Scotty "O'Hotty" Owens, 38, spent more than a decade as a toolmaker and engineer before finding his real vocation: hot sauce entrepreneur. It's a husband-and-wife business that Scotty and wife Suzi Owens, 35, have been in for more than three years now. Last year, the couple sold 2,500 cases, at 12 5-ounce bottles each. In the first quarter of this year, the couple has already sold 1,650. If sales hold steady, they're on track to sell more than 3,000 gallons of his sauces this year.
Much of that is because the sauce has been stacking up a pile of awards from Albuquerque to New York, as well as going from 150 stores last year to more than 600, covering 12 Midwestern states and 300 more stores on the West Coast. What's the appeal of the retail line of four hot sauces? The awards have helped sales take off online. And aligning with the craft beer movement, each sauce contains beer as an ingredient.
For the Owenses, it all started about five years ago when they made their initial batch of Premium Habanero. "We developed it out of our garden," Scotty says. "My wife and I love to garden and we love everything organic. And friends and family told us they loved it. Of course, friends and family always want to be supportive, but then they started coming to us and wanting to buy it. So when a friend wants to give you $6 for a bottle of hot sauce, then I think you're onto something. When we took first place in the first competition we put our sauce in, I told my wife, 'I'm cashing my 401(k) in.'"
From there, the two developed a Premium Pepper sauce, a milder version of the Premium Habanero, a Ghost Sauce, and a Beer Bacon Chipotle. One sauce that can be special ordered is called the Reaper de Muerte, or the "Reaper of Death." It's made with "Smokin'" Ed Currie's Carolina Reaper pepper, judged by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the hottest pepper in the world, averaging 1.5 million Scoville units (for comparison, a jalapeno pepper is around 5,000 Scoville units. Scotty O'Hotty is the only company licensed to use the special pepper in Michigan).
"Just to give you an idea of how hot that pepper is: It'll sweat through on the outside of the pepper. In most peppers, the capsaicin is on the membrane inside, but the reaper pepper will sweat through, so you have to be careful. They're brutal." When working with such hot peppers, the Owenses wear eye protection and masks. "I had a splash of Ghost Sauce go right into my eye and it ruined my day, he says, before bursting into laughter.
But even when producing sauces from very hot peppers, Scotty and Suzi try to pursue flavors and not just make another of what Scotty calls "college prank sauces."
"We like to showcase the chili pepper itself. When using a hot pepper like a ghost pepper, they get it wrong so much. It's so easy to put fire in a bottle. With our sauce, you can tell what the ghost pepper tastes like."
Above and beyond the quality of the ingredients, the pile of awards and honors, and the health-conscious tweaks, there's a secret weapon Scotty and Suzi have: Scotty O'Hotty. These days, when he appears at events or cooking demonstrations to help talk up his sauce, it's usually in character. "I've gone out without the hat at some of the special events. I'd slick up the hair a little bit, and people would be like, 'Oh, man! Where's the hat?' Now it's almost like a wrestler, it's like, I'll go out and be a businessman, and then put the hat on and it's 'Scotty O'Hotty time!'"