Joel Anderson has turned his pepper passion into a new hot sauce business.
Joel Anderson can pinpoint the exact moment he developed his passion for spicy food. The incident happened when he was about nine years old and came courtesy of his grandmother — even though she had no intention of sparking his interest in such an intense fashion.
"My grandma put a habanero in a pot of either chili or soup to give a little bit of spice to the entire pot," recalls Anderson. "I scooped out a bowl, and it had the pepper in it. I didn't realize I wasn't supposed to eat it, but I ate the whole thing off the spoon. I was shoving ice on my face and sticking my head in the freezer for an hour. Up until that point, I'd never really had anything spicy, and I think that experience, while awful, was really interesting. I still haven't figured out why people who like spicy food like to feel uncomfortable, but as a kid, it was kind of a risk — dangerous, but it hurt in a way that didn't leave a mark."
As the founder of the hot-sauce brand Anderson & Son Pepper Co. (www.andersonpepperco.com)
, Anderson is now the one responsible for zinging people's palates, albeit in a more intentional fashion. Since September, he's been selling his signature "Don't Touch the Baby" hot sauce and "Reaper Ranch" seasoning blend through his online store, still in a bit of disbelief that people are giving him money to do something he loves.
That love of spicy food has been something that has stuck with him even since that initial shock in his grandmother's kitchen. For as long as he can remember, family and friends would get him different hot sauces for gifts, and he found himself always seeking out different brands to try.
However, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that he got into the sauce-making business himself. After moving into a new home, Anderson planted a garden filled with everything from lettuce to tomatoes to eggplant. Peppers were a small part of the effort, but over the years, they grew to be a larger and larger component until he had converted his entire backyard into a pepper cultivation area. Overrun with peppers, he decided to get serious about learning to make hot sauce.
It only took one batch for Anderson to realize he had a knack for hot sauce-making. Drawing upon his background in advertising, he made a label for fun, naming his sauce after a phrase his wife would always yell at him when he was working with peppers.
"She'd always say, 'Don't touch the baby!' because my hands were covered in hot peppers," says Anderson. "He was six months old when I started making hot sauce, and I definitely didn't want to transfer that to him. I made a label just for fun, and the name stuck."
Anderson launched an Instagram account for the brand in 2019 and built so much enthusiasm for it that he decided to make the operation official. He linked up with the culinary incubator STL Foodworks, where he used their commissary kitchen and expertise in the business' logistics (licenses and certifications) to establish Anderson & Son Pepper Co. as a bona fide hot sauce label. That it's taken off as well as it has is proof to Anderson that people can taste the passion he puts into everything he does.
"I think a lot of what hot sauce is to me is being able to think creatively," says Anderson. "I've been working on a lot of other people's brands over the years in my day job, so trying to figure out my own is really cool. But really, the biggest part is knowing I'm making something that my son is a part of. I'm not saying he's going to be in the hot-sauce business — we gave him a Flamin' Hot Cheeto one time and he wasn't so sure about it — but the idea that maybe there is something there for him later on and that he is involved in it somehow is really important to me."
Anderson, who is currently working on a collaboration with Strange Donuts that should be launching soon, took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food scene, his love of skydiving, and why it's more important than ever to support local businesses.
What is one thing many people don’t know about you?
Up until recently, I’m not sure people knew how much of an affinity I have for spicy food and hot sauce. My day job is in advertising, so it wasn’t really a part of the everyday conversation as much as it is now that we’ve started the business. I’ve also been skydiving like three times so that’s a flex, right?
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Spending time with my wife and son. Other than that, I am pretty adamant about being creative somehow each day — taking a picture, designing or just making something.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
It's so hard to narrow down to just one spot or person. The St. Louis food scene is amazing, with so many great restaurants and chefs out here doing their thing. I love what Mike Johnson and Chef Adam Pritchett are doing at Hi-Pointe, Jason Bockman at Strange Donuts and Christian Ethridge at Taco Circus. Those guys are my spirit animals as far as creative presentation and using their social media to connect with folks here in St. Louis, but I could go on and on with the folks that are out here killing it, and for different reasons. Not that you asked, but, if I had to pick one favorite dish it would be the Flying Pig from Guerrilla Street Food. Close behind are the truffled grilled cheese from Dressel’s Pub and the pork steak from BEAST Craft BBQ. TLDR; basically any restaurant on South Grand.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I’d love to say peppers, but honestly, I’m not sure I’d say I have a “spicy” personality. If I had to pick an ingredient in the hot sauce, I’d say the agave nectar — because … I’m sweet? Barf. I also like long walks on the beach and rainbows.
If you weren’t working in the food business, what would you be doing?
Well, since the hot sauce is definitely secondary to my day job in advertising, I’m pretty fortunate to be able to say that if it all went away, I’m actually already doing the other thing I love, which is being creative.
As a food professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
Folks out there with restaurants and food businesses that depend on butts in seats are the ones that have it the toughest right now. Even though I technically make food, I’m fortunate to have most of that business online, so I wouldn’t even put myself in the same category as someone who is trying to make their brick-and-mortar restaurant businesses work during all this. I have a lot of respect for those people.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
We sold our first bottle of hot sauce in September of 2020. So for us, there was no “pre-covid.” Generally, though, I miss being around people.
What do you miss least?
If we’re talking day job, I don’t miss driving to work every day. That’s more than an hour or so every day that I can be spending with my family or doing other things (skydiving).
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Carbs. All the carbs.
What do you think the biggest change to the food and beverage industry will be once people are able to return to normal activity levels?
I think energy has to be re-focused on how to make food experiences really resonate with people again. You aren’t really paying for the food when you go out to eat. You’re paying for the mini-vacation from your house and for interactions with the people you love in places that make you feel like you’re doing something new and special. Whether that’s in a restaurant setting or any type of food business, you want people to have an experience with your product — something that’s been lacking for so many of us for so long.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
It’s been inspiring to see such a shift to making sure these local places we all sort of take for granted don’t go away. Support for our local businesses during all this has been great to see, and hopefully that appreciation continues well beyond the pandemic.
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