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Going Down in Flames: Can you conquer CaJohn’s “Execution Station” challenge?

Jeni Ruisch

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In time for the Fiery Foods Fest this weekend, we are reintroducing the CaJohn’s “Execution Station” challenge that (614) staffers so bravely faced back in 2017. Can you take the heat?

***

I love a challenge. Even challenges at which I know I will fail. On the surface, this sounds like a positive attitude. But what people often neglect to consider is that being habitually dissuaded from out-of-reach conquests often results in spectacular, crashing failure.

Highly averse to spicy food from a young age, I began acclimating myself to the hot stuff about four years ago. Little by little, my heat ceiling was raised. I started getting a little cocky at restaurants and asking for higher and higher levels of spice, pushing my boundaries just a little bit at a time.

My ability to taste new flavors in different peppers increased. Soon, I found my friends could not sample my food when we went out to eat. I found myself chasing the burn.

I decided to take on a fiery foods challenge for a story, and rounded up a small crowd of “volunteer victims.” Some friends and co-workers who had a predilection for spicy foods agreed to meet me at ground zero and take a taste bud journey through ascendingly heated hot sauces.

CaJohns Hot Sauce_Laatsch-9
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CaJohns Hot Sauce_Laatsch-16

I thought it best to seek the advice of a professional. Dustin “Doc” Cordray is my go-to answer-man for this piquant excursion. A member of the CaJohn’s Fiery Foods team, Doc is a seasoned professional when it comes to sauces, rubs, and soup bases. (See what I did there?)

The first thing we talk about is how to stop the pain.

When you’re first starting out and you’re not accustomed to hot things, it registers as pain. Why do people chase that?

There’s a gentleman named Jolokia Jonathan. He is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. He actually will come into our store, buy the hottest hot sauce we have, and he will drink it because it gives him the same high. It doesn’t hurt him, it doesn’t even phase him, but he still sweats, he still gets the heat hiccups…. If you’re eating something really really spicy and you want to stop the pain, you can actually take packets of sugar and put it on your tongue and let it sit for a minute. Wait until the heat comes back, swallow it and do it all over again.

We always hear about the new hottest pepper, so why does it keep changing?

Pepper growers cross breed peppers. The world’s hottest pepper is now a cross breed. It’s the Carolina Reaper. It’s the current world’s hottest according to The Guinness Book of World Records. But if you ask the Chili Pepper Institute, it’s still the Trinidad Scorpion.

I’d think it would be a good marketing tactic to always have the world’s hottest pepper at any given time.

We do always have the hottest pepper, and that’s because we’ve been in the business for 20 years. We’re actually America’s most awarded hot sauce and salsa company. So people actually come to us with peppers and they ask us a lot of questions. The hot sauce community is very friendly and we will work with each other.

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Is this a branch of nerddom?

Yes, this is a branch of nerddom, they call themselves chiliheads. They’re big nerds. There’s hot sauce bloggers, there’s pepper bloggers. They get together at hot sauce shows, they all know each other.

How can someone prepare if they’re going to do a marathon of spicy food?

A lot of people will do spicy food before they do a challenge… Not super spicy food, but something that has a good amount of heat to it. Something that has a nice glow. Or you can eat [raw] peppers. A whole bunch of jalapeños or habaneros just to get your tongue ready for that. There’s a cheating method, too. (Editor’s note: oral lidocaine spray) You can spray it on your tongue and in your mouth, and if you eat something spicy it won’t [feel] spicy.

Why do you think people compete and do these big shows?

Because it’s fun. We have a challenge, it’s called the “Execution Station.” We line up some of our hottest hot sauces. You have to go through each hot sauce, and you can’t break the rules. No complaining. You have to have a whole spoonful, not a drop.

If you can make it through all the rules and all the sauces, you get a koozie, and it’s good for 10% off at our store. But if you can do the challenge, which is doing Black Mamba Six at the end, you get a sticker. You’d be surprised how many people want that sticker. At hot sauce shows, almost every booth has a stupid hot hot sauce, and they have a sticker.

I don’t want to throw up.

With our execution station, we always have a trash can at the end. Just for that random person. Because it happens every once in awhile. It doesn’t happen as often as you would think, but it does happen. For that person who didn’t have enough to eat, or had too much, or had too many beers.

Is Black Mamba Six the hottest hot sauce in the world?

