It’s sweet, but spicy. Subtle, but flavorful. New, but classic.
Looking at a bottle, Sweet Mama Sauce could easily be mistaken for one of the tens of thousands of types of hot sauces on tables around the world today. But Halifax, MA resident Joe Ethier has managed to put his own fresh spin on a once-niche product that has exploded in popularity and saturated the market over the last five years.
“I don’t like hot sauce,” he said on a recent Tuesday morning while standing over a pot of boiling Fresno chilies. “The ones on the shelf are too vinegary or too peppery, and I wanted to see if I can make one I like.”
And in that, he’s succeeded. Ethier talks about his three hot sauces like they’re his fourth child: He knows everything about them and wants to brag about them to everyone he meets. But it’s not just the chef who can’t get enough, it’s foodies across the South Shore.
“I really love seeing people’s reactions to it. As soon as they taste it they say, ‘Wow, I’ve never had a hot sauce like that,'” Ethier said. “That immediate reaction – they know exactly what they want to go home and put it on – makes all the hours and work worth it.”
Ethier was the head chef at Cheever Tavern in Norwell when he decided to try to make his own version of the famous Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich, which is notorious for it’s vinegar-heavy hot sauce. He wanted to kick it up a notch for his creation – playfully called the Norwell Hot Chicken sandwich – and spent almost two years perfecting the recipe that is now the original Sweet Mama Sauce.
“People would eat the sandwich and as they were paying their tab they’d say, ‘Can I buy that? It’s the best hot sauce I’ve ever had,” he said. “With every table I was bringing in another $10 or $20, and that’s when the entrepreneur in me really took off.”
He left Cheever in December and by January he was making and bottling the original sauce for family and friends, then their family and friends. By the summer he was working the farmers market and festival scene, and since August he has launched two more sauces under the brand, the Black Label habanero and Hots Mayo.
They all bear the Sweet Mama name but are distinctly different.
The original is sweet and has a unique flavor Ethier prefers for avocado toast, eggs and breakfast potatoes. The Black Label is made with habanero peppers and isn’t overly spicy. It also lacks the fruit-forward flavor that comes with many habanero sauces. Ethier likes it on fish tacos. The Hots Mayo, which was given an “S” as a homage to what his 3-year-old daughter Stella calls the sauce, he puts on sandwiches, burgers and roasted vegetables.
All the sauces are made with organic, simple ingredients and processed completely by Ethier in rented commercial kitchen spaces. He’s the product designer and tester, chef, package line, accountant, marketing team and face of the brand all rolled into one.
Owning a small business is not an easy job, but neither was being the head chef of a restaurant, he said. The entrepreneur has big plans for his brand: He wants to make even more sauces and see them on grocery shelves and dining tables across the country.
Ethier has worked in restaurants since before high school, and said his new pursuit allows him to chase what drew him to cooking in the first place.
“I had these great mentors who were showing me all these things and all the passion that could go into food,” he said. “These were grown men coming into work excited and getting to create every day. I thought, ‘Wow, what a cool life.’ Then I jumped in with both feet.”
Sweet Mama Sauce is for sale online at sweetmamasauce.com and at local farmers markets during the season. Each full-size bottle costs $10 and a travel size is $3.
Photos in this post were taken by the wonderfully talented Greg Derr. They were originally published in The Patriot Ledger.