Co-owners Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons have brought a kick to Berkeley with their passion for spice. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Co-owners Dylan Keenen and Becky Gibbons bring a new kick to Berkeley with their passion for peppers. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A local couple has added an ample splash of spice to Berkeley’s food scene with a new shop downtown devoted to hot sauce and all things chili.

There are Atomic Fireballs, spiced nuts and fiery chocolates; mango lollipops covered in chili powder; and small bags of dehydrated chilies from a family farm. There are “warming” fruity beverages spiced with capsaicin, the ingredient that makes peppers spicy. And there are crushed and powdered peppers in a range of varieties.

Then, of course, there’s the hot sauce: more than 200 varieties from producers around the country, and around the world, many of which are small businesses.

“The ones that are widely known tend not to be as good as the ones made in small batches by the people who are really passionate about it,” said Heat co-owner Dylan Keenen. Keenen, 23, has been in the process of opening Heat Hot Sauce Shop — at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley — with girlfriend Becky Gibbons, 22, since early December. The Oakland-based couple will celebrate the shop’s grand opening Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a 10%-off sale.

Hot sauce, as far as the eye can see. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Hot sauce, as far as the eye can see. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Keenen estimated that there are at least 2,000 types of hot sauce on the market. For Heat, he looked mainly for independent brands, some of which he found on crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter. A number of the offerings are organic, and Keenen said he sought items that avoid food coloring and, when possible, preservatives, though the latter posed more of a challenge. In addition, he said, Heat offers at least five brands that aren’t available at any other retail location in the state, and some that can’t be found at any other shop in the nation.

Local offerings include several strains from Oakland-based Pretty Dog Hot SauceBandar’s spicy mango hot sauce, an Indian-style brand from Mountain View; Dave’s Gourmet and Youk’s Hot Sauce from San Francisco; KGWan’s from Santa Cruz; The Pepper Plant from Gilroy; and Lucky Dog from Hayward. Other popular brands available at Heat include Blair’s, CaJohns, Melinda’s and Heartbreaking Dawns.

One section in the store features 40 “superhot” sauces — such as Satan’s Blood, Moruga Madness Hot Sauce, and CaJohns’ Z Nothing Beyond — which Keenen said are not for the average consumer. The last has been measured at 4 million Scoville heat units. For reference, Tabasco sauce and jalapeño peppers have 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. Pure capsaicin, which is not commercially available, measures 16 million on the scale. (“There’s been somewhat of an arms race to get to the hottest hot sauce” in the past decade, observed Keenen. “It gets over the top.”)

Those with extreme tastes will also be pleased to find Pure Cap, a capsaicin extract so hot that you have to sign a waiver to purchase it. The shop will also carry the seeds of the infamous ghost pepper, as well as whole and pickled ghost peppers, and hot sauces made from the legendary vegetable. The ghost pepper had long held the title for the hottest pepper in the world, but the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend stole that record last year. And, yes, Heat carries hot sauces, barbecue sauces and salsas made from the Trinidad Scorpion, too.

The shop is organized by chili pepper, but customers can also find regional types of sauces, such as Louisiana-style and Mexican varieties, and seasonal and “dessert” hot sauces, too. And the couple have their own line of house-made, handcrafted hot sauces for sale as well; at least three new blends are currently in development. Customers in the shop, which is about a block north of Trader Joe’s, can expect to find a counter for tasting different products where a revolving variety of sauces will be featured regularly.

Most of the sauces can only be purchased in the shop, but Keenen said plans for online purchasing are in the works. And there’s also a mail-order “hot sauce of the month” club ($45 for three months and $80 for six; local pick-up prices are cheaper).

Heat Hot Sauce Shop has been in this space, at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way, since December, but has only recently opened. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Heat Hot Sauce Shop has been in this space, at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way, since December, but has only recently opened. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Keenen said his first experience with a hot pepper took place when he was in the school garden in fifth grade and someone convinced him to take a bite from a jalapeño. By high school he was eating his eggs with Tabasco. But it was freshman year in college, at UC Santa Cruz, that Keenen describes as a turning point.