It was voted the world’s hottest hot sauce two years in a row. We do not claim it’s the world’s hottest hot sauce, but others have.

What’s gonna happen if I try the Black Mamba Six?

The great thing about Black Mamba is that a lot of people will try it and they’ll go “Oh that’s nothing.” And then they’ll go away. And then a couple minutes later they’ll come back in tears, with a red face. I hear a lot of “I hate you.”

Hurts So Good: A Fool’s Errand

The only tears shed at CaJohn’s Fiery Foods headquarters in Westerville, and their booth at the North Market are self-imposed. People love the burn of their spicy condiments.

Of course, CaJohn’s makes more than just hot sauces, they make spice rubs, soup mixes, mustards, and other flavor-packed seasonings. And they do it all by hand, right here in the ranch dressing belt.

As the most awarded hot sauce company in the United States, CaJohn’s is an authority on making eyes water.

When we rolled in 10-deep and asked for his hottest, he brought the heat. Together we attempted “The Execution Station.” This is a taste test of the hottest hot sauces the company makes.

The willing flavor chasers start at one end, and sample each sauce, working their way to one of the hottest hot sauces in the world: Black Mamba Six.

The question was: How far could we make it?

When asked why he liked to make people cry, CaJohn answered with a laugh: “Because they pay me good money to do it!”

Here are some choice exclamations that were overheard as my motley crew worked its way up the ladder of heat:

“You’re calling us volunteer victims?! Those words should never be put together.”
“I also brought Pepto Bismol and kleenex.”
“Is there a hot sauce here that’s so hot it’s not intended to be eaten?”
‘This is named after a demon?”
“When we start sweating, that’s when we’ll start taking pictures.”
(mouth breathing)
“Swish it around in your cheeks like wine!”
“*coughs* That’s not how you drink wine!”
“Do animals eat hot peppers?”
“Birds do.”
“Of course they do.”
“I feel burn-y.”
“I feel like you don’t need to brush your teeth after this, because it’ll just melt your mouth clean.”
“Ok, I took a little milk and chip break, I’m goin’ back in.”
“Ohhhh my belly is doin’ something it shouldn’t be doing.”
“It feels hurt-y.”
“Am I supposed to be a little disoriented?”
“Isn’t that why you agreed to this?”
*sniff*
“This weird little part of my mouth hurts, right here.”
“That’s your frenulum. Oh my god, that’s the first time that knowledge has ever been useful in my life.”
“You ok?”
“Yeah. You?”
“I… I don’t know.”
*cough*
“You’re getting shiny.”
“I say it’s like drinking whiskey. The first shot goes down and makes you shake. The more you drink, the easier it goes down.”
“You’ve never seen me drink whiskey.”
“This can’t give me a stroke, right?”
“My sinuses are steaming.”
“My ears are ringing.”
“What are your *sniff* focus groups like?” *sniff*
“This is mace for your mouth.”
“This is Kobe Bryant in a bottle.”
“Oh my god.”
“Are you gonna throw up?”
“Not right now. Maybe in your car.”
“I was talkin’ shit. I shouldn’t have been talkin shit.”
“This is hate in a bottle.”
“I don’t wanna tap out but… But…”
“This one might make you cry.”
“I got the spicy pepper endorphins!”
“Your eyes are all glazed over…”
“Does anyone else feel drunk?”

By Jennifer Ruisch / (614) September, 2017

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Still Brewing: Columbus breweries attempt to find new footing amid COVID-19

Mitch Hooper

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Pivot is often a term used in start-up companies. It's when a company decides that what it's doing is working, but not entirely, so they move the strategy in a direction that is more profitable. It takes careful planning and months of execution to get it right. And when it comes to breweries in Columbus right now, there has been plenty of pivoting, however, very little time to prepare.

For Colin Vent, head brewer of Seventh Son Brewing Co., and Bob Szuter, co-founder of Wolf's Ridge Brewing, there have been many shifts in their day-to-day operations. While both breweries are still operating—as they are considered essential business under the shelter-in-place order—their focus has moved from filling kegs for the various bars that carry their brews to bottling and distribution. More specifically, the breweries are finding new ways to get the beers into homes beyond the traditional method like stopping in at the bar, or picking up a case at the grocery store.

