These 4 fine flavors of Iowa hot sauce are going national
A mother and son team from Winthrop, Iowa recently announced that their hot sauce is about to become a national brand. Available in four different hot pepper flavors, this sauce is bringing the heat and some recognition to the state of Iowa. Brian Taylor Carlson/The Register
Servers walk briskly back and forth, taking care of the bustling lunch crowd at the Hy-Vee Market Grille on 4th and Court in downtown Des Moines. A plate of thick-cut batter-dipped and deep-fried bacon arrives at our table with a ramekin of maple syrup.
"Do you have any Lola's hot sauce available?" Taufeek Shah smiles as the server offers to check. "This bacon is so good with the hot sauce," he says. Moments later, several 5-ounce bottles of Lola's Fine Hot Sauce arrive at the table.
Carmelita and Taufeek Shah, a mother-and-son team from Winthrop, Iowa, have been busy making four all-natural varieties of Lola's Fine Hot Sauce since the fall of 2015. You may have seen this new and increasingly popular line of hot sauces popping up on your supermarket shelves over the past few years, including Hy-Vee, Fareway, Natural Grocers, Whole Foods and Price Chopper.
But in just two months, Lola's Fine Hot Sauces will hit the shelves of 398 Kroger grocery stores nationwide. And if the hot sauce takes off, they will be sold in 2,900 more Krogers-affiliated stores in 47 states.
There are no Kroger stores in Iowa, but Taufeek promises that you will be able to locate Lola's Fine Hot Sauce in most local stores, grocers and markets. And several Des Moines restaurants like Mullets, Fong's Pizza and Court Avenue Brewing Company are featuring Lola's sauces on their tables. It's even being marketed in Toronto, Canada.
Lola's Fine Hot Sauce is made using a simple recipe from Carmelita Shah's family in the Philippines. Her parents worked hard to send her to school, and she rode the bus for four hours each day to further her education.
Carmelita went on to finish medical school in her country and immigrated to the U.S. in 1973, finishing her medical training in New Jersey where she met her husband, Syed Shah, from Pakistan. The Shahs moved to Winthrop in 1982 where Carmelita practiced family medicine for over 35 years at Winthrop Medical Clinic while raising her three children.
"Lola in Filipino culture means 'grandmother,'" Taufeek said as we dipped pieces of bacon in an assortment of Lola's hot sauces. "Or the caretaker of the family. My mom was always there to help me raise my son and he grew up learning Filipino culture. He grew up calling her 'Lola.' We don't even call her mom anymore. We just call her Lola."
Two years ago, Carmelita's friends, farmers Dean and Marvel Vannote, grew a bumper crop of hot peppers and garlic. Carmelita offered to take the vegetables off their hands and make hot sauce from them. Taufeek, 30, took the hot sauce to work with him at Principal Financial where he worked as a sales investment counselor. He shared the sauce with his coworkers who raved about it and wanted more. Lola's Fine Hot Sauce was born.
Shortly thereafter, they rented a commercial kitchen in Valley Junction for $300 per month, and would make the hot sauces on nights and weekends.
"We made four kinds of hot pepper sauce," Carmelita, 69, said. "We bottled it ourselves and we prepared all the ingredients. I even bought a garlic peeler machine. I wanted to make it fresh so there’s no frozen stuff — no chemicals or additives."
Lola's Fine Hot Sauces are not scorchers. The original sauce is made from only fresh ingredients: jalapeño and habanero peppers, lime juice, garlic, vinegar and salt. Three other flavors are made with the addition of specific peppers: Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Scorpion and Ghost Pepper. They are truly flavorful sauces that won't liquefy your tongue.
"In the hierarchy of pepper, the original would be the mildest, then the ghost pepper, then the Trinidad, then the Carolina. But we use just the fresh peppers and we use just a little bit of mild [peppers] in the batches so you get the flavor of the hottest peppers in the world without crying," Taufeek said.
"We're not here to burn your face off. We're here to give you a good family recipe."
Taufeek took the hot sauces to farmers' markets in Valley Junction, downtown Des Moines and Beaverdale. Both Carmelita and Taufeek continued to work full-time while learning to grow their hot sauce business and figuring out a way for mass production.
And they did. They now produce about 4,500 cases or more per month. Lola's Mango Salsa is currently produced out of Valentine Food Company in Indianola, which will be its sole production facility in one month. The hot sauces are currently being distributed by Sysco, Martin Brothers, Lomar, Jake's Finer Foods and directly to stores.
Taufeek Shah is in Texas for two months assembling a team of brand ambassadors to help promote and demo his products for the upcoming launch. But Taufeek takes a lot of his inspiration, determination and persistence from his mother. "She doesn't stop working," Taufeek said. "She just keeps on going." And Carmelita would say the same thing about Taufeek.
This entrepreneurial spirit seems to run in the family. Taufeek's sister Hannah, 38, has been busy making a mango salsa that Lola's will market in 16-ounce tubs in perishable departments of grocery stores. And they will also open a restaurant called Lola's Kitchen in the Prairie Trail district in Ankeny in April 2018. Hannah has been learning all the family recipes from Carmelita and will be creating the menu. Lola's Kitchen will offer a fast-casual, all-natural and fresh fusion mix of traditional Filipino and American dishes.
The website and Facebook page for Lola's Fine Hot Sauce has been showcasing a weekly recipe demonstration with the help of its own in-house videographer called Local Food Creative. Chefs and kitchens of local restaurants have been featured such as Get Fit Grill, Flavory Bistro, Wellman's Pub and Rooftop and Miss Molly's Jamaican Patty food truck. Hy-Vee recently served Lola's raspberry pork loin recipe in its own Market Grille.
Even the kitchen at Iowa Cubs Stadium mixed Lola's sauce with mayonnaise and used it as a condiment for its pork tenderloin sandwich. Taufeek recommends mixing any of Lola's Fine Hot Sauces with peach or raspberry jam and serving it with mild, soft cheeses.
The tastes of Lola's Fine Hot Sauces and smoky bacon were still on my tongue as I left Hy-Vee, and I was just fine with that.
Lola's Fine Hot Sauce
Lola's Original, $4.99
Lola's Ghost Pepper, $6.99
Lola's Trinidad Scorpion, $7.99
Lola's Carolina Reaper, $9.99