Story by Meghan Sheffield
Photography by Alex Kirkham
The food production facility in rural Ontario is just as you might expect: industrial-sized vats, lab coats and hair nets for visitors, and stainless steel as far as the eye can see. But even an environment that is literally that sterile, Drew Stevens and his team are working to make his family’s vision to shorten the distance from farm to table a reality.
Drew, along with his wife Ana, is the founder and proprietor of Pepper North, an Oshawa, Ontario, based company that produces and sells hot pepper seeds and sauces. In the USA, hot sauce has recently become the top-selling condiment — that means it’s outselling the usual standbys like ketchup, mustard and mayo. Canada isn’t quite there yet, but it’s a growing market, and Pepper North is growing right along with it. The business started small — literally from seed money.
As teenagers, Drew and his brother began growing hot peppers as a hobby — which led to yearly increases in both the heat of the peppers, and the number of plants. “As kids we wanted to see who could grow the hottest pepper, and it seemed like every year there were always hotter and hotter peppers coming out. ” says Drew. “We started growing five or six plants a year, and last year we had over 100 varieties.”
As his interest and involvement in pepper growing took off, Drew found hot pepper hobbyists online, and began swapping and buying seeds. Realizing that most of the seeds were coming from outside of Canada, Drew saw a need and stepped into it. In late 2013, he started his own seed business — one that now ships thousands of seed orders per year.
Not long after starting his seed business, Drew made his first bottled hot sauce from a recipe he’d been working with for a few years. That first bottle became “No Joke,” a ghost pepper-based sauce that falls at about five out of ten on a heat scale — and still Pepper North’s best seller. In early spring 2014, Drew and Ana took No Joke and a hot mustard to their local farmers market in Port Credit, Ontario, where, for the first time, they met their customers face-to-face, offered samples, and did real-time research into what people were looking for in the hot sauce market and what flavours they were drawn to.
“My take is: anyone can make a really hot, hot sauce. My goal is to make it flavourful,” Drew explains.
Surprising people with flavour is a big part of what he likes about serving up Pepper North’s products in person. “I like to sample the Blueberry Plague — people get hit with the blueberry, then the heat starts to creep in.”
As the business has grown from those early days at the farmer’s market — a booming retail business, as well as a diverse wholesale businesess, Drew and Ana’s family has grown too. The family business extends from there — Drew’s hot pepper loving older brother does the graphic design for their labels, while many of the peppers are still grown on his parents’ acreage.
“Those first demos we did, we were there wearing our newborn baby in a carrier. Some of those days were just crazy, having a newborn, managing the wholesale business while Drew was managing retail.” Ana said. “There are challenges for any business, but we are a tight knit family.”
Earlier this winter, Pepper North won fourteen Hot Pepper Awards, including best overall hot sauce. Today they still go to meetings with potential partners with their family in tow. “We want anyone who wants to get to know our business to know that we are running it as a family, so it’s Drew, myself, and the girls,” Ana said.
Finding the balance while the business grows has meant some thoughtfulness around the creation of their product, as well. At the beginning, they were using 100% of their own homegrown hot peppers, but at this point, demand has outgrown that possibility, and so the shift has become focusing on finding like-minded Canadian farmers in the still-burgeoning hot pepper growing market. “We are a small business, and we understand the hard work these farmers and vendors go through,” Ana says of the partnerships they’ve built with suppliers.
Recently Sobey’s became Pepper North’s first major grocery retailer, prompting a step into a different kind of market beyond the boutiques and events they’d been selling in thus far. The deal meant finding a new facility for bottling the hot sauce. It’s bigger than the church kitchen he used to rent, but Drew is still there, in person, participating in making the hot sauces in a hands-on way.
“We still wanted to hold on to that handmade aspect, we still wanted to pick our own ingredients from our own suppliers,” he explained. “We pride ourselves on the best ingredients — fresh Ontario and Nova Scotia blueberries, wildflower honey, Canadian grown mustard seed. We like having a role in the production.”
On bottling day, Drew seems to fill many roles at once — stirring warm vats of his signature No Joke sauce, warming up the heat gun used for labeling, and crossing his fingers as a technician troubleshoots a clogged bottle-filling machine. It’s not long before production is back on schedule, and the one thousand glass bottles Drew has emptied onto the table are being filled. He carefully labels each one — by hand.