Back when I was flipping burgers at Short Order for a little, I worked for a couple of cool guys who had an affinity for American food and a knack and drive to develop artisan products: Christian Page, Sean Milota, and Willy Barling. After opening their refined burger place in The Grove, and not too long after my last day at the restaurant—when the guys threw a large cherry cream pie in my face for quitting—this rag tag crew of chef-driven purveyors birthed a hot sauce company. Not just any hot sauce company, but a company so grass roots and organic that the business was hand-bottling sauces at the restaurant. Now that they have left Short Order, they have gone full force, taking the long haul and small-growth business model to hot sauce—with maybe the same type of traditional service developed from the age-old Tabasco sauce company over 100 years ago—except this company is new, raw, organic, and speaks loudly to a new wave of food.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Willy B hot sauce team in their headquarters in K-town just weeks before their special hot sauce block party that is launching on July 23 at one of The Hundreds’ favorite spots Pizzanista! (click here to see what we’ve done with them in the past) and Tony’s Saloon. In our interview below, we talk about the unique fermentation process of their hot sauce, why they’re taking their time in the growth of this business (“We want the good blow up, not the bad blow up”), and what a tablespoon of habanero hot sauce can do to your dreams.
JESSE: So how did it all begin?
Christian: It all started with a pie in the face. [laugh] Hot sauce all started at Short Order, where Willy and I were co-chefs. At first we didn’t make everything ourselves. We used to make our buns at La Brea and we began baking our own buns. We used to get our meat ground at Rocker Brother’s and then we started grinding our own meat.
Willy B: And we were also getting goods from Sqirl.
Christian: We were getting pickles from her and tomato jams. And then we started thinking about how, since we were making everything ourselves, why were we buying hot sauce? It was like the last frontier. We needed to figure out how to make hot sauce. So we just started making it, researching it. More like just practicing.
And that’s what’s emblematic of our bull’s eye logo. Every time we take a stab at it, we got close, then closer and closer, until we nailed it right on the bull’s eye.
What was your inspiration or what was your process?
Willy B: Each hot sauce has its own inspiration, I think. The red is the classic hot sauce.
Christian: The red is somewhere in between a Tabasco and a Sriracha. If you look at Sriracha, it’s amazing how it really caught on, because it’s like ketchup plus. There is a lot of sugar in there and it is spicy, but not too spicy. It’s really cool, because that opened everyone’s eyes to that taste! It started everyone using hot sauce. So in that respect, I think Sriracha was really the big inspiration for that sauce. That’s sort of the way fermented chilies come out to taste, except we don’t add any sugar to our hot sauce.
Willy B: No, the sweetness comes by a process of fermentation. The sugar in the chilies—sugar in the limes. All these ingredients have these things, we don’t have to add anything.
What was the process of making the hot sauce?
Christian: A few people did get hurt in the process, but no one died. We used to add sugar when we were done and then we realized that the hot sauce keeps fermenting once you add sugar. So there were a few people that called us from their pantry and shit, saying, “Our glasses our broken!” That our bottle blew up!
Willy B: Our first bottling was kind of tough. I mean it was fine if you kept it refrigerated, but then once it warmed up, it woke up.
In front of The Hundreds HQ after roasting a lamb for several hours.
So you guys were bottling hot sauce in the restaurant? By hand?
Christian: [Yes.] We still do. It is a true artisanal product. No co-packers. But now it doesn’t blow up anymore.
Willy B: We have our own facility. Where we ferment the hot sauce from start to finish.
What is the process of making the hot sauce?
Willy B: Essentially it is the same process as making sauerkraut, but with different produce. You salt a vegetable, which creates brine—you weigh it down, creating an anaerobic environment and, uh, just let it get funky.
For how long?
Willy B: Around 3 to 4 weeks.
Do you have to taste the hot sauce throughout the process?
Christian: Yeah, always. A lot of sniffing and a lot of tasting.
So you guys started at Short Order, started making hot sauce at Short Order, started bottling the hot sauce at Short Order. Since then, where has the hot sauce gone?
Christian: Now we wholesale and sell it direct and you can get it at Erewhon, Urban Radish, Pizzanista!, and Good Eggs. And soon, in August, we will be opening Willy B’s delicatessen and you will be able to get it there, down on 4th and main.
And on July 23 we are doing a big event—Willy B, Pizzanista!, and Tony’s Saloon is having a big block party. From 6pm-10pm we will be doing Willy B’s signature pizzas in Pizzanista!’s ovens and Tony’s will be doing some specialty cocktails and stuff.
For instance, we have dehydrated chili powder after the hot sauce is finished, and you can use the hot sauce to rim the glass of a drink.
I should make a potato chip with your hot sauce powder.
Christian: Oh yeah, peanuts, popcorn, potato chips—bada boom!
Willy B: You can even use the hot sauce powder as a seasoning in your fried chicken batter. I mean we use all three hot sauces.
Which flavored hot sauces are they?
Willy B: So we have the Fresno red and the habanero orange and it’s fermented with habaneros, orange, orange peel, turmeric, carrots, ginger. And then we have our green, which is a mix of chilies: jalapenos, serranos, and poblanos. Tomatillos, ginger, garlic. They all have their own profile.
So what should people look out for at Willy B’s delicatessen?
Christian: Smoked turkey—smoked turkey is the business. Smoked meats, our pickles, and our sauerkraut, of course. Good sandwiches, good salads.
So you guys are going to Whole Foods?
Christian: No, not yet, my friend. We’re not that big yet. You got to engage. You got to work your way up.
Willy B: Yeah, you have to go through a major co-packing facility.
Christian: Our priority is to get through is to get to our customer and not to lose them. Whoever you have, you got to make sure you get them the product and make sure it stays consistent. Staying loyal to our customer and establishing that loyal customer. Stocking in and not stocking out. We are purposely not growing quickly. We want the good blow up, not the bad blow up.
Why is it important to naturally ferment your own hot sauce?
Christian: It is magically delicious.
Willy B: There a lot of good nutrients inside.
Christian: I haven’t seen any raw fermented hot sauces out there.
Willy B: I haven’t seen any that are bottled. And people these days are looking for raw food in their life.
Christian: It’s all about gut health these days. The good enzymes.
Willy B: Some say that a tablespoon of sauerkraut might save your life.
Can a tablespoon of habanero sauce save your life everyday?
Christian: It can do more than save a life. A full teaspoon in the morning and a full teaspoon at night and you have some wicked fucking dreams too, before you go to bed that’s for sure.
So you have any new hot sauces in the woodwork?
Christian: We’re really excited for chili season and getting chilies at the farmer’s market. Chili season is at the end of the summer. The reason why the flavors are colors—red, orange, and green—is because they keep within the chilies available. For instance, the red will have Fresnos, but during chili season, we can get the red cayennes fresh. Those are the real deal and those are amazing. Also, we can get manzana peppers, and those would be in the orange. And those have an amazing flavor, really fruity.
Willy B: I mean, we’re excited, because we’re snacking on chilies all day.
Christian: That’s one of Sean’s specialties too. He tries the chilies first.
Willy B: He has the iron gut.
Christian: He eats the chili first and if there is no smoke coming out of his ears, then we try the chilies.
Their block party is tomorrow night from 6-10pm at Pizzanista! and Tony’s Saloon in downtown LA at 2019 E. 7th St. Los Angeles, CA 90021. Follow the guys at @cheftione @willybsla and visit willybs.la. For wholesale inquiries, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.