey

    DIY sauce kits and a tasting room are good ideas.

    I could see crafty Berkeley residents wanting to try their hand at making their own, and being able to try out a less common hot sauce brand before buying it could give them an edge that other stores selling similar stuff don’t have.

  • Deb

    I highly doubt they would have started a business without doing their research. There are tons of thriving hot sauce shops around the US, many of which are in SoCal. I think this is an awesome idea!

  • emraguso

    I can totally see this being a destination. Especially because these two have many qualities that will draw in customers — from their friendly attitudes to a wealth of information. I could see them building up quite a loyal clientele, and I could see folks coming to Berkeley to make a pilgrimage to Heat. Wishing them the best.

  • Brad Piff

    Holy cow!! I am so excited that this store opened! I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for a hot sauce shop like this to open – what a fantastic idea! This will totally be a destination for hot sauce lovers in the Bay Area and beyond. My fridge is stocked with about thirty different varieties, but I can’t wait to visit this weekend to expand my collection. Dylan and Becky – welcome to the neighborhood! Let’s do shots of Pure Cap when I come in! And I can’t wait to try Chicaoji! This seems like an easy place to drop two or three hundred dollars each time I visit…will have to be careful. Seriously, great shop, great idea, I am so excited.

  • J

    “Grand Opening, Grand Closing”

  • M. Kay

    What a wonderful article about young people with energy, cheer, and hope for our community. Henry Ford once said that whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you are right. Albert Schweitzer said that success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you are happy with what you do, you will be successful. Forget about the critics. Listen to your hearts…

  • AnthonySanchez

    I am so happy to hear they’re opening! Our office, to the small extent that we helped, has to give credit to Councilmember Max Anderson’s office, because it was his aide, Charlene Washington, who alerted us to the situation.

    Congratulations, Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons on your business! I hope your sales will be hot, hot, hot!

  • serkes

    “In fact, the shop nearly didn’t open at all due to a range of obstacles and expenses posed by permitting issues with the city. Keenen and Gibbons moved into the space on MLK in early December, and had hoped to open before Christmas. Since then, their official opening has been delayed due to city requirements, primarily related to ADA compliance and a mop sink. In early March, the couple had decided to give up on plans to open the storefront, but a rush of community support — including help from the city’s Office of Economic Development and District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín — convinced them to change their minds.”

    They moved into the space in early December, City requirements and ADA compliance issues caused them to give up on their plans, and help from the City and Councilmember Arreguin convinced them to change their minds.

    We’ve seen this kind of thing before.

    Is it feasible for the city to have a worksheet or checklist which could be used by people thinking of opening a business? I’d think that there are issues which would be common to every business, and other items which are specific to the type of business. Could the problems they faced after moving in have been anticipated?

    What would it take for the help to come from the City to encourage people to open businesses rather than after they’ve already given up.

    The “back story” is worthy of another story.

    Ira

  • Anon

    Couldn’t agree more.
    Ridiculous how hard it is to start a small business in this city.

  • MarkH

    Thanks Anthony and Jesse for your help to these new entrepreneurs!

  • MarkH

    I wonder if they could expand to offer chile powders, dried chiles, spices, etc., a la Pendery’s Texas Chili Supplies: http://www.penderys.com/. It’d give them a broader appeal.

  • Berkeley Resident

    What a great idea for a shop. Sure, it’ll be hard work but well worth it. I wonder if a Facebook page would help, especially when mail order is ready to offer. And possibly partnering with local restaurants and cafes and grocers and farmers markets to help sales and to spread the word. Handing out small flyers at the Farmers Markets? Surprises happen. Maybe some venues might offer to stock some of your sauces and/or other products. I do love hot sauce and am looking forward to the fiery chocolate.

  • Bill N

    Well Good luck to them. Since there just sort of around the block we’ll probably drop in and buy something we need.

  • Bill N

    “The “back story” is worthy of another story.” That’s the truth. You’ve got to admire their perseverance in the face of such bureaucratic dismissiveness towards small business.

  • Hildah

    You are so wrong Reality. My late husband was a hot sauce collector and would visit specialty shops as often as he could. When he passed we had a huge collection that was sold very easily at at a very good price. Many prefer to buy their hot sauces at specialty shops and not at box stores. Take your negativity elsewhere.

  • emraguso

    They’re all hooked up Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/HeatHotSauceShop — see links to all their online options at the bottom of the story.

  • bingo

    the chicaoji sounds amazing!

  • serkes

    Thanks for including online hot links – web site, facebook business page, foursquare info, yelp reviews, etc. and address/contact information, hours at the end of stories like these.

    Ira

  • serkes

    Their facebook page has background information on the things they went through. I wonder if they knew about all this before they applied for a permit or signed the lease.

    https://www.facebook.com/HeatHotSauceShop/posts/457316231008242

    Ira

  • B2B

    Having run two specialty retail businesses, I will say that it’s a very cute idea, and a lot of people will go there perhaps a few times, but most will go only once. The problem is the most people ony buy a few bottles of hot sauce here and there, and often have a couple faves they keep around. Certainly not enough of a buyer-base to support a store that isn’t in the downtown area with much higher foot traffic. You have to sell a LOT of bottles of hot sauce to make your overhead and anything extra, and the market is relatively limited insofar as a regular turn over of NEW walk-ins and the few semi-regulars who won’t be your bread and butter. Wish them luck though and I’m always glad to see young people using their entrepreneurial spirit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.zalkind Scott Zalkind

    Great store – I love having a hot sauce shop locally that carries so many of my favorite sauces. It’s really just a bonus that they carry my own sauces there – I’ve been paying to ship some of these for years, so I’d shop there even if they didn’t.

