Avondale / Denver, Colorado
Employees: 2 (plus seasonal production help)
Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Sriracha hot sauce
Founder Jolene "Jojo" Collins crafts savory sriracha with the freshest peppers possible.
While in training to become a yoga instructor in Denver, Collins was looking to eliminate refined sugar from her diet. "What I realized is everything is full of sugar, including my favorite condiment, sriracha," she says. "So I made my own."
She quickly realized she had a lot to learn. "I didn't know it was fermented," she says of sriracha. "I didn't know how to make hot sauce." But she taught herself using red chili peppers in Denver before relocating to Brooklyn.
In New York, "I started playing with chili peppers," she says. "That was a real 'aha' moment: You keep the process the same, change the chilis, and you've got a whole new flavor."
In 2011, she was selling small batches at a farmers market, then incorporated as Love Hard, Inc. in 2012. "It took me about a year to get my ducks in a row," she says. "Food is super regulated so it's a big commitment. It's not like you're making jewelry in your basement."
Collins moved back to Denver with her fledgling manufacturer in 2014. "New York is great, but Denver had been calling me," she says. "I'm pretty mellow and chill, and New York City is none of those things."
But she had an ulterior motive for her return to Denver: proximity to the country's best peppers. "The Northeast is a really challenging place to source chili peppers," she says, noting that the humidity often leads to peppers overloading the vines and they end up on the ground, where they rot. "It's New Mexico and Colorado that are the hubs for chili growing."
Fresh peppers are the critical part of the supply chain, and Jojo's production goes gangbusters for about a month during the fall harvest. The only other ingredients are vinegar, palm sugar, garlic, and sea salt.
The fresh peppers are first pureed in an industrial-grade Vitamix with a four-horsepower motor. "The entire chili pepper is in the jar," says Collins. "The skin, seed, the stem is all in there. Everything is beautiful and wanted."
For her flagship red sauce, dubbed OG, she uses 100 percent red Pueblos. Since they're vine-ripened, red chilis only need to ferment for about a week before they're ready for the jar. "Because it's on the vine longer, it has a little more fruitiness and some sweeter qualities," Collins says.
Jojo's "pretty magical" GR green sauce, made from a mix of Pueblo, Anaheim, and Big Jim peppers, requires six or more weeks of fermentation. "Green chilis have thick cell walls," says Collins. "They're very tough."
There's a trick to knowing when sriracha is ready: Collins puts on a pair of rubber gloves and feels for that subtle but perfect medium between too chunky and too liquidy.
In 2017, Collins moved her manufacturing operation from a cramped 323-square-foot space in northwest Denver to the former Excelsior Middle School, now repurposed as headquarters for the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers cooperative in Avondale, 15 miles east of Pueblo.
Jojo's is the first tenant in the facility's 25,000-square-foot incubator kitchen, and it's night and day from the setup in Denver. There was no refrigeration -- fermentation takes place at ambient temperatures -- so that made for a scheduling nightmare come harvest season.
"The process doesn't lend itself to mass production," says Collins. "We're touching those chilis and watching them and inspecting them about 15 times in this process."
In Avondale, walk-in coolers allow for a lot more flexibility, notes Collins, as does proximity to the crops. "Our farmers are all two miles down the road," she says. "We get them right away. . . . It's the perfect place for us to be."
The end result of the move to Avondale? "It allows us to do a much bigger volume," says Collins. "We have as much space to do as much sriracha as our heart desires. . . . We've cut our production costs and have the best quality."
Forecasting is key: You don't want to run out of sauce in the winter. "Red peppers out of season can be 10 times the cost," says Collins. "If you run out in the summer, that's something you can deal with, but if you run out in January, you're pretty screwed. There's so much incentive to make it in season."
In six years, she's gone from ordering about 100 pounds of peppers annually to 3,000 pounds. The latter number translates to about 10,000 jars, sold direct online and at events as well as through a network of specialty markets and gift shops. A six-ounce jar retails for $12 to $15.
"We're a real expensive condiment, but we're a real inexpensive gift," notes Collins. "Who doesn't know someone who loves sriracha?"
Besides the red and green mainstays, Jojo's "will do some super hot batches," says Collins. These limited-edition runs of 100 to 200 jars are primarily sold online.
Blending ghost peppers and Carolina reapers can require respirators. "I always say I want to be the Breaking Bad of sriracha," she jokes.
Challenges: "Now that we are doing big in-season production runs, it's switching from production to sales mode," says Collins. The company has no investors, so carrying more inventory poses a risk. "There's this huge commitment. As you grow [inventory], it becomes more risky and more vulnerable."
The variable heat from harvest to harvest can pose another problem. "We get thousands of pounds of chili peppers -- and hope they're not so smoking hot we can't sell them," she notes.
Opportunities: "There are thousands and thousands of varieties of chili peppers," says Collins. "In my mind, we're never going to be done experimenting with flavor." She's working with Pueblo-area farmers to grow "new varieties they've never grown before."
Needs: "What we've been getting help with is managing social media, website content, nerdy business stuff," says Collins.