Hot sauces are the new go-to condiment with ingredients like Korean gochujang, Thai Sriracha, Mexican Cholula, North African harissa, and Portuguese piri piri heating up the marketplace.

The hot sauce category is on fire, with sales growing 150 percent since 2000. This is more than the sum of the combined growth of all other traditional condiments—such as barbecue sauce, ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise—shows data from Euromonitor’s 2015 report “Global Growth in Chili Sauces.”

“Today hot sauce is on such a different level than the stuff you find in your traditional grocery store, with varying heat levels and interesting ingredients that identify with a certain area,” says Steve Seabury, Hot Sauce Expo organizer and owner of High River Sauces. Ingredients like Korean gochujang, Thai Sriracha, Mexican Cholula, North African harissa, and Portuguese piri piri are being used in both traditional and innovative ways.

Poised for continued growth, IBISWorld, an industry and market research organization, predicts that by 2020, hot sauce production in the U.S. will be a $1.5 billion industry, led by the McIlhenny Co.’s iconic Tabasco sauce.

The Consumer

“Hot sauce is clearly part of the diet of many U.S. consumers, and it’s a food that crosses gender, age, ethnicity, and income,” says Annie Roberts, vice president, SupplyTrack, NPD Group’s monthly benchmarking tracking service for foodservice professionals.
NPD’s ongoing food and beverage market research reveals the following key hot sauce sales demographics:
• Females (ages 18 to 44 and 55 to 64) and males (ages 18 to 54 and 65 plus) eat more than the average amount of hot sauce over the course of a year.
• Dual-income, no-kids households eat more hot sauce than other household lifestyles.
• Consumers in the South eat more hot sauce than any other region of the country. But those in Central and Western U.S. eat an above average amount.

Consumers look for hot sauces when dining out as well. Cases of hot sauce shipped from foodservice distributors to restaurants and other foodservice outlets increased by double-digits over the past two years, according to NPD’s SupplyTrack data. While classic Louisiana-style hot sauce is still the leader in terms of case volume shipped from distributors to U.S. foodservice outlets, growth has tapered due to the wide variety of hot sauces now available. Case shipments of some habanero hot sauce flavors, particularly habanero with fruit flavors like mango, grew triple-digits in the year ending December. Chipotle hot sauce flavors and Sriracha shipped double the cases in 2014 than in the previous year.

Heat and Flavor

“Part of hot sauce’s growth spurt can be attributed to the rise in the number of immigrants from spicy food-loving cultures,” says Denver Nicks in his new book “Hot Sauce Nation.” But the saturation of the trend can be seen in the success of fast-food favorites like spicy chicken sandwiches, jalapeño burgers, and Sriracha sliders.

There are, however, a wide range of preferences in the hot sauce category. “Most Texans want it straight-up hot,” says Karen Brown, manager, Lone Star Taste, Port Aransas, Texas. Her best sellers all highlight the pepper: Texas Soda Pop Red Pepper Sauce for its red jalapeño and cayenne mix, and Cin Chili Cindy’s Cin-Fully Hot Cayenne Sauce, with its mix of cayenne, black pepper, and spices. She sees her hot and sweet fruit combos, like blueberry and ghost pepper, as a way to introduce people to the category, but they don’t play a big part in her overall sales.

At Heatonist, a hot sauce specialty store in Brooklyn, N.Y., consumers are focused on the food aspect—unique and savory flavors that complement the heat—says Noah Chaimberg, hot sauce sommelier and co-owner. Heatonist opened a year ago with less than 10 brands and now carries over 60.

Chaimberg notes galangal, the Southeast Asian spice, as well as basil and butternut squash, are fun savory additions. He likes Karma Sauce for its butternut squash base, and Pepplish Provisions Blueberry Basil Shallot that is mixed with ghost pepper and habanero. While the ghost pepper is still a universal favorite for heat lovers, Chaimberg notes that newer pepper varieties—like the red jalapeño and the gnarly-looking Carolina Reaper—are beginning to trend.

Getting Experimental as an Ingredient

Lending its heat to craft cocktails and flavoring everything from popcorn and chips to chocolate and donuts, hot sauce is diversifying. It’s slowly transitioning from sauce to ingredient to major flavor enhancer. According to global market research firm Mintel’s April 2016 “U.S. Salty Snack” report, a new flavor is the most influential purchasing factor for Americans who snack, with spicy being a favorite among 30 percent of consumers.
“Look at Sriracha,” notes Rich Proctor, purchasing manager, Heart’s Local Grocer, Rochester, N.Y. “It has become more recognizable as a flavor than as a sauce—it’s in everything from 
chips to ketchup.”

