For Christine Mott and her husband, Matt Hilla, the road from Wisconsin to Hood River and a startup hot sauce business ran straight through lots of tacos.
“My favorite food is tacos, and I’ve always experimented with hot sauces,” Hilla says.
From a time shortly before their marriage eight years ago, Hilla would concoct new styles of sauce. The research and development continued after they moved to Portland, fed up with Madison winters and enchanted with the rainy climes of cities up and down the west coast of Cascade (Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Portland and San Francisco).
Matt was wearing a couple of hats, working in I.T., running his own record store, and deejaying dance events. A film major at the University of Wisconsin, Christine was also working in I.T. when they headed west.
One night, Matt popped awake with the answer to a vexing recipe challenge.
“My sauce needed a sugar base, and I realized that maple syrup the answer,” he says.
And the birth of a brand — Hotmaple Smokey Habanero hot sauce. A short while later, Hilla took a prototype batch with them to meet friends at Sam’s Billiards in northeast Portland.
“We ordered some tater tots and our friends were using a lot of the hot sauce,” Hilla recalls.
Christine says other customers started borrowing the bottle. Then a jocular fight broke out over who should possess the sauce.
“The chef comes over, says ‘What’s the commotion?’, tries the sauce, and says, ‘I’ll buy this from you right now,'” Hilla recalls.
That was June of 2013. “He comes home and decides to start a hot sauce business,” Mott says. By July, they were up and running.
They kept their day jobs, but when she wasn’t working in video production, Mott would demo their product in stores.
“There was this 7-year-old girl who kept coming back and she was drinking it from the sample cups,” Mott recalls.
“She bartered with her mom, said she would babysit her little sister if her mom would buy the hot sauce.”
Hilla says customer response tilted them to scale the whole thing up. They decided Mott would quit her job to focus on building the business.
Hilla says he never intended to get into the food business (he still telecommutes with Cisco Systems), but credits his wife with the energy to take their enterprise to the next level.
“I’m married to the best person for this,” he says. “She’s the company now. I just show up and cause problems.”
Their Hot Maple sauce is intentionally crafted from Northwest ingredients like Walla Walla sweet onions, tomatoes, garlic, habanero peppers and vinegar. Future iterations are likely to include peaches and cherries.
They build their sauce thick, so it will coat popular Northwest ingredients such as salmon and ling cod.
“Hot sauce can be an ingredient, not just a condiment,” Hilla says.
For now, they’ve just got the one sauce, but Mott says, “We’ve got plans (for more sauces).”
Clearly, they’re having fun with this, as evidenced by the video from their web site that offers another use for large quantities of their hot sauce. Check it out.
With growth plans in mind, they decided to move to Hood River this summer. Next step, find space to migrate their production closer to the fields and orchards that supply their ingredients.
“We want to create jobs and hire people,” Hilla says.
Yes, they know that retail shelves are groaning under hot sauce product releases. It’s not a problem, just a sign of consumer appetite.
“We’ve got 30 different hot sauces in our house,” Mott says. “Every hot sauce has a different use.”
“The other hot sauce producers have been great to work with,” Mott says. “We all help each other out. Together, we all succeed. Oregon can be its own brand.”