By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (June 07, 2007) -- If you like spicy food, and nothing in the condiment aisle at the commissary gives you quite the burn you're looking for, a trip to the Eastern Market neighborhood may be in order.
Brennan Proctor runs the Uncle Brutha's Hot Sauce Emporium just off the Eastern Market Metro line. There, he peddles his own award winning "Uncle Brutha's Hot Sauce," in addition to more than 300 other specialty hot sauces, marinades, rubs and seasonings. But when you walk into the place, it's clear that hot sauce is the focus of the now year-old operation.
Along the walls of the store, wooden shelves feature hundreds of sauces, some with unique bottle shapes, and each with its own unique label design. Some feature clever names, like "Jalapeno Death Sauce," "Colon Cleaner" and "Acid Rain." Visitors to the store, looking for something to spice up a burger or chili, are free to sample most of the sauces, though some customers eventually find a sauce's bite really is as bad as its bark.
"We have our hot sauce tasting bar, which is always open," Proctor said. "On the weekends, when we get the bulk of our traffic, people ask what is the hottest stuff we have -- nothing's too hot for them. They make a beeline for Ben and Jerry's after we give them a shot of 'Predator' or 'Mad Dog 357,' so we've done a little bit to boost their business there a couple of doors down."
The stars in the hot sauce lineup, however, are Proctor's own: Uncle Brutha's Fire Sauce No. 10 and Fire Sauce No. 9. He started work on the No. 10 sauce nearly 20 years ago.
"It all started with creating a sauce for hot wings, back in the latter part of the 1980s," Proctor said. "My co-workers and I liked to go to happy hour all the time and order hot wings. We never really liked the ones we got, so we were doing pot lucks in the office. And they put me up to making hot wings. Everybody made a little something, but I was the hot wing guy."
To create his own wing sauce, Proctor said he first experimented with using blends of other prepared sauces, and then packing in an additional punch by adding his own fresh ingredients. When his recipe proved popular, he set his sights on a totally original creation.
"The next time I made hot wings, I made it a goal to try to reach the same end result by using all original ingredients, from scratch," he said. "I analyzed all the products I had used and figured out kind of a starting point for ingredients."
His new, totally original sauce, made him a popular man. At least it made his wings popular.
"Everybody was just going crazy about it," he said. "I was on everybody's invite list to come to parties, as long as I brought the hot wings. I got a little offended by that at first, because I was like are you inviting me or the hot wings? It was hot wings ... plus Brennon."
Proctor said he spent about 10 years perfecting the sauce, and that is partly where the name came from. It also came from the heat level he hoped to achieve with his creation.
"No. 10 was the first sauce, and that name came from the fact I was shooting for a higher heat level -- like on a scale of 10," he said. "But always with the intention of flavor. Heat without flavor is pointless. You want to taste the flavor and feel the heat."
Proctor said the "Uncle Brutha" part of the name comes from he and his sister teasing each other as kids. He was the "brutha," he said, and she was the "sista."
"And when she had her baby, I became Uncle Brutha," he said.
In 2004, Proctor began selling his sauce at a stand in Eastern Market, and later experimented with a vending station in Dewey and Rehoboth beaches in Delaware.
"I brought a collection of different sauces, got there at 3 or 4 a.m., and would get all set up like a mini store," he said. "People just went nuts. They thought it was a good idea, and they loved to peruse the different (sauce) names -- some are pretty comical and racy."
It didn't take long for Proctor to realize that his idea of making and selling his own hot sauce, and selling additional sauces might be a good idea. He opened his storefront operation near Eastern Market in May 2006, and now has a pretty steady stream of customers.
"I have regular visitors each week who have to have their regular fix of Uncle Brutha's," he said. "I've been accused of being a hot sauce pusher, and creating hot sauce addicts -- Uncle Brutha addicts. And we even said we'd have to get an Uncle Brutha's anonymous going here."
Now that his unique business is going so well, Proctor said it's time to shift back to his original goal of expanding his sauce brand beyond the local area.
"It's been about a year getting the store together here," he said. "And it's time to shift the focus back to our primary objective, which is to get Uncle Brutha national, on the shelves, in as many stores across the country as we can."
Currently, Uncle Brutha's No. 10 and No. 9 are available in Whole Foods Markets and other local retailers in the National Capitol Region, as well as online at Proctor's own Web site and Amazon.com.
The sauce has not gone unnoticed in the highly specialized and competitive hot sauce market, either. Both his No. 10 and No. 9 sauce have won multiple awards.
"The first award was from a competition sponsored by Chili Pepper Magazine, a national publication," he said. "Then in 2005, we were chosen hot sauce manufacturer of the year by the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in New Iberia, La."
That last award was a real surprise to Proctor. The Cajun Hot Sauce Festival is held nearby to the legendary Louisiana-based hot sauce manufacturer, McIlhenny Co., makers of the Tabasco brand.
"It was right in Tabasco's back yard," he said. "I was shocked when I got the news. I was hoping for something. But never expected to be named hot sauce manufacturer of the year."
For now, Proctor said he's going to work on pushing his award winning sauce, at both his own store and at others. He's also got plans to expand his own product line.
"We got some stuff in the works, including other types of hot sauces and other things we are working on," he said, though wouldn't elaborate.