A few hot sauce trends include:
Local. Brooklyn Grange Farms is one example of a growing pattern. Made with a mix of heirloom hot peppers and organic vinegar, this hot sauce is made from peppers grown in its rooftop garden in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York.
Interesting Origins. “So many companies are creating hot sauces that are on a different level,” notes Seabury. He points out small-batch players like NW Elixirs Artisan Hot Sauce, a company that barrel-ages some of its sauces in bourbon, rum, and aquavit barrels from a local distillery. He also likes Cully’s, Heartbreaking Dawns, Lucky Dog, CaJohns, and Puckerbutt Pepper Company.

Sweet Heat. While hot sauce does exist specifically for sweets, like Toad Sweat’s line of dessert hot sauces, Seabury gives kudos to those imparting hot flavors in sweet treats like Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Ore., for its Reaper Pepper Doughnut. “Everything is getting a spicy facelift these days,” he observes.

Creative Uses. Steven Ferreira, head bartender at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, N.Y. uses harissa, the Tunisian blended paste, for its “beautiful bouquet of flavor with some serious heat” in his Maghreb Mary Cocktail. “Incorporation of hot sauces in cocktails is a well-versed technique. It allows you to control acid in a cocktail, heat, or subtly provide a comforting bite when imbibing,” he says.

Looking Ahead

While Sriracha continues to be incredibly popular, retailers agree that other ethnic condiments like gochujang and harissa will soon pique stronger interest. Hart’s Proctor says gochujang “sat on the shelves for a while, but recently has started to really pick up in sales.”
Lone Star Taste’s Brown says people will continue to buy varying degrees of heat, and we’ll see more limited-edition craft bottles hitting the shelves. “Hot sauce is no longer just vinegar and peppers,” concludes Chaimberg. “It’s a category that showcases 
endless creativity. We’re just scratching the surface with what can be done.”

Spotlight on New Products

Here are offerings—from new sauces to products infused with hot sauce—that are causing a stir with both buyers and consumers around the country.

Bravado Spice Co. Jalapeño & Green Apple Hot Sauce. Poblanos and jalapeños blend with green apple to create a game-changing sauce that spices up any cornbread recipe.

Dave’s Gourmet Creamy Ginger Citrus Sauce. A zesty and moderately spiced hot sauce made with red jalapeños, lime, and ginger, its creamy texture adds dimension to favorite dishes. Non-GMO and preservative-free.

Harwood Gold Burning Bush Maple Sriracha. The addition of Michigan maple syrup gives this Asian condiment a North American twist with a mix of five different peppers plus garlic. Gluten-free.

High River Hot Sauce Cheeba Gold. Well-balanced, medium to hot, Barbados-style mustard-based hot sauce featuring yellow Scotch Bonnet and Fatalii peppers. Peaches, brown sugar, and cumin give it its subtle, sweet notes.

Heartbreaking Dawns Artisan Foods Fervor Reaper Chile Hot Sauce. Reaper Chile combines an all-natural combination of orange, strawberries, and a touch of coriander that complements the pepper’s citrus notes.

Kitchen Garden Farm Sriracha. Made from certified organic peppers grown on the company’s farm, this fermented Asian-style chili sauce comes in three varieties: original, extra-hot habanero, and super-hot ghost pepper.

Pop Daddy Popcorn Hot Daddy. Non-GMO, local Michigan-grown Deep Red Kernel corn that turns bright white is popped in 100 percent pure olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt, and infused with hot sauce.

Pop! Gourmet The Original Huy Fong Sriracha Croutons. Made with French baguettes and real dehydrated Huy Fong Sriracha sauce, these croutons spice up any salad.

San Francisco Salt Co. Sriracha Gourmet Salt. Chimayo peppers mixed with the heat of habaneros and savory garlic creates a blend of spice and tang to use directly in dishes or as a finishing salt.

True Made Foods Veracha Hot Sauce. This company adds vegetables to its medium-heat Asian-style sauce. Spinach, butternut squash, and carrots act as natural sugar while the addition of jalapeño, garlic, and cayenne give it its kick.

Tubac Olive Oil Hibiscus Balsamic Hot Sauce. Made with imported balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy, this sauce is then cured with fresh Pequin peppers and hibiscus. It spices up everything from burgers to vanilla ice cream.

Nicole Potenza Denis is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.