"We've had a very, very strong carry-out presence every single day," Vent said. "We're selling like 100 to 200 six-packs a day out of the little reach in cooler. We've never seen carry-out like this before; even on a good Saturday we wouldn't sell that many."

While much of the staff at the breweries are furloughed or laid off, this new addition of direct home delivery has provided small financial opportunities to the staff if they were interested.

"All of that is great, but it doesn't make up for all revenue we are losing by not being able to sell pints," Vent explained.

And that seems to be the issue at hand for Vent, Szuter, and presumably other breweries in the city. Breweries make a good portion of its profits through pint sales. When folks can't visit the bar to grab a drink, the ripple effects quickly become an issue. Vent cited variables like long-term contracts with hops distributors as these pre-existing orders were made under the pretense of last year's sales and this year's projections. In other words, these breweries simply aren't producing the same amount of beer as before, but the purchase orders of ingredients are still under contract.

For Szuter, he's skeptical that the Payment Protection Plan—a loan designed to incentivize small businesses to keep employees on their payroll—just isn't enough to cover all the costs that goes into operations.

"For us to bring back and match the full-time equivalent, we'd have to bring back 65 people and there's just not a business for 65 people right now," Szuter explained. "There's enough [work] for maybe 20, 25 [employees]? Maybe 30 if we want to be really aggressive with labor."

There's also the lingering unknown that plays a major role for Szuter: will these loans be forgiven?

"It's a big deal because if we are trying to bring 30, 40, 50 people back to work, we're borrowing a lot of money to do that," Szuter said. "If we have to pay that back within two years, that's going to be a huge impact to our cash flow if we have a debt payment of $10,000 to $15,0000 a month."

It's been a marathon full of hurdles for these breweries. Szuter said as he and his team prepared all the required information on a Wednesday to apply for these loans, by Friday those requirements had changed forcing him to gather the new information needed and resubmit. Fortunately, WRB has been around for seven years and has built solid relationships with the banks they work with. It made getting this information less difficult, but still frustrating. These relationships, however, might not be the case for other breweries and bars.

"A lot of places don't have the systems in place to look at the information as quickly as we might, Szuter said. "Five or six years ago when we were using QuickBooks, I don't think we could've gotten the information as quickly as we needed to so we could get in the queue and apply for this."

Szuter said he's not only concerned for his own business, but other small businesses in Columbus as well. And it's also why he's asking our political leaders to step up and provide some clarity to this fast-paced and on-going situation.

And, in times like these, Vent said it's crucial that the community supports local now more than ever.

"Buy hyper local," Vent said. "This isn't just like, 'Oh, bummer! There's less beer on the shelf. There's a brewery out of business.' And it's like no! It's people out of business. At the end of the day it's people suffering. It's not about the brand, like the Seventh Son IPA doesn't give a shit if you drink it or not; it's Barry and Tito and all the guys that work here. It's those people that need the support."

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Last Call For Alcohol: A look at how COVID-19 is impacting the bar industry

Mitch Hooper

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It's Friday night and Eight & Sand Tavern is empty. There’s not a pint being poured, a March Madness game on the televisions, or a song playing on the speakers. Saint Patrick’s Day? That came and went weeks ago. A month that was supposed to be primed for making cash has turned into quite the opposite.

This is life for Brody Wakefield, owner of Eight & Sand Tavern, and many others involved in the bar industry. Life has come to a screeching halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak. This situation has evolved quickly and the impacts have been sweeping, leaving little time for many of these folks to prepare for the unknown in the upcoming months. Combine an international pandemic with the slow financial months for bars in winter and you are left with a tough situation.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

“We’ve just come out of our two slowest months of the year—where we actually lose money—and we [were] hoping March is the month where we turn a corner,” Wakefield said. “St. Patrick’s Day, patio weather, and March Madness often make March the best month of the year. Now it’s gone.”

Columbus has welcomed many new bars to its city within the last few years and Eight & Sand fits the bill as a newly opened spot. It requires a great deal of overhead and risk to open a bar, and hitting goals and projections are crucial for long-term survival. Though Wakefield said the tavern was on track in many ways, it was still two years out from hitting those projections that can provide regular profits. Given past viruses and diseases that garnered media attention, he said COVID-19 wasn’t something that was initially concerning him. It was business as usual until simply it wasn’t.

