Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Making of a Local Business

I don't usually write posts about products, but this business is close to my heart. One Christmas, several years ago, Nathan West, a good friend of ours brought over a small jar of a homemade hot sauce that he and another friend, Cailen von Briesen, were developing.  The sauce was so hot, I could tolerate only a tiny taste, but Jon and Ian loved it, and our fridge has never been without a jar of Mad Hatter since that night.

Mad Hatter was Cailen's concept.  When he couldn't find a local hot sauce that he liked, he decided to develop his own. We were among a number willing tasters as the sauce gradually assumed the taste and texture it has today.

The brand developed along with the sauce.  Nate and Cailen had logo stickers made and friends tagged cities worldwide.  I'm sure Jon slapped a few around Rome and he definitely left Santa Fe liberally tagged.

They had to work with the FDA to get approval to sell Mad Hatter to the public and take a food processing class at Virginia Tech. Along the way, another friend, Sean Wallace joined the business, and then Jon was invited to join.

They rented the catering kitchen from a local restaurant, had one more official government inspection and Mad Hatter was officially launched for sale to the public in December, 2011.  The first local store to agree to carry it was Market St. Market and it's now available at most of the locally owned food markets in Charlottesville as well as the Whole Foods in Charlottesville, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. They've shipped bottles as far as Kabul.  In addition to expanding into shops and restaurants, they took Mad Hatter on the road, attending food expos and festivals and they had an occasional booth at Fridays After Five.

Sean, Cailen, Nate, & Jon at the Richmond Food Expo last year.

Jon and Sean do a demo at Whole Foods Charlottesville.

The sauce itself is made of habanero peppers and pineapple with an olive oil base.  It has a certain undefinable taste that I've decided is Umami.  You want to keep eating it, just to pin down the elusive taste essence, which isn't salty, sweet, sour, or bitter.  On the days when they cook the Hatter, Jon will come home with a tub of "dregs."  These are the scrapings from the pot--too thick to make it into the bottles--and the six of us fight ferociously over them.  One day I found that Seamus had scrawled a message onto the dregs container, threatening death if he came home from school to find them all eaten. The note concluded with this histrionic sentence:  "You don't know what it's like to come home from a hard day at school and find the dregs are gone." Indeed.

Myself, I love Hatter now. Maybe it's possible to develop a tolerance for heat?  The guys let me be the tasting guinea pig the night they experimented with a "mild" version.  It was delicious but it probably wouldn't be considered mild by our bland American standards.

Hatter on the shelves at C'ville Market


  1. Success stories like these just warm my heart.

  2. I'll be checking out my local Whole Foods. Hot sauce is one of our family's food groups.

  3. I'm a wimp and would love a mild version to eat with my milquetoast.

  4. "milquetoast" Ha ha. I love that word.

    Mrs. G--it's only in three Whole Foods in Virginia right now.

    Thanks, Green Girl!

  5. So cool! We saw it on the shelves at IY this afternoon. I pointed it out to Edie and told her Seamus' dad had something to do with it, that I had read about it here and she totally is willing to give it a try just based on that!