CaJohns from Columbus Partners to Promote the Pungent and Powerful Pepper
by Cody Badaracca
All alliteration aside, CaJohns Fiery Foods out of Columbus, Ohio has been doing some deal making in the world of hot food. The company is nationally recognized for its vast catalog of sauces, salsas, and rubs and has won multiple awards for them. They’ve garnered attention at food festivals all over the country and have been featured on the Food Network and the History Channel. Heck, CaJohns owner and founder John Hard was even assimilated into Southern Culture when he was made an “Honorary Cajun” at the New Iberia Hot Sauce Festival. Quite the honor for a self-proclaimed “Irishman from Ohio.”
A quick history: John Hard has spent the last 14 years building up and running CaJohns Fiery Foods, which started out as a way to teach his teenage children about running a business, and to get himself deals on hot sauce. After attending the 1997 National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show, and gathering samples of various hot sauces, Hard and his children decided what sauces they were going to sell, assembled everything, and proclaimed “OK, we’re in business.”
“It took about 6 weeks for the first order to come in for two bottles,” Hard said. “The kids were excited and we thought we were on our way.”
It would be another eight weeks before the next order came in for a single bottle. Excitement began to wane. “I could see that I was losing their interest and a lot of momentum, so we started booking festivals here in Columbus,” Hard said. Eventually, Hard began making his own sauce. “We started with some recipes and actually had some success with them in the 1999 Scovies. Our salsa won three first place Scovies in the Hot, Habanero, and Extra Hot categories.”
CaJohns’ “big break” came when appliance manufacturer Frigidaire used CaJohns hot sauce as part of a gift package for customers after seeing an article about the company in the paper. Both CaJohns and Frigidaire are headquartered in Columbus, OH. “They wanted a premium gift to give to people who bought ranges,” Hard said. “We ended up doing 7,500 gift packs for them, which put us all over the country and made us a buyable company.”
In 2004, Hard sold his prior family business of fire protection and began to work on CaJohns full time. “I thought this would be a nice little business for me and my wife. We could travel and sell hot sauce, but I never realized that we would pick up the momentum we did.”
Momentum like an avalanche: in the first three years of business, CaJohns product went from 7,500 bottles sold, to 75,000 in the second year, to over 200,000 in the third year. “We’ve had a phenomenal growth rate,” Hard said. “If we go back over the last 11 years, we’ve had 30 percent growth per year, and if you look at the last 5 years, we’re at just about 20 percent. Of course, as the number gets bigger, it gets harder to grow.”
Hard estimated that the company will go over 1.5 million in sales this year.
CaJohns and Winning Collaborations
There are numerous reasons why a company does well in the world of free trade: timing of the product, advertising, and knowing how to play the game while not biting the invisible hand that feeds you. In addition, there’s CaJohns’ fiery foods business model of collaboration and quality.
Calling the Chili Police!
There are trends in the world of food that have helped CaJohns’ business, but part of the company’s success has stemmed from collaborating with others to create a symbiotic relationship. CaJohns has partnered with people like rock and roll poster artist Mike Martin to do labels for limited edition sauces, the Chile Pepper Institute to help further research on peppers, and the Chili Police from Königsbach-Stein, Germany to just help out a fellow hot sauce maker.
When the Chili Police came to the Fiery Foods and Barbecue show in 2009 as attendees, they were pleased to see that CaJohns had a booth there. They were in awe that John Hard was there in the flesh. “I was like on the status of celebrity or something,” Hard said. “They ended up hanging around our booth and were a lot of fun.”
Over the next year, the Chili Police decided they wanted to attend the 2010 National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show as vendors and sell their product in America. “It is a big problem to bring food products into the United States,” said Ralf Nowak, the founder of the Chili Police. “The rules are very strict. We had to find out an easier way.”
That easier way was CaJohns, who offered to make Nowak’s sauce for him in America with Hot Mama’s label on it. Through that a partnership blossomed. Hard said, “we put them in touch with our label company and it worked out very well.” The collaboration has worked out well for CaJohns too. While the company already has a big European base—with about 20 percent of its sales going in Europe—the partnership with the Chili Police has given CaJohns a fresh perspective on spice in the Old World. “I’ve asked them what they’ve seen going on over there, and I think it’s a collaborative effort because it’s really opened my eyes,” Hard said.
CaJohns and the Chile Pepper Institute
Another collaborative effort CaJohns began was with the Chile Pepper Institute (CPI) at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, “because chile production is going down worldwide,
and that’s the root of our business. We wanted to know what we could do to help,” Hard said. “The best thing we could do was make a product, sell it, and give them a part of it.” CaJohns developed a whole line of products with the Bhut Jolokia pepper as the main ingredient. The “Holy Jolokia” hot sauce and salsa that was developed has been incredibly popular (the salsa won a 2010 Scovie award), and a portion of the proceeds from the products’ sales have gone to help fund the CPI.
The CPI has also worked with CaJohns to locate and contract with pepper growers to fuel the company’s ever-increasing product demands, because the Bhut Jolokia has become a mighty popular pepper. This has put CaJohns at the forefront of the trend, which is right where Hard wants to be. “If you’re going to participate in something, you really need to help pave the way,” Hard said. “I’ve always believed that if you’re going to try and be the best at something there really is no room for an ego, because in this business, you’re only going to be first for a little while…unless you are adapting.”
AUTHOR BIO: Cody Badaracca is a writer and freelance journalist based out of Nashville, Tennessee. He received his BA in journalism from Belmont University in Nashville. He owns and operates an upstart publishing company, Voices Of [the] Goat Publishing. You can reach him at: email@example.com.
Return to top of article