Aaron Hoffman never imagined his constant tinkering in his Chattanooga, Tennessee, kitchen would result in an award-winning hot sauce, much less a booming business. He’s a technology guru who designs apps and hardware devices for a living. But after work, Aaron becomes your modern-day alchemist, concocting and experimenting with ingredients and flavors. One day his wife, Michelle, came home with a hot sauce cookbook—and sparks began to fly.

Mastering spicy, peppery mixtures became the highlight of Aaron’s free time. After some testing in their home kitchen, heat mavens Aaron and Michelle bottled up their fiery brew and gave it out to family and friends as Christmas gif s. Soon, those lucky taste-testers came crawling back for more. Aaron’s mouthwatering sauce got rave reviews, and word spread like wildfire. But soon the demand began to grow too big for them to keep up with as a simple hobby.

Photo courtesy of Jaime Smialek

“It started getting a little too expensive to support everyone else’s habits (and my own),” Aaron laughs. The duo knew it was time to turn their obsession into something more. They invested some money, spent time meeting FDA and USDA regulations, and found a commercial kitchen. By 2015, they were set to officially take a crack at the hot sauce business and began selling their bottled product at the local farmers’ market, which was a mere four blocks from their home.

Just like with their friends, the hot sauce (which Aaron and Michelle cleverly named Hoff Sauce) was an instant hit. It was spicy, but not overwhelming, and let the fresh peppers’ flavor shine. It was a labor of love and, judging by its swift popularity, the love was real. Within six months of their first sell, Hoff Sauce took home the gold in the Louisiana-style sauce category at the New York City Hot Sauce Expo, the largest craft hot sauce competition in the country. In April 2019, they won the category for the fourth year in a row, breaking the record for consecutive wins.

“Because (the farmers) are so close, the peppers are so much fresher. It has really improved the quality of the sauce.”

Unlike most Louisiana-style hot sauces that rely on cayenne and tabasco peppers for their base, Hoff Sauce is made with red jalapeños and habaneros—all grown just an hour away on a small family farm called L&D Swafford.

“Partnering with L&D Swafford, we were able to pick the exact breeds of peppers we wanted,” Aaron explains. “I really like the fruitiness and natural sweetness that’s in red jalapeños and the heat profile of habaneros. And because they’re so close, the peppers are so much fresher. It has really improved the quality of the sauce.”

After the peppers are picked, they arrive at the Hoff Sauce kitchen, where the small team examines each pepper for quality before washing and stemming them by hand. Next, they’re mixed with spices and vinegar and left to sit in what Michelle calls a “pickling process.”

“Some hot sauces are done using fermentation, but we don’t do that,” she says. “You get much more of the actual pepper flavor with our method.” The pepper mixture is then processed by hand and heated before being bottled, capped, and labeled.

Photo courtesy of Kate Veltkamp

If you ask Aaron and Michelle, fondly nicknamed Hoff and Pepper, respectively, it’s the Chattanooga camaraderie that has helped their company—and many others—thrive.

“Being in a community that immediately wants to support you and do whatever they can to help you succeed—I’ve never been a part of or seen anything like it. There are so many people rooting for you here in this little pocket of the South,” says Michelle.

Today, Hoff & Pepper products are in about 350 stores nationwide, 80 of which are in or around Chattanooga. Though their original Hoff Sauce remains the most popular, they’ve branched out to create other spicy sidekicks that are sure to keep your taste buds tingling.