By Gregory Daurer | Jun 22, 2020
La Junta, Colorado
Sauces and condiments
"We make about 28 products and ship 'em all over the United States," says Davis. Those products include Scaff Brothers steak sauce. Salsa imbued with the world's hottest pepper. A mesquite Worcestershire sauce. A chile relish. And a salsa made with Rocky Ford cantaloupe.
Prior to Davis and his wife MaryAnn purchasing the business in 2013 from a local restaurateur, Davis worked as a teacher and then principal in La Junta. After retiring, he did economic development work for the town. Davis remains a local booster, encouraging visitors to check out the nearby dinosaur tracks, as well as the Native American artifacts at the Koshare Museum. "Great area, great people," he says of La Junta.
Davis also talks up the storied history of the company he now operates. "It's a longstanding business in La Junta, and I wanted to keep it open," he says.
Before changing hands in 1975, the business was founded and run by the Scaff brothers, Frank and Joe. (The "F&J" on the Scaff Brothers' label.) Their Lebanese family migrated in the late 19th century from Michigan to Colorado, and the brothers eventually opened a grocery store in La Junta in 1928. In 1934, they began making their own steak sauce, using, as ingredients, oranges (including some of the peels), raisins, and walnuts. Davis says, "It's got a distinct flavor, probably more sweet than most people are used to. It's an old-time steak sauce."
Back in the day, diners would employ the condiment at Harvey House restaurants along the Southwest Chief route -- the train from Chicago to Los Angeles, which stops in La Junta. Davis occasionally gets reminders of the product's reach. "We used to do a booth at the [Colorado] State Fair," he says. "Some people from Chicago came and tasted it and said, 'This is like the old steak sauce we used to get back there.' They probably got [Scaff Brothers steak sauce] back there!"
The Scaff brothers not only devised a steak sauce, they began making a Tabasco-like product called Piqueoso Sauce in the '40s. And Davis adds, "In the '50s, they started mixing their own Worcestershire out of a powder base that doesn't have anchovies in it. We pretty much follow that same base."
After the Scaffs sold the business in the mid-'70s, the new owner, Eldon Gierhan, dug up some of the Scaffs' other handwritten recipes, making a salsa from the directions left behind, and expanded the catalog. Davis also markets a line of salsas made with Carolina Reaper peppers -- "the hottest in the world" -- which he cultivates himself. "I grow plenty of Reaper to make it plenty hot!" says Davis. Inspired by the nine circles of hell in Dante's Inferno, there are nine levels of salsa heat that people can choose from.
Although he samples every batch of salsa, Davis admits that level nine isn't something he eats regularly. "Most people just use it for contests -- just to hurt somebody," he says. "It can hurt you!"
Manufacturing has been done at the same facility since 1948. "There's a lot of history in that old building," says Davis, mentioning the fire and the floods it's survived. Tools of the trade include a 1958 steam kettle and a 1962 Hobart mixer. "And the owner is a 1948 relic," he quips. "It's like a museum in there." The production schedule is flexible, and a crew of volunteers helps with the work when a batch of product of products needs to be prepared. "They get paid in product and alcohol," says Davis.
Some of the business gets conducted via mail order. "We've shipped to all 50 states," Davis says. But Scaff Brothers products can also be found at "three different farmers markets around the area, and around three or four grocery stores, a couple in Pueblo, one in Springfield." Farmers markets vend not only the products made in La Junta, but also a host of items that Davis has privately-labeled for his business, like preserves and pickled products.
Davis says, "There are people down here that only use [our] steak sauce, and ranchers all over southeast Colorado will come up and get cases of the steak sauce."
Producing around 10,000 bottles a year, the company grosses about $85,000 annually -- and Davis isn't looking to grow the company any larger. For Ron and MaryAnn, who run Scaff Brothers without drawing salaries, the business remains "a retirement hobby." Davis says, "If we had to do this every day of the week, eight hours a day, it would say 'For Sale' and 'Closed.' . . .We're not in big stores and we don't want to be. We can't keep up."
But for Davis, who first tried the Scaff Brothers steak sauce as a child back in the '50s, there's still a big payoff. "It's rewarding to keep the business alive," he says.
Challenges: "Keeping up," says Davis, given that the company isn't "an 8-to-5 business." He adds, "We just need to have enough products," in order to fulfill orders as they come in.
Opportunities: Davis can envision eventually selling the company. "This is a viable business for somebody," he says. "It could grow, but for us that's not the challenge."
Needs: "We've got enough business to make the loan payment, and that's the biggest need for this business -- not to go into deficit," he says.