By Steve Holt / Photos by Adam DeTour
You might say psychology predetermined that Alex Bourgeois would leave his steady job and start a hot sauce company. A 2012 study out of Penn State University found that people who enjoy spicy food—which is upwards of half the population—may be more apt to take risks than those who’d rather eat sans heat.If that’s true, perhaps Bourgeois did shots of hot sauce that December morning in 2010 when he quit his comfy software engineering job and officially launched his artisanal hot sauce company, Alex’s Ugly Sauce.
In the years preceding his company’s launch, he had been turning end-of-season peppers from his CSA into the tongue-numbing sauces he’d always loved. He took the sauces with him to work, testing out each slightly-tweaked version (30 or 40 in all, he says) on his coworkers. They offered crucial feedback on Bourgeois’ creations, but mostly couldn’t get enough of the stuff. After about four years perfecting the sauces at work, Bourgeois was making 30-bottle batches for his colleagues—all of which was preordered.
“I realized one day that I was frustrated that my real job was getting in the way of my making hot sauce,” he remembers. “My girlfriend looked at me and she said, ‘You gotta quit. You gotta go do this.’ I did. I quit. I threw myself into this full-time.”
The company name—Alex’s Ugly Sauce—was inspired by a former co-worker who told Bourgeois that while the peppery elixir “looked terrible,” it tasted amazing. Bourgeois believes that taste has everything to do with his bullish commitment to using only the best ingredients.
He starts, of course, with the peppers. He cranks through more than 12,000 of them a day during harvest season, the habañeros, cayenne, and serranos all coming from Stillman’s Farm in Lunenberg. After the stems are removed by hand, the peppers are washed, blended with vinegar, puréed, and heated to at least 180°F, and placed in mason jars. The remaining ingredients—beets, honey, garlic, onions, and other spices—are then puréed separately before being combined with the pepper mixture. The sauce, now nearly complete, is cooked once more, bottled, and then labeled. And those labels are important, because it lists the clean, “real food” ingredients on which Bourgeois says he will never compromise.
“There’s never going to be stuff in there that I can’t identify, because I don’t want to eat that,” Bourgeois says. “And if I don’t want to eat it, I’m not going to sell it.”
It takes more than three working days to complete this process, but Burgeois wants to get that down to two hours, as his staff currently includes only himself, his sister-in-law, and one seasonal worker who helps to handle the influx of peppers during harvest and also with bottling the final product. The company’s state-of-the-art new space will help streamline the process. After several years working out of CropCircle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain, Alex’s is one of several local companies to open up in the CCK Pearl shared culinary facility in Dorchester. There, Alex’s has its own dedicated space to turn out the cases of hot sauce Boston’s heat-seeking public demands.
Here’s the thing: Bourgeois isn’t exactly a marketing guru with his sauces. Aside from shelf space in a couple of Whole Foods Markets and at smaller local retailers, the sauce pretty much sells itself at the farmers markets Bourgeois frequents, through word-of-mouth from friend to friend, and the restaurants and food trucks that serve it. Bourgeois says, confidently, that’s because his sauce—which comes in the successively hotter Cayano, Original, and Habañero blends—is just better than what else is out there.
“I get people all the time who tell me, ‘I don’t like hot sauce,’” he says, “but I like your hot sauce.’”
Alex’s Ugly Sauce alexsuglysauce.com
Steve Holt writes about food, food politics and drinks for several local and national publications. His Edible Boston story about healthy burgers in Boston was anthologized in the 2011 Best Food Writing book. He is proud to be among the 50 percent of Americans who believe good food should burn. Follow him on Twitter: @thebostonwriter.
STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.