YOW! Pandemic-born hot sauce expo heats up the capital

An attendee at the Heating Up The Capital expo wears a hot sauce costume. (Photo by Zenith Wolfe)

These entrepreneurs already know their product is destined to be a hot commodity.

On Sept. 16, the day-long Heating Up The Capital event featured 35 hot-sauce makers from across the country, including many from the Ottawa area. It’s the first time the expo was hosted at the EY Centre – the first two years took place at Smokie Ridge Vineyard near Kemptville due to indoor gathering limits during the pandemic.

More than 1,000 people came to try out new sauces, burn their tongues or meet other pepper aficionados this year, according to event founder Angela Thomson. She said this attendance is a good way to support the relatively new sauce-making community in Canada. 

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“Eight years ago, there were very few people making hot sauce here. Now there’s a lot more, so it’s about introducing people to new sauces,” she says.

Though the expo is only three years old, Thomson’s history with hot sauces goes back about 20 years. She says she didn’t even like cooking with black pepper before she met her husband, Haico Krijgsman. He grew up in the Netherlands eating spicy food from across various cultures, but found a lack of options in Ottawa when he first moved here. 

The couple took matters into their own hands by growing a batch of 10 peppers in their backyard. It soon ballooned to a yearly average of 1,500 peppers and consistent sales of hot-sauce batches. What was once a passion project became a full-time job through their new company, Haico’s Hot Sauces. 

They now want to capitalize on their success by drawing more attention to local makers and other related businesses.

“It’s important to support local all the time. We’re a community, so if someone’s looking for bottles or peppers, we’ll say, ‘Did you try this guy?’ We even buy our labels, tomatoes, onions, dark maple syrup and honey locally,” Thomson says.

Each expo includes the YOW! Awards, named for both the Ottawa airport and “how the sauce feels going in and out sometimes,” Thomson explains. Samples submitted by makers from across the country, vendors or not, are evaluated by a panel of 18 judges on five criteria: taste, smell, heat, consistency and general impression. 

The coveted King of Sauces award, given to the best overall mixture alongside a $200 prize, was awarded to Peterborough-based Jordan Leal for his Gold Metal Mustard. It’s a careful blend of ground ghost pepper, mustard, maple syrup and honey that requires three hours of constant stirring so it doesn’t harden. 

Leal says he volunteered at the first two expos, but this was his first year as a vendor. In fact, he only started making sauces in January 2023. He says perfecting the sauce would not have been possible without the brutal honesty of his fellow vendors.

“Everybody here lifts you up. It’s a big family and they tell you the truth,” he says. “I didn’t think I was going to win at all, but even people who don’t like mustard try it and say it’s way better than a mustard.”

The event also featured Riverside Sauce from Carleton Place and Haut Sauce from Orleans. For Riverside Sauce owner John Nephin, being a vendor at the expo was a great opportunity to get feedback and make more sales than usual.

“Every customer is a hot-sauce customer here,” he says. “It’s also great to try all the sauces and see how everyone does it a little bit differently.”

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