Beyoncé isn’t the only singer with “hot sauce in my bag.” Art of Dying frontman Jonny Hetherington is trying to drum up interest in his new hot sauce line via his social media channels by using the hashtag #IGotHotSauceInMyBag, and filming a version of her new single “Formation” (which contains the hot sauce lyric) on piano for YouTube.
Hetherington talks as passionately about hot sauce and the recipes he creates. Art of Dying released a new album, Rise Up, at the tail end of 2015, produced by David Bendeth (Of Mice and Men, Breaking Benjamin, Hedley). About the same time, he officially launched the boutique cooking condiment brand Jonny Hetherington Essentials with his wife, Melissa Mercier, a designer, photographer and stylist. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised $45,681 from 222 backers, they were able to ship the first batch just before Christmas.
He started with the Hot Sauce Trio, three distinct all-natural habañero fruit flavours (peach, beet and pineapple) that he perfected at their home in Vancouver. The sizeable bottles sell online for $15 each or $39 for the triple pack — $79 for the limited edition autographed set — and he’s starting to get it into retail.
When he speaks of how good the stuff is on eggs or mixed with BBQ sauce for chicken wings and ribs, or poured on thin-crust pizza and into pho, you can almost hear him salivating over the phone when he makes the kissing sound presumably with the Chef Toke.
ClearLife talked to Hetherington about how he let his hot sauce passion out of the bag and to the consumer.
K: Until now, have you ever had anything to fall back on?
J: I’m the all or nothing guy. I remember a very important guidance counselor conversation when I was probably 15, 16 in high school about falling back on something and I said, ‘No, I wanted to sing; I wanted to play music; I’m going to put all my energy into that,’ and the counselor said, ‘What if that doesn’t work out? You should think about something else as well, just to fall back on,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think you’re listening to me.’ I had to say, ‘This meeting is over; you’re too negative,’ and walk out.”
K: What’s the origin of creating your own hot sauce?
J: My brother introduced me to the habañero pepper. I instantly fell in love with the spiciness and the flavour and began looking for sauces that were made from it. The problem was I found a lot of sauce out there, but it had junk in it, chemicals or additives. My family, just like a lot of families, had been struck by cancer and I started looking at what I put in my body. So I started making my own. It was the only way to find a sauce that was good for you.
K: Being in a band and touring, is it hard when the stops along the highways are fast food?
J: Yes, it’s horrible on the road. It’s really difficult. You eat a lot of bananas and you find yogurt when you can. I’ve done crazy stuff, like I’ll go into the gas station and raid the hotdog 7-Eleven type counters for the hot peppers and the sauerkraut, just load up a little tray of pickles, and then I’ll buy canned sardines. That’s the best gas station food you can get: canned sardines and sauerkraut from the hotdog bar.
K: Wow. You are a pro. At what point did you decide to manufacturer your own hot sauce and turn it into a business?
J: I’ve been making the hot sauce for about five years. It started off just in my kitchen, and then I started gifting it to people and they liked it. And then I started using it as a tool in music; I started giving it to radio programmers, and everyone got back to me and wanted more. So slowly, when we were off tour, it did take five years to go through ingredients and make enough batches so that I was happy with the flavours.
I started with flavours that I didn’t actually end up producing — mango and pear. I was working with whatever was seasonal in Vancouver and from the BC interior. I just wanted to get three signature sauces that I was really proud of and that came down to pineapple, peach and beet. They have their own thing and they look great together and they taste great together.
We came off the Apocalyptica tour last spring and I knew I was going to have a break from tour and thought, ‘I have a window to do this.’ It took about six months and Kickstarter was a huge part of it. We shipped before Christmas. It was a pressure cooker; excuse the pun.
K: What are the logistics and the first-steps, the obstacles you didn’t anticipate?
J: The toughest obstacle is crossing borders and getting it safely produced and available to Americans, which are a huge part of my fanbase. I wanted to make it available worldwide. So I had to get it preapproved for the United States and to do that I couldn’t do it myself, which was probably a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t pulling a truck with a ton of vegetables up to my front door. But at the same time, I’m really involved. I love cooking. My original plan was to convert my place into a kitchen and do it all myself, and quickly I realized I had to do it in a commercial kitchen, generally because of red tape in the industry of having to have inspected facilities by local health authority and the FDA and a lot of hoop.
K: How did being in the band help with the initial crowdfunding campaign and bringing this to fruition?
J: We spent over a decade gaining a following on social media. We were big back in the MySpace days [laughs]. I recognized early on that subscription lists and social media are an integral part of any business so it was definitely important to have that following for Kickstarter, although we actually relied a lot on family and friends too. My Mom in Edmonton, she’s my Alberta distributor now [laughs]. It’s interesting meeting a lot of the hot sauce people out there in the world because it’s kind of a club; there’s a lot of awards dedicated to hot sauce; and I’ve found on Instagram that’s really blown up, the foodie and the hot sauce culture. So it was a combination of all those things.
