Don't Let Texas Pete's Get Lost in the Hot Sauce Explosion

Texas Pete is the hot sauce of mature adults.

Hot sauces are like exclamation points: some people never use them, some people use them all the time. They’re scattered around more and more in unexpected places, in layers and in machine-gun succession. They’re intensifiers. Their use is on the rise. There are those who decry their abuse.

As proof of just how far the hot-sauce surge as reached: You can buy Hooters brand hot sauce at my local grocery store, along with dozens of other varieties. (Supply your own punctuational exclamatory emphasis.)

But it’s possible that the great arms race of hot sauce proliferation could be coming to an end. We may have hit peak hot sauce. Newspapers were reporting on the hot sauce craze 20 years ago, so the trend has had enough time to ripen and over ripen. There were signs of hot-sauce overload along the way: The release of a documentary about sriracha. The arrival of the ghost pepper, among the hottest peppers on earth Scoville-unit-wise, with face-melting, taste-bud-obliterating potential.

But not all hot sauces are meant for the man-cave condiment rack.

Texas Pete is as close to an of-the-people hot sauce as there is. I would go so far as to say it’s the definitive hot sauce in the South, which is where the most hot sauce per capita is consumed. You’re more likely to see it on the tables of your local family restaurant than Tabasco.

The North Carolina-made sauce isn’t toothless. It’s hot. But it’s a more humane, realistic heat. The bottle doesn’t necessarily require a warning label. Texas Pete has a clean vinegar-heavy flavor, without the tastes of smoky char or wood. When you ask for hot sauce with your fried chicken at a Popeye’s or Bojangle’s restaurant or with your chicken sandwich at Chick-Fil-A, you’ll get little packets of Texas Pete, with its distinctive lasso-wielding cowboy logo. But that’s a recent development. Texas Pete wasn’t always so easy to come by.

In the late-’90s, while living in Connecticut, my wife and I would smuggle big bottles of Texas Pete north of the Mason Dixon line after family visits to North Carolina or Georgia. But the reach of the Texas Pete empire has broadened in the 21st Century.

The Garner family, which owns and operates the company that produces Texas Pete, wasn’t initially set on getting into the hot sauce sector. In 1929 Thad Garner bought a BBQ restaurant that came with a venerable recipe for a much-loved hot sauce. The restaurant didn’t last, but the sauce became popular enough that the family had to start thinking about what name and logo to slap on it, etc — marketing, basically. They almost called it Mexican Joe. Or at least that was what some (dumbass) marketing wiz came up with, aiming to capitalize on a craze for spicy stuff from south of the border. The Garners decided to keep the myth-making on this side of the Rio Grande, stitching a family member’s nickname to the moniker and settling on Texas Pete.

According to current CEO Glen Garner, the family hasn’t really changed the recipe for the sauce.

“It really is pretty much the same sauce that we’ve been making for my lifetime,” he says. “The key to it is the blend of peppers and the aging of peppers.”

Garner is understandably a little secretive about the specific blend of peppers that go into Texas Pete; a product that basically has pepper, vinegar and salt as its core ingredients would be easy to duplicate if there weren’t some sort of special proprietary mojo.

“They’re chopped up into mash and stored in a brine solution for about 1 to 3 years,” is what he’ll say about the peppers.

If you don’t live in the Southeast, you may have only recently come across Texas Pete. The sauce was pretty regional up until about 20 years ago. And Texas Pete’s hot sauce footprint has grown quite a bit since then.

“Retail distribution in all 50 states is probably something that’s happened in the last three to five years,” says Garner. “We’ve increased our capacity quite a bit recently”

Still, the South is the hot-sauce capital of the land. “The southeastern markets are where people are definitely all about their hot sauce,” says Glen Garner, CEO of the company that makes Texas Pete.

There’s a sober-mindedness to the Texas Pete approach to hot sauce. While competitors go ballistic and extreme in search of stunt-eating thrills, Texas Pete remains approachable. (Though they did release an extra-hot version of the sauce, for those who wanted three times the kick.)

“We’re about flavor and balance,” says Garner. “Eating hot sauce shouldn’t be a contest.”

Aside from the high-intensity heat-seekers, there is another variety of hot-sauce fanatic who is simply interested in every possible permutation of hot pepper sauce. These are the folks who hyperventilate at the mention of sambal, an Indonesian chili paste sometimes compared to sriracha, or gochujang (a salty-spicy Korean paste).

Texas Pete has dipped a toe into the broader eclectic pepper-centric market by releasing both a chipotle sauce (made with smoked jalapenos) and a sriracha sauce called Cha! The brand expansion makes sense when you consider the huge popularity of sriracha—t-shirts, cookbooks, documentaries, tattoos—which, up until Texas Pete entered the sector, was pretty much monopolized by the Huy Fong “rooster sauce” company. And, given that Lay’s introduced sriracha flavored potato chips in 2013, something has definitely shifted in the national palate. The Food Lion grocery chain manufactures its own house-brand of sriracha. American tastes continue to evolve.

“Everyone wants to know what the next sriracha is going to be, and I’m not sure anybody quite has that answer right now,” says Garner.

Part of running a successful brand is knowing when to innovate and when to hold fast to the core values. Garner says the company doesn’t venture into new-product development casually. There’s a lot of nosing around, focus-grouping, taste-testing, R&D.

“Releasing new products is expensive,” says Garner. “First of all we want to make sure we don’t release anything that’s not up to our standards of quality and flavor.”

Multiculturalism enters through the kitchen door. We might not be able to speak French or Japanese, but we feel the appeal of steak tartare and sushi. The interest in foods from around the world might just be a reflection of the growing international perspective of Americans (I doubt it, but maybe). But our taste for hot sauce is possibly something deeper, more fundamental and something more at the heart of our nation’s history and character. If there’s an American spirit it’s defined by the hybrid vigor of our immigrant stock. It’s also shaped, contorted and tainted at the roots by the legacy of slavery. Some of our greatest traditions—jazz, blues, dance, art, literature, comedy—are stamped with the African and African-American aesthetic in ways that many often overlook or don’t know.

The same is true of our culinary culture. The scholar and author Jessica B. Harris calls it “the Africanizing of the American palate” in “High On the Hog,” her history of African-American cuisine and its influence on America’s eating habits. Peppers, of course, are a New World food, so people in Africa and Europe wouldn’t have been exposed to them until after the Age of Discovery, but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t already have a taste for heavily spicy and even hot food. In addition to the seeds of okra and collard greens and the skills for farming rice, which enslaved Africans probably brought with them across the Atlantic, some have speculated that they also had an appreciation for flavor-brightening hot sauces and flourishes on their cooking.

Hot sauce is like a backbeat in the kitchen. It can stand out boldly, but it can also energize whatever it’s added to.