“This is unprecedented territory. Like most folks, I underestimated the results early on, citing the many outbreaks we’ve had over the last few decades and thinking our exposure would be minimal. I thought about SARS, H1N1, Zika, Ebola and others that certainly had a global impact, but locally we came out relatively unscathed,” he said. “That thought process didn’t age very well.”

Quickly, what looked like something that would blow over became chaos. Now, with business closed indefinitely, he’s looking into coronavirus-related small business loans with lowered interest rates and extended payment periods, but like many things during a pandemic, there are caveats.

“We are still a young business. We only have one year of tax filings available right now, and we don’t show a regular history of profitability, so those may be barriers we’re not able to overcome,” he explained. “The SBA Disaster Relief portal also crashed [on March 23], so we’re in an additional level of purgatory.”

In a press release, the Columbus Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild said that industry experts predict 25 percent of Ohio’s 22,000 bars and restaurants will close business permanently due to the outbreak. While the Guild is in agreement with the calls for social distancing, it has left more than half a million Ohioans without a job seemingly overnight. In collaboration with the Cincinnati and Cleveland chapters, the USBG has sent letters to more than 200 public officials outlining the struggles the industry is facing and the kind of relief they will need to survive this.

“The state has laid us off, not our employers,” the press release stated. “The state bears responsibility for providing us with full, livable incomes while we serve through our duty of preventing the spread of COVID-19. We are Ohioans who love to help and serve, but in this time of turmoil, we must ask the public for help.”

This pandemic has exposed some of the problems that are inherent in the service industry. Variables such as low hourly wages have led to servers receiving unemployment checks that are well below 50 percent of their typical income, or simply struggling to even get unemployment. It’s also shown the need for these employees to have benefits in place such as health care, retirement, and paid time off. This, combined with the fact that many places aren’t hiring in the midst of an international pandemic, and you can start to get a clearer picture of the magnitude of this situation for many folks.

Wakefield takes these sentiments to heart. While he attempts to navigate the waters of receiving a loan, his staff lives unemployed and unsure how they will meet their basic needs like rent, utilities and food. However, through all this adversity, he and his staff are banding together.

“Our staff has been incredibly gracious and understanding. We have a group of all-stars that I’d put up against anybody,” he explained. “We opened a GoFundMe to try to ease the burden, and we’ve had some really generous friends and regulars donate.” Still, the unpredictability of this crisis adds challenges. “I’m hoping we can meet that goal but the reality is, we don’t know what to ask for because we have no idea what the timeline will be. There’s so much uncertainty right now, which is perhaps the hardest piece.”

As Wakefield said, it’s time for leaders to lead, and much like other bar owners in the city, he’s doing his best to lead his team. Plus, he’s leading in other ways, too.

“I’ve been turning myself inside out for the past two years trying to get Eight & Sand off the ground. Long days, late nights, and very little time with my wife and three young girls. So now I have been able to really dig in as a father again, which is amazing,” Wakefield said. “Bike rides, our daily viewing of Frozen II, and having family meals again is a recharge I wasn’t aware I needed.”

These impacts on the economy aren’t exclusive to the bar scene, and Wakefield is concerned for those within the restaurant scene, too. He thinks of some of his favorite spots around town like Ambrose & Eve, Skillet, Barcelona, and Red Brick Tavern and knows—much like his own tavern—they will need assistance to survive all this.

“The community is doing what it can to support small businesses, but we’ll need politicians on both sides of the line to work together to help them survive,” he said.

Of course, there are ways we, the community, can support our favorite establishments. Similarly to Eight & Sand, many places have started a GoFundMe to support non-hourly waged employees. There’s also take-out from many spots as well as delivery options with reduced fees on apps such as UberEats, PostMates, and GrubHub. Those are some “easier” ways to support the food and drink scene in the city. But if you want to truly help out, pick up a phone; Wakefield encourages you to make a call to a local representative.

“We also are asking people to reach out to their representatives to press for sales tax relief for the months of February and March,” he explained. “Ask them to loosen SBA stipulations so newer businesses aren’t being left out. Ask them to provide real relief for restaurants.”

And above all else, show some kindness to your fellow community members.

“We just need to be patient and have some empathy for each other. I’ve seen a lot of folks using this situation to lob political spears at their perceived opponents. We don’t have the luxury of division right now. Let’s understand that yes, the service industry is in peril right now, but there will be other industries that follow quickly and they also will need help. The economy could be in real trouble right now. We’ll need real action from our elected officials to solve these problems in the short term.”