K: The true test is expanding beyond your fan-base and music circle.
J: My goal the entire time was to get the sauce to some of those people that had those early batches and wanted it, and then expand to our fan-base, but my goal all the way was to get it into retail, so that’s something I’ve been working on. We shipped our first order in Vancouver to Choices Markets. They have 10 stores in the Lower Mainland. They’ve taken the hot sauce as my first retail client and they’re also distributors through Western Canada. Right now I’m picking up conversations for Eastern Canada and the United States and I have a friend in Australia who said ‘I’ve got distribution contacts over here.’ It’s a very word of mouth thing. However, the product speaks for itself; it’s all-natural and it tastes good. It’s kind of selling itself at the same time.
“ The capsaicin in these chili peppers and the seedes are really good for anti-aging and antioxidants. I joke around that it’s really like a spicy smoothie.”
K: It’s a very crowded space. Some is just about packaging, hot sauce with outrageous, funny kitschy names. Then you’ve got the king of hot sauce, Tabasco, which is very inexpensive. Did people think you were crazy to try and enter the market?
J: I haven’t really come across that. What we’re trying to do is bring habañero and all-natural fruit hot sauce into a more accessible place. It’s less about a bunch of guys getting together and having a ‘hot’ contest and seeing who can chug the most ghost pepper sauce, which I’m all for too; I’ve always been interested in hot sauce and pushing limits; it’s fun.
I created this sauce to be flavourful and, yes, hot, but not blow-your-mind-off hot. My Mom was like, ‘I don’t eat hot sauce,’ and I got her to try it and now she’s loving it. It’s a really great flavour enhancer. There are a lot of health benefits too. The capsaicin in these chili peppers and the seeds are really good for anti-aging and antioxidants. I joke around that it’s really like a spicy smoothie.
K: And you’re going to expand into other products?
J: Yeah, we created the line of Essentials and that was the Kickstarter campaign, but I want to develop into a trusted source for all-natural cooking products, whether it’s hot sauce or olive oil or BBQ sauce or whatever products we’re going to develop, to know that this is better than Brand XYZ that has caramel No. 7 and orange No. 5 and a bunch of junk in it.
K: What’s the plan with the band? The album is out. David Bendeth produced it. What are you doing for the year?
J: Oh, you mean the band?
K: That thing you’re falling back on in case the hot sauce career doesn’t work out.
J: Right. There, we circled right around. We made the record with David Bendeth. We’re so proud of it. We’ll be touring as much as we can for the rest of the year in support. It’s a really deep record, 13 songs. We really tried to experiment and make something that we’re proud of, but also pushes our fan-base and listeners in different directions. It’s by far the heaviest record we’ve made, but it’s also the most electronic record we’ve made.
We just announced a show in Wisconsin Rock Fest in July, so we’ll be doing some touring this summer around that. We just got done some big crazy festivals so it seems like that’s where our music really does well is with a ton of bands on these outdoor monster festivals. It’s a lot of fun for us and I’ll be sneaking in more of the private dinners that I’m doing. We carried that on from Kickstarter.
I just got home from ShipRocked, which is four days on a cruise ship full of bands, where I was totally honoured to do a Scott Weiland tribute with an all-star band; when I was done I went and cooked my first private dinner in Arizona for a couple of people from the Kickstarter [campaign]. And I was more nervous about my dinner than I was about the show [laughs]. It turned out that I ended up cooking for the executive chef of a golf resort and that was a little nerve wracking, coming from my background of hot wings and ribs, but I got some really nice comments from him and I think he might be stealing a few of my recipes for his menu.
K: What did you make?
J: It was a four-course dinner. I did a cream of celery and leek soup for the first course and the second course was something I’m doing a lot of these days, which is called Hetherington Toast Party [laughs], which is blowing up on my Instagram. It’s something I’ve done with my family over the years; it’s really creative ways to serve awesome ingredients on toast. Really fun. The chef loved that. I poached an egg on top; it was just yum. And I did chicken popsicles. Another thing on my Instagram, awesome drumsticks with a beer-can tower, which I’ll get into on our next call [laughs] and I did ribs with corn ceviche, which is one of my favourites, so simple and so beautiful and works so well with habañero peppers. I was so thrilled with how it went that I’m excited to book some more.
K: Do you sell your hot sauce at your merch table when Art of Dying plays?
J: No. Not yet.
K: Why? Would you guys use it all before you get to the next show?
J: [Laughs]. Just wake up and there’s a bunch of empty cases of hot sauce.
K: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you this: Your cover of Beyonce’s “Formation” is causing a lot of negative reaction. I suspect you just did it to capitalize on the hot sauce line. So how do you feel about people saying you, a white man, have no right to cover a song so deeply personal about her black female heritage and identity?
J: Music is colour blind.
K: It’s a serious issue and some valid comments. There is a reason why the song and video is causing controversy. Can you answer it more in depth and address some of the comments people are making?
J: That sums it up for me.