How a famous comedian saved an East Bay hot sauce company

Hayward-based Lucky Dog Hot Sauce lost half of its business when the pandemic began, but a viral YouTube moment kept the company afloat.

Lucky Dog Hot Sauce is a fixture at Oakland’s Grand Lake Market. Credit: Lucky Dog/Facebook

Scott Zalkind has made it in the cult-y world of hot sauce. The 51-year-old founder of Hayward-based Lucky Dog Hot Sauce, an artisanal sauce line of over 10 different varieties, has too many awards to mention (including a Good Food Award), a few deals with companies for which he makes exclusive blends and has seen his sauces mentioned more than once on First We Feast’s celebrity interview show “Hot Ones.”

Zalkind said that he’s always been into hot and spicy flavors, making the hot sauce business a natural fit. When he was a kid, he and his brother would dare each other to see how many firecracker cayenne chilies they could eat at a nearby Chinese restaurant. “Nearly every cuisine has a spicy sauce,” he said.

While he didn’t know it then, his childhood was a harbinger of things to come. Fast forward to 2005, when Zalkind says he had to throw a dinner away away after dousing it with a hot sauce with no flavor other than “hot.”

Incensed at the waste, Zalkind charred some chiles on his grill, roasted some garlic in his oven and was off. While he didn’t get a product he was satisfied with on his first try, he kept tinkering, taking out some ingredients, adding others, until he came up with a sauce he liked. Others liked it, too, and his friends started saying he should make more and sell it.

That started him off as a hobbyist hot sauce maker, though now that original recipe is the basis for his red label sauce, his best seller. It wasn’t until 2012 that he took his hobby full-time, quitting his project management job at Kaiser Permanente and cashing out his 401(k). He named the company after Lucky, his rescued black lab, even placing the pup’s face inside a horseshoe on the label (the canine theme continues with the hot sauce’s tag line: “food’s best friend”).

“If you’re afraid of competition, [hot sauce] is a terrible business to get into,” Zalkind said of his crowded field. My obsession is to make the best hot sauce I possibly can make, and hope others like it, too.”

Yet distinguishing him from the competition is easy, he said. Many small hot sauce companies try to copy the flavors of sauces that people already know and love: Tapatio, Tabasco, Crystal, or Sriracha. “That’s the inside-the-box or safe route,” Zalkind said, “as there’s a huge market for those sauces. I work with ingredients I wanted to taste.”

But compared with those big-name brands, Lucky Dog sauces have way more ingredients, Zalkind said, including fruits like pineapple, pear, mandarin orange and dates, or more unusual ingredients like beer. Getting the balance of the ingredients just right is a science, he said; the way he talks about his recent blend made with Drake’s beer is a good example. He said he intends for the beer flavor in that sauce to hit on the back palate only as an aftertaste, not like someone poured a beer on your food.

Until recently, Lucky Dog was mainly a local phenomenon, but his company’s appearances on “Hot Ones” took the business to the next level, Zalkind said. On the popular web show, host Sean Evans asks celebrities questions as they eat a series of chicken wings with 10 different varieties of hot sauce, each bite hotter as the interview progresses. When confronted with wings doused in a Lucky Dog sauce, comedian and host of “The Daily Show” Trevor Noah said that it danced across his tongue “like Fred Astaire.” On another episode, pop group the Jonas Brothers “lost their minds over” one of his sauces, Zalkind said.

Even though the Noah episode aired in 2019, it regularly racks up new views on YouTube and prompts new online orders to this day. “During the pandemic, I lost half my accounts. ” Zalkind said. “They just disappeared from the specialty stores,” Zalkind said, since “if they can’t do sampling, they go out of business.” Customers driven by Lucky Dog’s appearances on “Hot Ones” replaced all those stores, numbers-wise, Zalkind said.

These days, Zalkind’s company has gotten big enough that he doesn’t have to work at Bay Area farmers markets anymore. But, still, you’ll often find him at the Lucky Dog stand at the Grand Lake Market or the Sunday Marin Farmers Market in San Rafael, as he thrives on interactions with customers. Recently, he said, he talked to one who had been living abroad for the past three years and who made a beeline to his stand to replenish their supply.

“To know that I’ve really impacted that person’s life is so great,” Zalkind said. “I love watching people discover my blends and discover their new favorite, especially when they tell me, ‘I’m not buying anything today.’ That’s what gets me out of bed at 4 in the morning.”