The idea came like so many good ones do.
“We were just sitting around, drinking and fishing and talking,” said Danny Colon, one of the founders of B&D Sauce Co.
The subject was peppers, specifically the bird pepper, also known as the pequin, grown so often in the Caribbean. And that conversation led to a small pepper farm near Palatka and a hot sauce company based in Jacksonville.
But first, a little background.
Colon is the head tennis pro at the Florida Yacht Club in Ortega. Barry Skitsko is a retired industrial contractor who was taking tennis lessons from him. They became friends and Colon joined Skitsko on one of his fishing trips to the Bahamas.
“I was helping out on the boat and did some of the cooking,” Colon said. “I’ve always grown peppers and made the random hot sauce. I made some spicy food and Barry started talking about this little pepper that he was fond of.”
The talk turned to starting a hot sauce business.
“We got some seeds and the next time I went over to his house,” Colon said, “he had 45 plants. He’s the kind of guy who likes to do things in bulk. Instead of three plants, he had 45.”
After the plants started producing, they made a few hundred bottles of sauce and gave it to friends.
“After we researched how to make sure people didn’t get sick,” he said.
Their friends liked the sauce so the two guys got serious and planted an acre of pepper plants on some land Skitsko owns near Palatka. They tended them on Colon’s days off from the yacht club.
“We had all the rookie problems,” he said, “bugs, fungus, but we worked it out.”
By this time last year, they were harvesting peppers. The plants came through the winter are now about four feet tall and four feet wide, and they produce lots of peppers.
On the Scoville scale of hotness, the bird pepper comes just below the habanero and above the cayenne. They’re anywhere from five to 10 times hotter than jalapenos.
But they are small peppers, about an inch long and half-inch wide. There’s about 1,000 to a pound. So picking is a slow process.
“We were picking them by hand ourselves, but now we’ve hired some helpers,” Colon said. “And it takes about an hour to pick two pounds. At $10 an hour, you do the math.”
After testing a series of recipes, the two guys have come up with five current products, ranging from $7 to $12. The flagship is called Batch No. 5, because it was their fifth attempt at it. It’s a simple sauce: Fresh peppers, onions, garlic and apple cider vinegar. It’s cooked and blended and that’s it. No salt, no fermentation.
They make another with twice as many peppers and twice the heat. That one is creatively call Hot. There’s also a smoked pepper sauce, a fermented pepper paste and a dried spice mix.
They make most of the products in the commercial kitchen at Congaree and Penn, a farm northwest of Jacksonville that is producing a variety of homegrown products, from rice to mayhaw jelly. But when they need to do bigger batches of Batch No. 5, they drive to a plant in Clearwater where they can do 50 gallons at a time.
But the key, of course, is sales.
They’ve got a website, but it’s not producing like in-person sales do. So they set up Saturdays at the Riverside Arts Market, the Green Market in Neptune Beach and the Ferdinana Beach Market Place.
And Colon stops in at restaurants and retail stores, hoping to get on tables and shelves.
So far, a couple of dozen restaurants have the sauce along with half a dozen stores.
“Local restaurants are trying to purchase locally more,” he said. “The fact that we’re growing our own peppers and we’re growing a different pepper definitely helps us out.
“One thing I’ve learned is that breakfast places have turned me down,” he said. “They don’t want to spend more than 70 cents a bottle on hot sauce because they go through so much and their food isn’t very expensive. People tell me I should be in La Nopalera, but I’m not going in there. They’re not going to pay $4 a bottle wholesale when they’re used to spending less than $1.”
But sales are picking up. A good day at a farmers market will see at least 60 bottles sold. Restaurants are buying cases.
“We’re trying to rationalize hiring someone full time or getting me more full time,” Colon said. “And we’ll have to keep making new stuff,” he said, “because we’ve got so many damn peppers.”
Roger Bull: (904) 359-4296