My experience as a vendor at the 1st Annual California Hot Sauce Expo, 2015
By Scott Zalkind, Owner/Operator/Hot Sauce Guy/Towel Folder/Recipe Creator/Visionary/Custodial & Recycling Engineer, and resident hot sauce geek at Lucky Dog Hot Sauce
After vending at the 2014 NY Hot Sauce Expo, when Steve Seabury announced that there would be a California Hot Sauce Expo I could not send in my application fast enough. I didn’t know where the event would be, which other vendors would be there, or how many tickets would sell – and frankly I didn’t care. New York was an amazing time. Connecting with so many of the great sauce makers out there, and sampling my own products to an entirely new demographic makes for a fantastic weekend. The prospect of doing so in a stunning California location in July was even more appealing. I was in from the word “go!” – Steve Seabury throws a hell of a party. Also, it should be noted here, I have a personal ban on “1st year” anything – I’ve been burned several times in the past from such events, but this was the exception to the rule.
This year has been a tough one at Lucky Dog Hot Sauce, but mostly for good reasons. Managing rapid growth and wholesale expansion while maintaining a hands-on personal touch and quality of customer service is difficult for any small business. The festival season is especially challenging as I’ve had to hire additional resources to cover farmers market locations while I worked the Alameda County Fair for 17 out of 20 days in June/July.
When I’d booked the CA Hot Sauce Expo, I could not predict that it would be exactly 1 week after the county fair, as I’d not yet applied for the county fair. When I applied and was subsequently accepted, that marked “the month from hell!” on my calendar. Headed into the California Hot Sauce Expo, we’d worked 20 straight 15 hour days. And yet on the way there I had a second wind and a surprising spring in my step. It was about to be party time with friends old and new, and a whole new region to sling sauce in!
When we arrived in Long Beach on Friday, we went straight to the Rainbow Lagoon. Fortunately, we could back up onto the grass directly in front of our booth’s spot, so the dolly I brought down was blissfully unnecessary. Once unloaded and mostly set up, we went back to the hotel & cleaned up a bit then met up with Ann Simmons of Texas Creek Products, who I’d been friends with online for a few years, but had never met in person. She’s been a huge influence and an invaluable resource – plus she sells a mean Chipotle BBQ sauce that’s out of this world delicious (salsa’s great too!). Another guest joined us, Matt – a member from the r/spicy group at Reddit came out with his wife for a couple beers with us, and a good time was had by all. Matt couldn’t make it to the festival, and when he was up in the Bay Area it happened to be the 1 rainy day we’ve had this year so he missed me at my farmers market.
Saturday arrived, and the anticipation was building. A mass of people were lined up at the gate – it was a little intense. They opened up the gates, and folks flooded in, going from table to table. The crowd was mostly well behaved, a little rowdy and very adventurous. Kind of the perfect hot sauce crowd. 80 degrees and a nice breeze, the weather could not have been more perfect for an outdoor event.
While there were a few “let me try the hottest thing you’ve got!!!!” types, for the most part people tried all 8 of my varieties, and many surprised themselves by buying mild and medium sauces as well as my hottest – definitely a “foodie” crowd, as most people cared more about flavor than which sauce could peel paint the fastest.
Early on was pretty hectic for me, as I was hosting the very 1st “challenge” event at the 1st Annual California Hot Sauce Expo. I was excited to host an event, and wanted to do one that was fun for the contestants but also fun for the crowd. The challenge: The Footlong Face-off! Sounds simple enough – Eat a foot-long turkey sub, with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, mustard, mayo, bell peppers and 9 chopped habaneros with 2 level tsp of 7-pot Red powder from Joyner’s Hot Pepper Powders.
Oh yeah, and contestants had to eat their sub hands-free.
It was intense. Slow & steady won the race, (the link to a video is below – it’s ~15 mins, but it’s very entertaining). Not everyone finished – I’m very glad that none of them hurled, at least not at the table. I find that in this crazy world of scorpion, ghost, & reaper peppers, people tend to underrate the lowly habanero a bit. 9 of them is plenty hot, but the 7-pot powder was the real deal. And since they couldn’t use their hands, there was no avoiding the lips.
I admit I felt a little guilty watching the competition, but as the winner received $250 worth of sauce & merchandise along with a certificate suitable for framing. He most certainly earned it all, and the crowd had a blast cheering for their favorites. We had a huge group watching the event, and I was really happy to see everyone had a great time. The winner’s friend said that on the way in he mentioned he “wouldn’t be eating anything hotter than a habanero sauce” so he was a bit of an unlikely hero.
Here it is for your viewing pleasure:
The next day and a half was a blur – I had customers 3-4 deep all day, both days. It was a polite crush of people but a crush nonetheless. Not everyone would wait, but those who did have my thanks – like NY, it was a difficult crowd to manage, as crowds tend to be. There can be 8 people tasting sauces in order and there always seems to be that one person who barges in, demanding to try a specific sauce – protip: don’t be that person. 😉
Unlike NY, the noise wasn’t as much of a factor. I could speak at a pretty reasonable volume, and the ambient noise was at a lower intensity level since it was outdoors. It seemed like almost the same size crowd at the peak, but it was much more manageable as people were at the stage, or on the lawn chilling out, or at the vendor booths. Thank the good lord for VIP passes and many, many, many beers. It was very warm and the beer was very cold and delicious. Since I’d watched my food get cold a couple of times while helping the teeming masses, it was nice to throw back an ice cold barley-pop or 3 while I attended to the endless crowd on both days. From when the gates opened until the last minutes I had customers lined up. The only times this was inconvenient were when friends would stop by the booth and I would have very little time for them.
All in all it was a fantastic experience. I didn’t get much time to check out other booths, which in hindsight I probably should have done prior to Saturday’s opening. But I did manage to see a few, and I tried some excellent sauces. A few trade partners were kind enough to find me, and I thank Culley’s for hooking up Sity & myself with a couple dozen bottles of sauce – I’ll share the wealth with a few select FM customers, and will enjoy the rest immensely.
It seemed like everyone had a great time – vendors, attendees, challenge contestants – it was definitely a party, and it was a really, really good one. This is an event that started with a bang, and will only grow from here. Word of mouth from this year will undoubtedly be phenomenal for next year. I expect more vendors and more attendees. Hopefully the show will include some live music between challenges – with such a great music scene in So-Cal, that’s the only thing that would put this event over the top. Other than that I’m not sure how this event could be improved other than the natural growth it will undoubtedly experience from the 1st year to the 2nd. As soon as next year’s invitations go out, I’ll be the 1st to sign up again.
My thanks (again) to Sity for being the best friend and booth employee I could ever wish for, and thanks (again) to Steve & Lisa Seabury for hosting this fantastic event in my home state – it was long past overdue, and they truly knocked it out of the park. I’m already excited for 2016!