“I was putting Sriracha on pretty much everything. There were no limits,” he said. “Usually I’m not into sugar in hot sauce, but they just have the right amount.”

These days, at any given time, Keenen stocks his fridge with up to 30 different hot sauce brands and has been known to burn through a five-ounce bottle in just two days. (The brand with that honor is Chicaoji, a Washington-based hot sauce company that combines chipotle chilies, raw cacao, raw apple cider vinegar, goji berries, agave nectar and sea salt.)

“I can put it on anything, really,” he said, of hot sauce in general. “I like it on ice cream. And I have this maple syrup-chipotle infused one that’s amazing on pancakes.”

Keenen said, initially, after graduating last August with a sociology degree, he started to think about creating his own hot sauce company. But he found a field already crowded with players.

“Every cool idea I came up with — goji berry, spirulina — somebody had already done. I kinda got frustrated that all my cool ideas, that I thought were original, had already been tried. So I thought: Why not have a shop that has them all in one place?”

Keenen said there are just a handful of other hot sauce shops in California. They include a chain with three southern California outposts, and a shop slated to open in San Francisco later this year.

Some of the hottest sauces in the store sport warning labels. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Some of the hottest sauces in the store sport warning labels or names that promise pain. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Keenen grew up in Ojai, Calif., an 8,000-person community of “hippies and farms” in southern California. His stepdad is an organic farmer — growing, among other crops, hot peppers — and his mother owns a small café, The Farmer and The Cook, for which she makes her own hot sauce with her husband’s peppers. Keenen said he grew up around her shop from the time he was 10, which taught him how to run a business.

And it was his father, who would often come back from trips toting “amazing hot sauces” as gifts, who also helped stoke Keenen’s passion for the pepper. His parents donated start-up money toward Heat, and Keenen noted that his father, who lives in Alameda, had been helping out locally as well. But the road hasn’t been exactly smooth.

“It’s kind of scary,” Keenen said. “Everything is always more expensive than you expect.”

In fact, the shop nearly didn’t open at all due to a range of obstacles and expenses posed by permitting issues with the city. Keenen and Gibbons moved into the space on MLK in early December, and had hoped to open before Christmas. Since then, their official opening has been delayed due to city requirements, primarily related to ADA compliance and a mop sink. In early March, the couple had decided to give up on plans to open the storefront, but a rush of community support — including help from the city’s Office of Economic Development and District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín — convinced them to change their minds.

“It’s kind of a gamble,” Keenen said. “We definitely recognize the risk. We’re doing something that’s not really being done right now. But we also feel like it’s a great opportunity.”

Keenen said he thinks the shop will work because, for one, people get really into hot sauce. It’s a relatively cheap way to dress up any kind of food. Many varieties have zero or few calories. And then there’s that addictive element. “You kind of get the endorphin rush,” he said. “It’s definitely an addiction, but the good thing is that there’s something healthy about it.”

Keenen said partner Becky Gibbons has mostly been drawn to the milder sauces, and the positive health effects said to be associated with peppers. “Hot sauce isn’t all about the heat,” she said Wednesday. “The flavor is just as important.” Keenen agreed, but said pushing the limits of his taste buds is a definite driver for him. Fortunately for all the “chili heads” out there, Heat Hot Sauce Shop offers a wide enough variety so everyone with an interest in spice can find an old or a new favorite in the mix.

Heat Hot Sauce Shop is located at 1922B Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Learn more on Heat’s website and connect on Twitter and Facebook. The shop accepts special orders. Hours of operation are from Sunday to Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.; Friday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Please note, hours are subject to change. Call to confirm at 510- 849-1048.) Heat’s grand opening takes place Saturday; shoppers will get 10% off all purchases. 

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...