The little hot sauce that could
From Dashelito's humble start to its recent awards
When Rob Grether, owner of Dashelito’s Hot Sauces and Spicy Foods, first suggested making an in-house hot sauce for his friend Jennie Capellaro’s restaurant The Green Owl Cafe, he had no idea how it would turn out. “I didn’t intend for this to be a business,” Grether says. “I started this as a side project, but it has really grown organically.”
After Green Owl customers started asking if they could buy the hot sauce to take home, Grether decided to get the licenses and certifications he needed to start bottling and selling his sauce. He chose to call his new business Dashelito’s, a nod to the nickname his young son Dash acquired on a family trip to Mexico. Fast forward eight years and Dashelito’s now produces six flavors of hot sauce — with four new flavors coming out in time for summer — and is racking up awards.
Dashelito’s Red Honey Hot Sauce recently beat out 600 other sauces to win a second place prize in the 2017 Chile Pepper Awards, sponsored by internationally recognized Chile Pepper Magazine. Dashelito’s newest bottled flavor of hot sauce, Blackout, won second prize at the 2017 Jungle Jim’s International Foods “Weekend of Fire,” held in October in Fairfield, Ohio.
Sweet Heat, the popular candied jalapeño hot sauce Grether created when a friend with an acre of jalapeños offered up the remaining peppers at the end of a growing season, won first place at the 2016 Scovie Awards. And in March, bottles of Bourbonaro, Dashelito’s sauce made with bourbon, sweet potatoes, raisins and habanero peppers, will be sent across the United States to members of Fuego Box, a small-batch hot sauce of the month club based in Los Angeles.
Dashelito’s products can be found on shelves of grocery stores throughout Wisconsin and in Madison at grocery stores and restaurants including Weary Traveler Freehouse, Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, Jenifer Street Market and Willy Street Co-op. It is the official hot sauce of Brat Fest and several baseball teams in the Northwoods League including the Madison Mallards, Kenosha Kingfish, Green Bay Bullfrogs and Wisconsin Rapids Rafters.
So how did Grether go from making an in-house sauce for a friend’s restaurant to becoming an award-winning, nationally recognized producer of artisan hot sauces? The answer seems pretty simple: Grether has fun making the sauces he wants to eat. “I make it because I like it. I’ll be eating something and think about what could make it better. My wife hates that,” Grether says with a laugh. “She thinks I’m being critical.”
Grether still produces all of his hot sauces afterhours in The Green Owl Cafe’s kitchen, where he likes to create new flavors that haven’t been done before. “I try to lead with flavor and follow with spice,” he says. Grether giggles when he explains how he came up with the Blackout sauce. “I knew I wanted to do something with blueberries, so I took a 12-pack of High Life, a pound of habaneros and a bag of blueberries into the kitchen and, the next thing I know, I had Blackout sauce.” But you can only taste habaneros for so long before zapping your taste buds he explains, so around 1 a.m., Grether took the sauce next door to the Ideal Bar where he and the bartender set out tasters of the sauce for the bar patrons to sample and offer feedback. “Well, whatever feedback you can get at 1 a.m.” Grether says.
When Milwaukee radio station WMSE recently asked Grether to create a new flavor of hot sauce for its annual chili cook-off and fundraiser, Grether thought about some ingredients he had been wanting to experiment with and came up with a Pineapple Brandy Sriracha sauce, one of four new flavors Grether plans to bottle by summer. Other new flavors are titled Strawberry Lavender Reaper Pepper, Thai Chili Poblano and Orange Whiskey, a sauce made with apricots and carrots.
At the end of our interview, Grether grabs a bottle of Blackout and chugs half of it. While hamming it up for a photo op, it’s an appropriate demonstration of the love he has for his products and the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. But Grether also gets emotional when he acknowledges the help he has had along the way. “We’ve been very lucky that the community has embraced our product as warmly as they have. We have a lot of good friends of the business and it tears me up to say that, but it’s true.”
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