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Why these Montco hot sauce makers quit their day jobs to farm peppers

There were reasons to bet on hot sauce — and not just because sales are on the rise.

Fiona Palumbo adds a bucket of picked peppers to the back of a utility vehicle during harvest at Goshenhoppen Run Farm in Perkiomenville, Pa. on Thursday, August 29, 2019.
Fiona Palumbo adds a bucket of picked peppers to the back of a utility vehicle during harvest at Goshenhoppen Run Farm in Perkiomenville, Pa. on Thursday, August 29, 2019.Read moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL / For the Inquirer

A few years ago, Fiona Palumbo worked behind a desk in D.C. and Cheyne Geverd traveled the world working for an oil company. Today, they’re pepper farmers in Perkiomenville and founders of a Montgomery County-based business that just finished its first year of selling hot sauce all over the country.

Fraktured Hot Sauce was created after Palumbo and Geverd met at a farm in western Pennsylvania. Both were making career changes. They wanted to learn how to make a living by growing food, and Geverd’s Lansdale-based family had been cultivating hot peppers for years as a hobby.

There were reasons to bet on hot sauce. It’s nonperishable, can be sold at a relatively low price, and there’s year-round demand. As a result, market competition can be less intense than with other food wares. And hot sauce aficionados are often collectors: They want to try as many varieties as possible.

“Hot sauce is easy to get people excited about," Palumbo said on a recent morning as she and Geverd picked the last of the season’s peppers from the vines at their Goshenhoppen Run Farm. “I compare it to the craft beer industry in that there’s always room for more.”

Unlike sales of craft beer, which in recent years have shown signs of flagging growth, national sales of hot sauce have risen at least 5% annually for at least five years, according to market research firms. Domestically, some attribute the boom to a strong millennial customer base, as well as an influx of U.S. residents from Latin American and Asian countries. Globally, the $2 billion hot sauce industry is projected to surpass $3.75 billion by 2026, according to industry reports.

The growth isn’t just thanks to wildly popular Sriracha or old standby Tabasco. According to the market research firm Euromonitor, smaller brands make up 40 percent of U.S. hot sauce sales.

The industry can be friendly to newcomers; the Jersey Shore-based Hank Sauce company started tiny in 2011, but has expanded distribution to several other states, as far as California, Florida, Louisiana, and Illinois.

Nationally, chefs and eateries have started bottling their house-made sauces, monetizing a product they’d previously given away. In Philly, restaurants including Saté Kampar, Baology, and Hardena sell their signature condiments.

Last summer, when Geno’s Steaks in South Philly launched take-home bottles, owner Geno Vento was surprised how easily it caught on.

“People went crazy over it," he said. “You tell someone they can take a bottle home with them and they say, ‘For seven bucks? Sure!’ "

It’s too soon to tell how much the product might boost the company’s profits, but Vento said sales have increased almost week-to-week.

“People are ordering it online, they’re buying it in multiple. We had people buying it over the holidays for gifts,” he said.

Employees at Vento’s company once made the sauce themselves, but the decision to bottle it meant outsourcing the task to a local company. Entrepreneurs like Palumbo and Geverd, on the other hand, are “seed to sauce” makers, handling every step themselves.

Once picked, their peppers go through a grinder with salt and are then aged for six months to a year in 5-gallon buckets in the farmhouse basement. The longer the mash sits, the deeper and hotter the flavors become. Geverd and Palumbo believe the process sets Fraktured apart from sauces that are aged for a shorter span or not at all. Since launching, they’ve expanded their offerings to include sauces infused with shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and pipicha, a Mexican herb that evokes cilantro and has a delicate, almost mint-like taste.

Palumbo and Geverd, who live in Lansdale, said business is good so far. They’ve traveled as far west as Oregon to sell the sauce at festivals, and this year snagged a second-place award at a New York City expo for their “haunted harvest” ghost pepper sauce. Their six varieties of sauce are sold online, at farmers’ markets, and in a handful of Pennsylvania stores, including Weavers Way Co-ops.

Palumbo, 37, formerly worked in human resources for a Washington, D.C., development firm. She quit after a few years and ended up working at Edible Earth Farm in Mercer County, where she decided to pursue an agricultural career. Geverd, 30, who has a degree in geology, was working there after leaving his career as a monitor for an oil company.

They decided to get into the hot sauce business in part because of what they saw as financial and quality-of-life benefits: Peppers have a relatively short harvest season, and farming them requires less equipment and initial capital investment than some crops, like apples, according to the Penn State Extension. Other produce, like snap beans and stone fruit, are more sensitive to unpredictable weather.

After they chose pepper farming, it was a matter of finding the land (leased from his family, who are renovating a farmhouse on the property), a kitchen to make the sauce (a nearby firehouse), and the necessary equipment, which they bought at a discount at state auctions. They planted their first crops in 2016.

The farming season begins in late February, when the seeds for jalapeños, habaneros, and other types of peppers start growing in a temperature-controlled greenhouse. Palumbo and Geverd aim to plant in the ground by mid-April, then harvest in August. Annual yields have been around 3,000 pounds.

Palumbo and Gevard are not immune to the challenges faced by other farmers. They lost about a third of their crops in May, thanks to a tornado that touched down in parts of Montgomery County.

“The hail just came by and weed-whacked them,” Geverd said. They ended up with about the same yield as last year, rather than the larger harvest they’d hoped for.

But generally, they said, the growing schedule involves a few weeks of high-intensity farming, followed by three or four months of minimal maintenance. And a few months out of the year, they devote a couple of days a week to making the sauce, bottling up about 40 cases a day. The relatively flexible production schedule leaves time for part-time work, some of which is agriculturally oriented.

“Farming can be a constant struggle," Geverd said. “You’re always playing catch-up, you’re feeling pressure to diversify your crops. We felt doing something like this would give us the opportunity to ease into that by learning how to do one thing well.”