    Love this store – fun passionate owners who care about the products they sell and do sampling of them so you know just what you’re getting as a customer. Doesn’t get better than that.

    Support your local hot sauce shop!

    Scott Z
    Lucky Dog Hot Sauce

  • Truth Sayer

    You stated my thoughts, as a single niche product attracts few people, many of whom are curiosity seekers who will enter the store and go down memory lane, and perhaps buy one item. Since the bay area is a diverse area, why not include hard to find spices and herbs from around the world. I recall a friend mentioning how spices are different in different countries. and his mother wished for certain spices that are not available in the U.S. For example, there are over 300 different types of salts made throughout the world. Regardless,I admire their tenacity and hope they do well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    Wow. That was eye opening. Thanks, Ira. It’s absolutely insane how the City trickles in the requirements one at a time forcing people to spend money and make improvement after improvement with no guarantee of approval at the end of it all….How insanely frustrating. I admire how calm, cool, and collected their posts were. I think I would have used different language to describe the situation. They are better people than I am :)

  • The_Sharkey

    If Mayor Bates wants Berkeley to be seen as “business friendly” this is exactly the kind of issue he needs to deal with, rather than focusing most of his energy on bringing new development into the city.

    Small business permitting needs to be streamlined, and the city needs to offer more assistance to would-be business owners from the outset. This case makes it very plain that springing surprise after surprise and delaying permits and applications the way they do now is creating a hostile environment.

  • onesmallhand

    I think they do. I wrote to them on facebook and asked if they’d sell padron peppers, so I can grow my own in my garden, and it turns out they have a big supply of pepper seeds as well. Their offering is pretty broad.

  • Chris J

    Wow, very exciting. Glad to see such young people out and into the world with plans and passion. I hope it is successful! Immediate practical thoughts raise themselves–their location won’t provide a great deal of walk-by traffic and is off the trail, so to speak, but they are close to Trader Joe’s so somehow parlaying that connection would be helpful. Sandwich boards (possibly a problem with city folks) would be helpful, etc. also–it would serve as a destination store, so Bay Area regional advertising would might be necessary. Also they will serve hot spicy foods there, packaged and ready? Great. I can bike there.

    Sorry to be intrusive to say what may be obvious to them already, but you never know. If a place like Spun Sugar specializing in sugary things can run with it, maybe a specialist in ‘hot stoff’ could, as well.

  • Chris J

    Dude–thinking practically never takes you anywhere except where everyone else has gone before. While I agree with your concerns and even your suggestions, they are walking the walk while you and I are just flapping our lips as couch potato business advisors (though I’ve owned and operated my own business so I have one leg to stand up on if necessary).

    Follow your passion. If your passion is watching and judging negatively, then you are quite successful and living your dream, at least.

  • Patrick Perez

    I have got to go there. I want to get the Moruga Madness Hot Sauce – Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper Sauce. News: The “Trinidad
    MORUGA Scorpion” Pepper is now rated as THE HOTTEST PEPPER IN THE
    WORLD, by the New Mexico Chili Pepper Institute in February 2012. 2
    Million (2,009,231 SHU) Scoville Units.

  • HeatLover

    Great story and sauce collection. ALTHOUGH YOU DO NOT OFFER Captain Redbeards Sharkbite Hot sauces or Captain Redbeards sauces and other products they offer…They offer a wide variety and they Private Label to many companies.
    I will come by and check out the store once I hear Capt. Redbeards products are being offered.
    They are in major dept stores and I see their product in many places. A “Must Have Hot Sauce” in your store.

  • HeatLover

    Im sure I’ll come in and check out the store anyways…BUT offering capt. redbeards sauces would make it that much better…just a thought.

  • Steve

    I did some work for the shop and was so excited for this young entrepreneur! congrats and much success…the visual display is wonderful and the sauces leave you nothing left to desire.

    Steve

    http://www.stevensproductions.biz

  • Scott Zalkind

    Yep – I am featuring it in my Black Label, due out sometime in August. It’s a delicious pepper, and rates at about 2M SHU. The Ghost is around 1.2M if I recall correctly.

    That said, there are quite a few sauces using varieties of the T.Scorp – all have varying heat. I think the hottest I’ve tried might be CaJohn’s purees – the Carolina Reaper is no joke. It’s amazing to me how bloody hot pods have gotten.

  • aughy63

    Sad thing is that these regulations are throughout California. It is up to the individual to seek out what is required for each individual Gov’t office, and not the Gov’t explaining what is required.

    We spent 18 months getting everything for straight with the powers that be to start our Hot Sauce company.

    This should not happen, but it does and will continue to be so.