What started as a way to use up surplus peppers from a local grower has turned into a distinctly Northern brand.
Thunder Bay's Heartbeat Hot Sauce Co. has quickly gained a following since its inception in 2015, selling to connoisseurs all over Canada, the U.S., and overseas, according to co-founder Al Bourbouhakis.
It all started when he and partner Nancy Shaw offered to buy any leftover peppers from Chris Paulusma, who grew a variety in varying heat degrees and sold them at the farmers market during the summer months. Bourbouhakis explained at the time he was a chef and hot sauce fanatic, and Shaw was a restaurant owner.
“Chris is a big part of how we got started,” he said. “We had done business with him for years before, buying super hot peppers from him that other restaurants wouldn't take. We had talked about making my own hot sauce.”
Bourbouhakis took the surpluses to experiment with them, with no real intention of doing anything commercial with them. Because of the high volumes he received, he turned to fermentation to preserve them.
What came out of that are three flagship sauces: blueberry habanero, red habanero, and green jalapeño.
The hot sauce market seems like a packed house with no room for new products, but Bourbouhakis said lovers of spicy sauces are always looking to try something new.
Because of that fanatical love, hot sauce fans are always sharing information. Much of Heartbeat's advertising has been through word of mouth and social media.
“We put ourselves out there as a new brand you want to discover,” Bourbouhakis said. “We focus on having a brand and look that has an appeal, to be a sharp product that stands out on the shelf.”
Even though they focus on the look, the taste is still critical. Bourbouhakis said they stick to the formula they've used for years and add no preservatives or artificial colours.
To broaden their reach, they are open to allowing almost any business to sell their product, from coffee shops to breweries and even clothing stores.
Bourbouhakis admitted the brand has become more than what he first expected. The bottle lends itself to many settings. He attributes that success to the branding and design having a broad appeal.
“I'd say about 60 to 70 per cent of our customers came to us that said they wanted to carry it because their customers said they would buy it,” he said. “We do reach out to markets where we want to expand our presence.”
Whenever they do sales trips and offer their product, most people get on board, he said.
There are plans to expand the line, but for now, Bourbouhakis said they are focusing on their flagship brands.
They made their official home on May Street in the south end of the city, just metres from city hall. It was a perfect place for them, he said, as the rent was reasonable and there is plenty of space for their operation.