Flavor To Burn
This time of year, the hottest place in Alabama isn’t Dothan or even Gulf Shores. It’s the kitchen of Alabama Sunshine in the northwest Alabama town of Fayette.There, visitors will find Fred and Sally Smith hard at work cooking up some of the tastiest hot sauce this side of the Mississippi. The Smiths, who now ship their products all over the country, said they never dreamed Fred’s peppery potion would grow into a business when he began experimenting with a friend’s hot sauce recipe 30 years ago.”In the mid-1970s, my good friend Charlie Brown–a native of true ‘Cajun Country’ in Louisiana–shared his recipe for a jalapeno hot sauce with me,” Fred recalled. “For years, I added, took away and experimented with the recipe that Charlie gave me.”Sally said Fred made about 50-100 gallons of hot sauce a year and gave most of it away to friends and coworkers at Arvin Industries Inc. “They would wash out Coke bottles, bring them to work and get Fred to fill them with hot sauce,” Sally said.
But in 1994, just as Fred was contemplating taking early retirement from Arvin, a cluttered storage room provided the spark for a new business, which soon spread like wild fire. “Wild Fire” hot sauce, that is.Fred remembers that faithful day like it was yesterday. “Sally informed me that I needed to move approximately 50 gallons of hot sauce out of her storage room because she needed the space. My reply was, ‘I haven’t had anyone ask for a bottle lately.’ Sally replied, ‘Did you ever think of selling it?'”Over the years, Fred’s friends had raved about his hot sauce, and some had even suggested he sell it, but Fred never gave the idea much thought. After 20 years of getting free samples, Sally figured Fred’s friends were embarrassed to ask for more. Her intuition proved to be right on the money.
Prompted by Sally’s need for more space, Fred found a bottle supplier and got their son Alex, then 10, to design a label. Within 30 days, his supply of hot sauce was gone, and Sally had her storage room back.”When we started selling the hot sauce, we knew we had to be in a health-department-approved facility, so we rented a kitchen from a local sandwich vendor at night,” Fred said. “He agreed to let us use it, ‘if he couldn’t tell we had been there.’ We had to move everything in at 5 p.m., and we would get started about 6 p.m. We had to be out by midnight. We must have really wanted to get in the business to do all that,” Fred laughed.Today, the Smiths have their own commercial kitchen and sell about 80,000 (5-ounce) bottles of hot sauce a year. In addition to their original Alabama Sunshine jalapeno sauce, they now have seven other flavors ranging in heat from “mild” to “serious.” For folks who enjoy the flavor of peppers but not the fire, there’s Alabama Sunshine Gold, which combines the classic tastes of mild peppers and Vidalia onions. There’s also a green jalapeno hot sauce, a cayenne pepper hot sauce, a hotter version of the original Alabama Sunshine recipe and “jalanero,” which is Fred’s own mixture of jalapeno and habanero peppers. For serious pepperheads, the Smiths offer Alabama Wild Fire habanero hot sauce and XXX Hot Special Black Label, a red savina hot sauce.The Smiths also have developed other products including barbecue sauce, chili sauce, wing sauce, Tabasco pepper sauce, salsa, relish, chow-chow and a variety of jams and jellies. Sally, who’s been accused of putting peppers in everything she cooks (including desserts), developed most of the new products in her kitchen. One of her most popular concoctions is Strawberry Jam with an Attitude, which combines the sweetness of fresh strawberries and the “kick” of peppers.Fred and two local farmers, Frank Fulmer and Wilson Williams, grow almost all of the peppers for Alabama Sunshine. This year, heavy spring rains took a toll on Fred’s pepper crop, but he is hopeful the plants will rebound. “After we got the plastic mulch and drip (irrigation) tape in, it rained everyday for 14 days,” Fred said. “We got the peppers out late, and it just kept raining. They sat there and didn’t grow for about a month.”In years past, the Smiths have harvested up to three tons of peppers from the half-acre patch, which is adjacent to their home. They grow two varieties of jalapenos as well as banana, habanero, hot banana, cayenne and red savina peppers. Fred said the reason his hot sauce is “the best” is the fresh-from-the-farm flavor that is captured in every bottle.”We bring the peppers in right out of the field and capture a bouquet in the taste that you just can’t get from aged peppers,” Fred said. “We don’t cut corners to make money, and we’re not going to sacrifice quality. We think it is the best, and a lot of folks agree with us.”Sally has a scrapbook filled with notes from customers across the country who can’t get enough Alabama Sunshine. She said folks put hot sauce on just about everything, but perhaps the most unusual comment came from a man who adds Alabama Sunshine to his morning oatmeal.The Smiths make and bottle their famous sauces by hand two to four days a week from mid-July until Thanksgiving. During the winter, they bottle sauce about once a week using peppers that were harvested at peak and then frozen to preserve the flavor and bouquet. Most days the cooking and bottling crew consists of Fred, Sally, Alex and Frank Fulmer, but the Smiths occasionally hire extra help during their busiest season.The Smiths have been married 48 years and have four sons, including Alex. Fred credits the support of friends and family for the success of Alabama Sunshine.”There have been all kinds of people who have helped us along the way,” Fred said. “Without their help, we would not be where we are today.”One of the first people to believe in the potential of Alabama Sunshine is memorialized in one of the company’s products. Brother John’s Relish, a favorite condiment for hot dogs and vegetables, is named in honor of the late John Holcomb, who was the director of missions for the Fayette Baptist Association. Fred said he was one of Alabama Sunshine’s biggest fans and worked hard to promote the company’s products.Another “name brand” product in the Alabama Sunshine lineup is Uncle Wilson’s Premium Pepper Sauce. Made with tiny Tabasco peppers, the sauce is the perfect companion for Southern-style turnip greens. Fred said Sally’s brother, Wilson Williams, grows all the peppers for the sauce. “He’s the only one that has the patience to pick those little things. It takes him about four hours to pick two five-gallon buckets,” Fred said.Others who have helped the Smiths with their business include Fayette County Extension Agent Warren Griffith, the Fayette Chamber of Commerce and dozens of independent restaurateurs and storeowners. Fred said one of the first eateries to serve and sell Alabama Sunshine was Stan’s Restaurant in Columbia, Tenn. A few restaurants, however, had to stop putting the hot sauce on their tables because folks liked it too much. “We lost some restaurant customers because people liked it so well they would use too much or take the bottle home with them,” Fred said.The Smiths have shipped their products to customers as far away as Alaska and Hawaii, but most of their hot sauce is sold in stores within about 100 miles of Fayette. Fred also makes deliveries to stores in the Mobile area, and the Smiths have private-label agreements with some customers who market Fred’s famous recipe under their own brands.Alabama Sunshine sells individual 5-ounce bottles of hot sauce as well as three- and six-bottle gifts sets. One of the Smiths’ newest items is an “Eight Warm Gestures” gift set, which includes one 50-milliliter bottle of each Alabama Sunshine hot sauce. Alabama Sunshine also markets a line of table syrups, which are produced in Louisiana.Perched atop a stool, almost hidden from view by stacks of Alabama Sunshine products, Fred said, “We tried to let the business grow at its own pace. If demand is there, we try to make it, but we try to not be selfish. We try to run a Christian-like business.”I’ve told people that I’ve worked harder getting this business started than I worked in any eight years that I held a public job, but I certainly have enjoyed it. A lot of it has to do with the sense of accomplishment that comes from making a product that you can believe in.”Contact Alabama Sunshine at 1(800) 660-3933 or www.alabamasunshine.com.