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Hot Peppers Becoming a Cash Crop for Bronx Community Gardens  
by Winnie Hu        
June 19, 2015
The New York Times

Ray Figueroa

Ray Figueroa, a program director for Friends of Brook Park, said peppers are grown by teenagers working there as an alternative to incarceration.

Photo Credit Byron Smith for The New York Times

The bright-green stalks and leaves are tended by a dozen teenage boys who water, lay mulch, pull weeds and wait.

If all goes well, more than 300 pounds of serrano peppers will be harvested in August from the Brook Park community garden in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

Then they will be sold to a New York City-based hot sauce maker for $4 a pound, the proceeds of which will fund small stipends for the teenagers.

“You already feel good taking care of plants, and for you to get paid for it is even better,” Donnell Matthews, 18, said.

The resulting product, Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce, has become a staple at the city’s farmers’ markets, and in the shops and restaurants on Arthur Avenue, including at the Bronx Beer Hall, which serves it with crispy-battered dill pickles, French fries and burgers. Since May, the olive-green sauce has been added to the shelves of the Whole Foods stores in Union Square and TriBeCa, with more locations in the works; a five-ounce bottle sells there for $6.99.

 

Bronx Hot Sauce

Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce is nearly sold out.

Photo Credit Byron Smith for The New York Times

 The initial yield of 5,000 bottles, made in October in Kingston, N.Y., has nearly sold out.

The for-profit maker of the sauce, Small Axe Peppers, plans to produce 30,000 more bottles later this year in Long Island City, and is calling on community gardens in the Bronx to provide 5,000 pounds of the key ingredient.

The Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce is the result of an unusual collaboration between a group of friends and the city’s farmers’ markets. Small Axe Peppers was started last year with $70,000 by John A. Crotty and John Fitzgerald, affordable-housing developers in the Bronx, and others, including Todd R. Snyder, an investment banker. Mr. Crotty, 47, said they wanted to find a way to support community gardens, which often struggle to stay open on tiny budgets.

King Phojanakong, the chef and owner of Kuma Inn in Manhattan and Umi Nom in Brooklyn, was enlisted to create the hot sauce. Mr. Phojanakong, 46, was a childhood friend of Mr. Crotty’s, and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science.

But while Mr. Phojanakong served fresh hot sauces nightly at his restaurants, he had never bottled any of them. So he and Mr. Crotty took a road trip to Geneva, N.Y, to consult with agriculture experts. A pepper specialist there said the serranos were suited to the Bronx climate, and relatively easy to grow and harvest.

Mr. Crotty described the serranos as hotter than poblanos, but milder than habaneros. Or as he put it, “They’re the Goldilocks of peppers.”

Back in the city, there were some setbacks. Mr. Phojanakong tested more than a dozen recipes before he was satisfied with one, only to have its taste and texture altered by the pasteurization process. He started over. The final recipe was created in two months, and had just five ingredients: serrano peppers, apple cider vinegar, garlic, onion and salt.

Small Axe Peppers partnered with GrowNYC, a nonprofit group currently running 50 greenmarkets across the city, to find community gardens and farmers to grow the peppers, providing them with starter plants paid for by Small Axe. The group also connected the company to marketing and distribution experts and buyers. GrowNYC gets a share of the hot-sauce profits, which it plans to use for programming.

New Roots Community Farm

New Roots Community Farm, a half-acre garden on the Grand Concourse, stands to raise $600 from the peppers.

Photo Credit Byron Smith for The New York Times

Elly Truesdell, who holds the title “local forager” for Whole Foods in the Northeast, said that the goal of the hot sauce to support local growers made it a good fit for Whole Foods. Ms. Truesdell, a fan of serrano peppers, was also won over by the flavor. “It brings a nice balance of heat, and is different from a lot of other hot sauces we carry that rely on habaneros, and in some cases, ghost peppers, for intense spice,” she said.

Last year, only a handful of community gardens produced the serrano peppers, forcing the company to turn to farmers to supply the rest. But this summer, 22 community gardens have signed on.

New Roots Community Farm, a half-acre garden on the Grand Concourse, stands to raise $600 from the peppers — double its profit from selling greens, tomatoes and herbs at a local farmers’ market last summer. The money will be used to supplement the garden’s $4,000 budget for seeds, tools and building materials, said Kathleen McTigue, who oversees the garden.

“This is a very clear lesson on how to partner with other groups to make money,” said Ms. McTigue, a program manager for the International Rescue Committee.

The prized plants receive special care; their roots are soaked in an organic fish emulsion to give them an extra fertilizer boost before being placed in four communal beds. Carmen Tirado, 68, a retired special education teacher, said she does not even like spicy foods, but planted a few of the pepper plants in her own plot to support the effort.

At Brook Park, 100 pepper plants have taken root in a corner of the garden known as the “youth farm.” Their primary caretakers are teenagers with criminal records who were sent to work in the garden through a court order as an alternative to incarceration, said Ray Figueroa, a program director for Friends of Brook Park, which runs the garden. A few of them have completed their requirements but continue to come.

Mr. Figueroa, who had not heard of serrano peppers until he tried the hot sauce, said that he agreed to grow them not only because they offered financial rewards, but also because they supported the environmental and social benefits of the garden, or what he called a “triple bottom line.”

The peppers may be easy to grow, and the benefits of the project easy to see, but the real test will be the sales. The hot sauce market is crowded. When Mr. Crotty talks about his company’s hot sauce, he gets responses like “yours is nothing compared to mine.”

“It’s uber-competitive,” he said.

Correction: June 26, 2015

Because of an editing error, an article on Saturday about peppers that are being grown for Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce misidentified, in some editions, the high school attended by John A. Crotty, a backer of the sauce. He graduated from Xavier High School, not from the Bronx High School of Science.

To see NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/nyregion/hot-peppers-becoming-a-cash-crop-for-bronx-community-gardens.html