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Meet Gregory Foster

Today we’d like to introduce you to Gregory Foster.

Gregory, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
Growing up in Michigan, I started tending a garden from a very early age. My mother taught me that it’s important to always have some food growing at your home. Even from an early age, I always loved growing any kind of plant. By the time I reached college, I was so fascinated by plants, I decided to major in plant biology to really learn as much as I could about how plants worked. Again, I always had something growing, even if it was in a closet. (wink, wink) I started working in the kitchens of restaurants in high school and continued in that career for over 25 years. I worked in a number of different resort towns and big cities, managing some of the finest restaurants you could find. This profession and passion for food helped me develop a broad and refined palate, learning the nuance of flavor presentation and combination. Little did I know that I would be using that talent for something as exciting as hot sauce.

Fast forward to when my family and I moved to Southern California about 13 years ago, I was so excited to be able to grow something all year long. No more midwest and east coast winters to stop my growing endeavors. At my church, I helped out in a community garden that had plenty of growing space, I planted just about every inch I could with all sorts of vegetables, I was in heaven.

One Christmas, my brother, as a joke gift, sent me a box with seeds of 20 different types of chili peppers and dared me to grow them all. I, of course, had to accept this challenge and very quickly realized I would be up to my eyeballs in peppers, quite literally. That first harvest season was something to behold; I had planted nearly 100 pepper plants, and at one point, I was picking 40-50 lbs of peppers every couple of days.

I started to make salsa, pickled peppers, dried pepper powders, anything to use up the produce before it went bad. My friends would only take so much from me, and the church didn’t want the level of spiciness I was producing in their weekly hunger outreach. My brother, ever the genius, suggested I make hot sauce. That’s when everything changed.

I had always loved spicy food, and my brother and I had occasionally been known to challenge each other with our heat tolerances. Up until that first pepper season, I thought the habanero was about the spiciest thing on the planet. I’ve had extract sauces before, those that have pepper extract added for extreme levels of heat, but nothing fresh like eating a habanero. That’s until the first Ghost Pepper ripened in my little pepper patch. I’ll never forget the afternoon my brother and I took that first ripe pod, sliced it up, and took to eating it with no help. We needed to understand, scientifically, how hot this pepper was and to experience the burn in it’s unadulterated from start to finish.

We were at one point rolling around on the floor in crippling pain but laughing our heads off. The capsaicin high was real. I had only heard whispers of it before, but experiencing it for the first time was paradigm-shifting. I had to have more, I had to get hotter.

After my brother suggested hot sauce as a way to use up the plethora of peppers I was harvesting, I went over the cliff, down the rabbit hole, I became obsessed. I sought out hot sauces like an addict looking for that next fix. Very quickly, I found whole stores dedicated to a hot sauce that would let me taste everything that I wanted. I must have bought two dozen bottles that the first trip. I was hooked.

My passion for spiciness, flavor and excitement were culminating together in this obsession for hot sauce. I began studying ways of making different types, styles, and recipes. I read just about everything on the internet, bought a ton of books on peppers, history of peppers, cookbooks, you name it. In the kitchen, I was working on balancing heat and flavor, keeping a keen eye on how my creations were working together with food, not trying to steal the show. At this point, it was still all a hobby, something to fill my extra time and use up the peppers I was growing each year.

After a couple of years, I had nearly worn out my welcome at the hot sauce shops, so I had to expand. I discovered Expos and festivals dedicated to hot sauce and spicy foods. I had to go and see what this world was all about. My dad came along with me to my first venture into the hot sauce community at large, to the Fiery Food Show in Albuquerque. This is where I randomly, and I’m convinced divinely inspired, met my good friend Ed Currie, founder, owner, chef and mad scientist at Puckerbutt Pepper Company. (Another great story about our first meeting for another time…) He immediately took me under his wing and showed me the business side of the hot sauce world. Over the course of the next two years, I was on the phone with Ed, working the booth at festivals for Puckerbutt and taking in all I could about what it meant to be a hot sauce entrepreneur. I’ve never met a man as giving, as humble, or as loving as Ed Currie. I am so grateful for everything he has done for me professionally and personally. I would not be where I am today without his brotherhood.