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Food Fight: With festivals postponed, food trucks are coming to a neighborhood near you

Wayne T. Lewis, Publisher

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Columbus has a certain love affair with food trucks. We must, since there are over 200 of them in the metro area. Ranging from international flavors to local staples, these mobile kitchens bring slices of diverse cuisine to our parks, favorite bars and sidewalks.

It’s a challenging business in good times, with most trucks having just a few hours each day to log a success. Of course this is Ohio, so weather brings its own challenges to the table. While the entire restaurant industry has been hit hard by closures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, food trucks are now facing an economic snowstorm. 

“It’s devastating. Some are making 10 percent of what they did. The spots they have on a daily basis, 90 percent cancelled,” said Nik Gandhy, founder of Streetfoodfinder.com, a website that helps the public locate their favorite food trucks.

On top of their daily walk-up business, a significant portion of business is catering parties and events. Those too, have been virtually
all cancelled.

“Here at Pitabilities, we are working hard to keep our staff employed as much as possible. Our sales have dropped nearly 90 percent, with some new opportunities coming up that may help us save a few jobs. As of today, we are making some really hard decisions as to who and how many of our staff to lay off. This has been the most difficult decision of my entire life, I have never laid off anyone in over 35 years of having employees,” Jim Pashovich, founder of Pitabilities trucks, said.

Despite these hardships, there is a certain resilience and scrappiness that makes up the food truck community. Leading the charge is the Central Ohio Food Truck Association (COFTA). 

Last week, COFTA introduced its Neighborhood Pickup program. This program is offering the opportunity for local food trucks to continue to serve their community, while practicing appropriate social
distancing measures. 

In the coming weeks, food trucks are scheduled to serve at designated locations around Greater Columbus. These locations have been selected with ample parking and immediate access to residential neighborhoods. Residents can view live, updated truck schedules online and place their order in advance. A designated pickup time will be provided, eliminating the need to wait in line to order. Payment can also be made online, so cash and cards do not need to be exchanged at the order window.

“We have transitioned from serving our guests at their place of employment and now going to the neighborhoods where they live. Our lunch service is nearly nonexistent and we hope that we can build a dinner service in the neighborhoods,” Pashovish said.

Gandhy added there are also efforts to use Nextdoor.com to identify neighborhoods that would like to see a food truck stop by.

“It’s hard, but we’re trying to get better finding new spots. We’re actually trying to go to apartment complexes instead of the streets, so we can get some business,” Abimael Ruiz, owner of two Taquitos food
trucks, said.

Food safety has always been a high priority for the food truck industry, and with the new social distancing measures in place, they are working on methods to serve carry-out while keeping customers safe.

“A lot of the trucks have signs out that say “please respect social distancing.” So customers can still walk up to order. But other trucks are requiring all orders be placed online,” Gandhy said.

Gandhy has been working day and night to get as many food trucks as possible set up with online ordering so they can better compete in the new reality. Customers can find a truck, place an order, and pay on the site, and walk-up to the truck when it’s ready for pick-up.

Despite the massive challenges facing these small business owners, many of whom toil in their trucks day-in, day-out, the guy who builds many of the trucks thinks the industry will survive, and perhaps even grow as a result of this economic storm.

Michael Gallichio is the owner of Titan Trucks—a Central Ohio custom food truck builder and founder of the annual Food Truck Fest.

Gallichio says the latest food truck boom was created in the wake of the last economic collapse when everyone lost their jobs. “People figured, hey I don’t have a job, and for a relatively small investment I can be in business for myself.” 

Starting a truck can be done for as little as $75,000, according to Gallichio. For now though, those dreaming of a new mobile business will need to wait, as the current food truck operators figure out ways to navigate a world with far less demand and virtually no access to crowds.

“Some of the food trucks are shutting down and hoping to ride it out. But these guys are innovators. They’re gonna find a way. That’s what’s so cool about this industry. They’re constantly evolving,” Gallichio said.

As for the Food Truck Festival, it’s still scheduled for early August, but like many things these days, that’s subject to change as the state and nation combat the coronavirus threat. Until then, we can all daydream of being next in line, wearing our flip-flops, hot sun on our back, cold beer in our hand, waiting to experience something special.

Find food trucks headed to your neighborhood on streetfoodfinder.com

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