Firefly Hot Sauce home grown, handmade
When he couldn't make money on produce, Todd Bolender switched to hot sauce instead.
Todd Bolender doesn’t bother with Sriracha, Frank’s, Tobasco or Cholula on his pizza – he only uses Firefly Hot Sauce, his homemade, home-bottled, Northern Virginia brand.
Firefly Hot Sauce has been in business since 2004. It started when Todd and his wife took over her late mother’s farm in Fort Valley. The two quickly realized they couldn’t make much money selling produce. When a fellow farmer at the market donated a bushel of hot peppers he couldn’t sell, Bolender got the idea to start cooking his own hot sauce.
“After that, I started growing my own peppers and realized how good of a thing I had with the hot sauce, so we stopped doing all the produce,” he said. “I got into some of the local farmers’ markets just selling the hot sauce, and went from there.”
As he legitimatized his business with the health department, he decided to diversify the brand and created his six main blends: Tearjerker, Garlic Fire, Cosmic Curry, Smoking Apple, Original, and Kicking Cayenne, from hottest to mildest.
Along with his mainstays, Firefly offers two additional limited edition flavors for the real fanatics: A Tearjerker variation spiffed up with ghost peppers, and a full-on Ghost Pepper sauce. The kicker – Bolender himself won’t eat his own limited edition blends.
“It amazes me when someone tries the ghost pepper one and says, ‘Oh that’s not that hot,'” he said. “I try it, most people try it, and they’re crying.”
Bolender soon turned his guesthouse into a commercial kitchen. Inside, he keeps two freezers stuffed with roughly 700 pounds of peppers of different variations.
Despite food regulations, the traces of a home business are all over the kitchen. He uses a custom made hand pump to siphon the sauce out from the pot, he blends his ingredients in a standard kitchen blender, and several pairs of swimming goggles hang on the wall – he wears them to make the cooking process more tolerable.
“There’s two of them (sauces) that I have to wear goggles when I make them,” Bolender said. “It gets to me. I almost need a gas mask, it’s almost like being pepper sprayed.”
After he cooks the sauces, Bolender bottles, labels and sells most of them himself. He said he’s received offers for people to buy his recipes and streamline production, but he turns them down every time.
“I think at that point I’d be losing what people like about my product,” Bolender said. “They really like that what I’m making is handmade, that I’m doing it all myself.”
Both Facebook and farmers’ markets drive most of Firefly’s sales, but Bolender uses other marketing ploys. He works a side job at Swover Creek Farm Brewery, which he’s helping get off the ground. There, he serves the hot sauce to guests to build brand awareness. Likewise, he always brings his own bottles to restaurants and leaves them behind on the table as a de facto calling card.
To date, Firefly has sold in every continental state in the U.S., and has unexpected fan bases in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
As the business moves forward, Bolender said he still toys with the idea of a buyout, but it would be down the line and would need to be at the right price. However, he added he’s nowhere near ready to give up his baby, or his favorite part of the business: customers’ reactions.
“The most fun thing to do is festivals, because when I’m standing there, I have jars of them, and I get to see people’s reactions when they taste them,” Bolender said. “It’s pretty nice to see someone taste it and say this is the best hot sauce I’ve ever had.”
Firefly hot sauce is available for sale online at http://www.fireflyhotsauce.com/, as well as in farmers markets, wineries and stores throughout the Shenandoah Valley.
Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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