During those years volunteering with Ed and his crew, I had been sharing my sauces with his expert team as well as many other sauce makers in the industry, getting valuable and constructive feedback. I learned quite a lot about expectations for the business, timelines, and realities that otherwise would have been learned the hard way. Though I didn’t think I was really ready to go out on my own, even though at this point it was the direction I knew I wanted to take, it was Ed that gave me the confidence and assurance that I had a very good chance of making it, if I was able to stay humble, keep my expectations realistic, and willing to be patient and accept change when necessary.

After a quick but successful Kickstarter campaign, in January 2017, I made it official and launched Inferno Farms Hot Sauce Company. Since launching it has been a labor of love. Going to farmer’s markets all over Southern California, earning a world record, hitting every expo and festival I can all over the country, and getting into retail locations has been a grind. But that work is so rewarding. I’ve grown my company enough that I’ve had to contract manufacturing with my good buddies at California Hot Sauce Solutions in Oceanside. This has freed up time for me to market, sell and grow the company even more. Inferno Farms is in over 100 stores nationally with more every month, we are still going to festivals all over the country, about two a month. And we haven’t given up our roots just yet, we are still in a few farmer’s markets in San Diego county. Of course, you can find us on our website…

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
It was a smooth trajectory of growth, that is until the pandemic hit. I know it was hard for everyone, as it was for us. We lost all of our farmer’s markets, expos and festivals, totaling over 1/3 of all revenue for the year. It was tough. I had to pivot and do it quickly. I was able to do some things online to boost our sales through the website, which helped replace most of the farmer’s market revenue. I was also able to stay in contact with many of my retail partners, who were critical during the shutdown for everyone. Since the grocery stores were busy, and people were cooking at home much more, I saw my wholesale side increase dramatically as well. We were also lucky that we were able to receive some grant money from San Diego County to help keep us afloat during those scarier times that would otherwise have shut us down.

It was really a balancing act of marketing, fulfillment, and production. Some days were scarier than others, but we’ve become stronger and better understand where we can focus on moving the company to maintain growth for the next few years.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I’ve always been a creative type, if it’s in the kitchen, in the garden, or in the studio. When I was studying plants in college, I also spent a ton of time in the art studio, sculpting, welding and making art. I would consider myself a visual person, color, shape, movement have fascinated me since I was a kid. When building this company, I wanted to find ways to incorporate all of my passions; growing plants, creating flavors and being artistic. With hot sauce, I am able to use my talents in the kitchen to create amazing flavor combinations, using heat as an ingredient, not as the sole focus. As a “farmer,” I have consistently maintained pepper growing operations, mainly to produce Carolina Reapers for one of my products, Lava Drops. I get to combine my love of super spicy and growing plants for this one.

Until a couple of years ago, I was yearning to find a way to bring my artistic leanings into the company. I was looking for a way to differentiate our company logo merchandise, mainly t-shirts, from the industry standard of a black shirt with a logo and rediscovered tie-dyeing. I’ve been custom making my logoed t-shirts since. Tie-dye has been amazing as a way to get colorful, creative and center me in the process of folding and dyeing (and it gets me back to my hippie roots).

My notoriety in the industry is as the Guinness World Record holder for eating the most Carolina Reapers in one minute, a record that still stands to this day. I am very proud of this accomplishment, but I would much rather be known as an amazing hot sauce maker that happens to have a world record than a world record holder that happens to have a hot sauce company. What brings me the most pride is when someone tastes my sauce and falls in love, saying “this is the best hot sauce I’ve ever tasted!” then proceeds to buy a bottle of each flavor.

As far as what I do… I am a work-from-home father of a 14-year-old boy who plays football, two crazy dogs, two cats that are at odds with said dogs, and a very busy professional wife. I am constantly tinkering with sauces, making test batches often enough that my wife had to by me separate pots and utensils since she can’t take the spice. I spend a lot of time working on marketing, finding new festivals, customer outreach, order fulfillment, production coordination, all in the name of Inferno Farms.

I would be lying if I said that’s all I did. I do have a couple of side hustles that I am passionate about, things that have been part of who I am for quite a while. I also have a new, big project I am working on for the summer of 2022 that may help bring the love of all things spicy to the SoCal community… TBD.

What’s next?
Plans for the future… I am trying to organize a big festival for July of 2022, details are in the works. I intend to continue growing Inferno Farms, getting into more retail locations and getting more people trying our sauces.

I’ve got so much on my plate at this point to be grateful for, it’s hard to look too far forward and see any major shifts away from where we’re at right now… I am happy with where I am at and the trajectory my company is on currently. Things are looking very positive for the near future.

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