Scarlet Fire hot sauce is a vinegar-based blend of Fresno, habanero and Thai chiles. Photo: Scarlet Fire
Scarlet Fire hot sauce is a vinegar-based blend of Fresno, habanero and Thai chiles. Photo: Scarlet Fire

Marla Simon had launched her hot sauce, Scarlet Fire, as a side hustle before the pandemic. The Berkeley-based personal chef’s primary business, Fresh Beets Kitchen, has her cooking in clients’ homes, but with that work mostly on hold due to COVID-19, Simon has been able to concentrate on marketing the hot sauce she developed a couple of years ago.

The spicy condiment’s name is a reference to two Grateful Dead songs, Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain, which are nearly always played in succession and therefore usually spoken of together — as in “Dude, that Scarlet/Fire was epic.” Scarlet Fire’s label was designed by Jim Pollock, a psychedelic artist associated with the band Phish. Given these two facts, it’s not surprising to hear that Scarlet Fire has found an audience among jam band fans.

Simon checked with a lawyer to make sure she wasn’t violating any copyright issues by using the name. During the process, she found that a few other products are named Scarlet Fire, too. She wasn’t specifically trying to market to her fellow Deadheads; she honestly just thought it was a good name for a hot sauce.

“I wasn’t trying to target these people but it was an added bonus,” she said, “especially since with COVID, it wasn’t in any stores yet.”

Scarlet Fire is a vinegar-based hot sauce, comparable to commercial brands on the market, like Tabasco or Crystal, but made with better ingredients, without added sugar and much less sodium (the commercial brands have something like 190 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, while hers has 7 milligrams.) Simon uses a blend of Fresno, habanero and Thai chiles with a bit of carrots for sweetness. While the hot sauce category is a crowded field, Simon says she doesn’t know of other brand using that particular blend of peppers.

Simon calls her product “really approachable.” People who are not normally the type to bring a bottle of their favorite hot sauce wherever they go tell her that they’ll use hers.

“People like that it doesn’t overpower the food, and is more about adding flavor than heat specifically,” she said.

Chef Marla Simon leans over while holding a pestle in a mortar with ground chilies.
Scarlet Fire’s creator Marla Simon is a personal chef that specializes in gluten-free cooking. Photo courtesy of Marla Simon
Scarlet Fire’s creator Marla Simon is a personal chef that specializes in gluten-free cooking. Photo courtesy of Marla Simon

Simon developed Scarlet Fire while working as a personal chef. She wanted to provide clients with a scratch-made hot sauce to accompany her scratch-made meals. After creating the recipe, she began making it in larger batches, giving some to friends as gifts. Over time, she heard enough positive feedback that she knew she had a winning product that could find a fanbase from an even larger audience.

In 2018, while teaching at a culinary school in Colorado, Simon began selling Scarlet Fire at a small market in Denver. She launched a Kickstarter campaign the following year that helped her create a first run of the bottled sauce. In the meantime, she moved back to the Bay Area after years away. By February, she was getting ready to launch Scarlet Fire, but her plans changed when the pandemic began.

“It has been a bit of a pivot, as I wasn’t planning on selling it online but to grocery stores,” Simon said. However, she quickly realized that business was anything but usual in the grocery business and that it couldn’t have been a worse time to be approaching grocers about a new product.

Simon began marketing Scarlet Fire through social media and word-of-mouth, doing all of the invoicing and shipping herself, which she could do since her personal chef business had stopped. As with many other small businesses, her apartment serves as Scarlet Fire headquarters.

Bay Area-based seafood supplier Fishmonger Don has been selling her hot sauce to his customers as an add-on to orders, as Simon says it makes a fantastic accompaniment to oysters. But otherwise, for now, Scarlet Fire sales have mostly been through her website.

“My next goal is to get into some local stores, and maybe my next goal will be to sell enough to have someone else do the fulfillment,” she said. “I’ve been wrapping the bottles and printing shipping labels myself, all of which has kept me busy during this time when I’m pretty much not going out on weekends.”

Scarlet Fire is $8.99 a bottle and can be purchased online.

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...