John Crotty was looking for a building in the Bronx for his affordable housing development organization when, by chance, he spotted an empty lot facing south. In a flash, he saw his future.
“What’s going on with that space over there?” Crotty told himself. He immediately knew that the littered land was perfect for a community garden. His next thought was what they could possibly grow there. Her mind took to growing peppers and making hot sauce out of them, because “it was the only thing we could grow in a confined space and make it more of an end product.” One hundred pounds of peppers becomes 500 pounds of hot sauce. All other fresh produce for commercial purposes goes the other way: you grow 100 pounds to sell 75. “
So Crotty contacted his childhood friend King Phojanakong, chef and owner of the Kuma Inn on the Lower East Side, and asked him to develop sauces, which eventually became the Small Ax Peppers line. “I told him what I wanted to do and asked him to be the chef. Crotty adds, jokingly, “I’m sure he regrets it.”
For Crotty, the fact that the sauces are delicious is almost a side benefit. “The idea was to help gardens and make a commercially scalable product.”
Although his plot was a good start, he needed more peppers for a commercially successful hot sauce line. So, “I went to GrowNYC. They do a fair bit of urban gardening and run all of the city’s green markets. This helped the head of that organization to work with city council, when Crotty was employed in the office of then mayor, Michal Bloomberg. “After I finished laughing at me, they helped me.” In its first year, Small Ax Peppers and GrowNYC donated pepper plants to five community gardens around the Bronx.
In its second year of operation, the number of gardens growing peppers for Small Ax Peppers increased to 25, and with additional help from the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Green-Up, the gardens have harvested over a ton of peppers.
“GrowNYC has an annual plant sale for community gardens, and we have distributed pepper plants through them. We wanted the gardens to participate and they didn’t need any barriers to entry.
The model is as follows: Small Ax Peppers donates supplies and seeds to the gardens and comes to harvest, the gardens ship the peppers to a co-conditioning facility in Paramus, New Jersey, where the sauces are prepared according to recipes developed by Chief Phojanakong. Small Ax Peppers works with two distributors and the sauces are now in 2,000 stores across the country. They are also sold on the organization’s website. The money goes back to the gardens.
The effects of community gardens on neighborhoods are enormous. Empty lots in cities usually conjure up discarded tires and empty beer cans rather than lush foliage, towering bean poles and ripe tomatoes. A garden turns empty space into public space and transforms the way people feel where they live. Crotty takes great pleasure in watching gardeners become more confident in their abilities, both in and out of the soil. They are inspired by entrepreneurship, he says, and find themselves engaged in the satisfying job of representing the sauce they helped make.
This project has now grown nationwide, with 75 gardens participating in 15 cities. In Detroit, Small Ax Peppers is partnering with the Gleaners organization, which distributes products to pantries and soup kitchens. In Salt Lake City, Utah, the brand works with the New Roots Garden supported by the International Rescue Committee, which is made up of refugees. Often times when a new garden partner is added to the program, a new sauce comes with it. Atlanta’s Truly Living Well Garden provides peppers to the newest addition to the line-up: Georgia Peach Hot Sauce.
Small Ax Peppers sent me three flavors from their range to taste, all delicious. The geographically non-specific Mango Habanero sauce is sweet and funky with a great depth of tamarind and excellent fruity citrus notes. I made the mistake of tasting it first, and it was hot enough that I had to take a break and eat toast before I could get back to my flight.
Much sweeter is the Chicago sauce, which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who enjoys their hot dogs hanging out in the garden. There is a big note of yellow mustard, supported by brown sugar and salt of tomato, dill and celery. Basically, there is everything except the beef from Vienne frank and a bun. My favorite by far is the Bronx Green. It has a great warmth clean of Serrano peppers, made big and bright by the base of apple cider vinegar. But garlic is what sends it over, though.
Since it’s in my fridge, I’ve been found just pouring it into a ramekin and eating it with corn chips like it was salsa. It’s a delicious sauce, but I’m willing to entertain the idea that at least a little of what I find appealing is the unexpected. My favorite hot sauces come from Mexico, Jamaica and Louisiana. What now for the Bronx? Add it to the list.
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