As the son of hot sauce lovers and immigrants from Hungary, I noticed as far back as the 1960s that my parents put Tabasco on absolutely everything. They were longing for the spiciness that was not common in American foods when hot sauce was first starting it’s breech into our cuisine. At the time, Tabasco was the primary hot sauce available and it became the temporary replacement that allowed my parents to experience all the pleasure that capsicum can bring.
Today, we do not have to rely solely on Tabasco for a hit of heat. While Tabasco accounts for 18% of the hot sauce market, there are now thousands of hot sauces available in the United States, many based on the flavors of particular ethnic cuisines.
There have been small pockets of hot sauce lovers around the country for years, but suddenly, we’re seeing that hot sauce is hitting mainstream culinary experiences. If you’re looking to spice up your omelet at your local diner, you might find Franks, Crystal, Cholula, or Texas Pete sitting next to that bottle of Tabasco on your table. These sauces have crept into restaurants and supermarket shelves across the country without much fanfare. And yet, they’ve sparked an explosion in hot sauce sales, transforming the American palate forever. Sales of hot sauce have grown by 150% since 2000, which is more than all the other condiments—ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, BBQ sauce—combined. Hot sauce is now a billion-dollar industry.
Despite the strongly ethnic origins of many popular types of hot sauce, its popularity has transcended those communities, pointing to evolving American tastes. Sriracha, for instance, is perhaps the best-known Asian hot sauce, largely because it has developed a cult following among young people. In a 2013 documentary about the sauce, Americans of all backgrounds were seen zealously dousing it on their sandwiches, salads, eggs, hot dogs, and popcorn.
The brands mentioned previously in this article – Tabasco, Franks, Crystal, Cholula and Texas Pete – are the five largest players in the hot sauce industry. These hot sauces account for nearly 50% of the billion dollar market. With literally thousands of hot sauces on the market, this large percentage demonstrates an incredibly high amount of brand loyalty consumers maintain.
I’ve often wondered what creates the immense loyalty to these five brands. The three prominent reasons I have come up with is this. First, they are the oldest manufacturers and as such, they are the ones that have been on the table since most of us were kids. As most people are resistant to change we habitually reach for that bottle we’re used to when shopping for hot sauce. Secondly, because of this habitual need for the recurring sauce, most people simply are not aware of the thousands of variations that exist in the market place. Thirdly, the ingredients in these sauces are relatively simple. Please do not take this as a negative comment on these sauces; I am not negating the quality of these sauces by any means. Because of the simplicity of their ingredients they are able to maintain their market share with pricing. Many of the new sauces that have come to market are admittedly more expensive than the “big five”.
Discovery, meanwhile, is becoming easier for hot-sauce enthusiasts. In the warmer months, hot sauce festivals are growing in many major cities—Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago—collectively attracting hundreds of thousands of pepper aficionados from coast to coast. At the third annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo in April, for instance, 10,000 fans of the condiment showed up in Brooklyn for a two-day affair to taste the newest varieties of sauce on the market.
These smaller, newer, sauce manufacturers rely on fans spreading their enthusiasm for the brand through word of mouth and on social media. Speaking of which, if you have any pictures of your experiences here at Pepper of Key West, please post them on Facebook or to our Instagram page. Any comments on Facebook, TripAdvisor, or a product page on our website is truly appreciated!
New hot sauce brands are popping up every day, each with a different flavor profile and cultural heritage. And Americans are only becoming more discerning in their appreciation of hot sauces. Owning a hot sauce store, I’m obviously a hot sauce aficionado and believe that there is still room for new sauces.