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As a graphic artist, Verzell James creates printed and digital design solutions for his company JAM. Graphics & Publishing.
As a gardener and cook, he creates and markets hot sauces for his company JAM. Foods & Services.
Mr. James sees a connection, not a contradiction, between his two worlds. On the website www.awe-sauce.com, he applies an artist’s vocabulary to his process for growing peppers and making hot sauce: “Dirt is a blank canvas where anything can grow. … With AWE-SAUCE I’m creating on a culinary palette, with an array of herbs, spices and peppers.”
The company, based in the Family Focus kitchen, debuted on Dec. 15, 2018 – the day Mr. James started selling hot sauce to the public. But his history with hot sauce stretches back to his childhood in Harvey, Ill. He says his parents, Southerners by birth, always had a bottle of hot sauce in the kitchen. In addition, the father bequeathed to his son a passion for gardening. Mr. James began growing peppers more than 25 years ago, when he moved to Evanston with his wife and two sons and dug up their patch of lawn to plant a garden.
The family raised tomatoes and greens and other vegetables. He grew peppers – green bell peppers, Jalapenos and Serranos first, and later, Habaneros, Scotch Bonnets and other sizzling varieties.
He grew herbs as well, stirring them into salsas to accompany Mexican-style meals. But as Mr. James explored Chicago’s myriad ethnic cuisines, he began to think about creating hot sauces inspired by a whole range of exotic tastes. So far there are nine different AWE SAUCES, each based on the food of a different region or country. Finding the right mix of peppers for a sauce is what he likes best, but he says he finds the whole process of developing and making the sauces “therapeutic.”
The sauces differ in degree of heat. Caribbean Sting, Mr. James writes in a blog, features a star turn by the fiercely hot pepper called Trinidad Scorpion and “has people coughing, hiccupping and sweating bullets.” Mean & Green is a milder, cooler blend of Jalapenos and Serranos. Among the seven others are Eyegotcha and Reutemeteut, a sauce made with the last peppers of the season, smoked, blended with herbs and labeled with a Dutch word Mr. James translates as “the whole shebang.”
After several years of low-volume sales through the Internet and local pop-ups, Mr. James is poised to take the business to the next level. His timing is auspicious. Sales of hot sauces are exploding, increasing by 5% from 2012 to 2017 and predicted to rise by as much as 6.5% from 2019 to 2026.
Market watchers attribute the sales bump in part to the popularity of Latin and Asian cuisines with consumers who have learned to love their fiery flavors. Heightened immigration is perhaps another factor, with many immigrants bringing to the table their preference for spicy food. Some analysts have even speculated that the growing population of senior citizens, their senses dulled by age, may be contributing to the rush to ramp up the taste.
Mr. James has spent the last two years developing partnerships to allow him to increase production capacity. He is growing peppers in raised beds in the south suburbs, and family members are growing and shipping them from Louisiana. He has plans for gardens in Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Arkansas.
The operation is outgrowing its Family Focus home, and he says he will be applying for an SBA loan. In preparation, he has identified a couple properties he could improve to fit his needs.
Mr. James needs help when shipments of peppers come in – some as large as 40 pounds – requiring immediate attention. He bags some to freeze but has run out of freezer space. Others he stores in vinegar in gallon jars on too-crowded shelves.
This summer, Mr. James took the first step toward implementing a vocational program he hopes will grow with the business. Through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, he hired Grayson Deeney, a transitional student at Evanston Township High School. He says his intent was to “train [Grayson] in all aspects of [the] hot sauce business” – from blending peppers in a Vitamix to tracking the stages of fermentation of the different sauces to attaching labels. Grayson could then teach other students.
But the Mayor’s program has ended, and Mr. James wants to keep Grayson employed. In addition to launching a GoFundMe campaign at https://www.gofundme.com/f/grayson039s-fund?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1,
Mr. James is looking for an Evanston organization that would sponsor Grayson’s salary while he continues to build the business.