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Turning up the heat
Uncle Brutha's dares customers to compare
(Published May 15, 2006)
By CHRISTINE GOSS
Special to The Common Denominator
The story about his great granduncle, George "Brutha" Hubbud, discovering mysterious chili peppers while working as a Pullman porter on the Underground Railroad may have been intended as a joke, but Brennan Proctor is serious when it comes to hot sauce.
His Capitol Hill shop, Uncle Brutha's Hot Sauce Emporium at 323 Seventh St. SW, features his very own Uncle Brutha's Fire Sauces No.10 and No. 9. But domination in an arena as competitive as the hot sauce world takes years of dedication, determination and risk taking.
Sitting confidently on a stool beside the store's hot sauce tasting bar, Proctor almost dares customers to sample his competition.
"I'm not threatened by people trying other sauces," explains Proctor. "Uncle Brutha's stands on its own."
The fact that Uncle Brutha's Hot Sauce Emporium offers more than 300 types of hot sauces and other exotic condiments -- including chutneys, marinades and seasonings -- is a testament to Proctor's faith in his product. The variety of flavors and unique combinations could overwhelm your tastebuds. Spicy versions of just about every condiment imaginable -- including mustard, mayonnaise and relish -- are available.
Sauce labels boast intimidating names like Mad Dog Liquid Fire, Pure Poison Hot Sauce, Vicious Viper and Venom. In addition, in typical D.C. fashion, the shop adds politics to hot sauce selection by offering "Saddam Insane," "Bomb Laden Mad Blast Habanero Sauce," "Teddy's Ring of Fire" and "Hillary's Hot Sauce" -- made with "pure white water." For the weak, there is always "Pappy's Sauce for Sissies."
Proctor's label, however, takes a more mild approach with toned-down hues of rusty oranges and reds for No.10, and mossy greens for No.9. The overall presentation embodies Proctor's attitude of not trying too hard with vibrant colors and over-the-top warning messages. At the center of the bottle is the portrait of a friendly Uncle Brutha, who is, in fact, Proctor himself.
"I wanted to take a different approach," explains Proctor.
The label and the family folklore behind the sauce were intended to make the product more upscale, but entertaining at the same time.
"More people than I thought, believed it was true," Proctor laughs after pointing out the absurdity in Pullman porters working the Underground Railroad, a secret network for rescuing runaway slaves during the Civil War era.
But even without Proctor's affinity to fiction, his interest in culinary arts is steeped in family history. His curiosity was encouraged by both the women and the men in his family being cooks. Among his fondest childhood memories was watching his grandfather fry fish.
"He would call it ‘feeeeesh,'" Proctor remembers with a nostalgic smile.
The tight-knit nature of his family also affected Proctor's pursuits. At the younger end of his generation, Proctor was influenced by his older cousins who were passionate about Tabasco sauce. Proctor recalls that there was always Tabasco sauce on the table, and his cousins smothered just about everything with it. Thus, even though he didn't really like hot sauce at first, Proctor said he thought "it's gotta be cool" and set out to "acclimate [himself] because [his] ultra super-cool cousins ate hot sauces."
The problem with starting a hot sauce addiction at such a young age is that hotter and hotter sauce is required to satisfy cravings, he said. Herein, Proctor encountered another challenge: "I found that the hotter the sauce, the less flavor," he explains.
Known for critiquing the hot wings at happy hours with his co-workers, Proctor decided to attempt his own for a company potluck. Having tinkered with store-bought hot sauce, Proctor found that everybody loved his version of hot wings. The experience inspired Proctor to "see if [he] could create the same end result with all-natural ingredients." Thus, Proctor rolled up his sleeves and embarked upon a 10-year journey to create a red sauce that met the highest standards of heat with the flavor to match.
"It's spicy, not just hot," says Jenny Biddle. "It's got flavor."
Biddle sampled Uncle Brutha's two years ago and has been a loyal customer ever since. She says she stocks up her supply about every six months.
Clinton Canady says he loved Uncle Brutha's so much, he wanted to help sell it and now works at the Proctor's Eastern Market stand on weekends in addition to his full-time job.
"It's very different than anything else I've tasted," Canady says of the green sauce.
Like many who discover Uncle Brutha's sauces, Canady constantly tests new applications in an effort to incorporate Uncle Brutha's into every meal and snack possible. He recommends using the green sauce with macaroni and cheese, french fries, vegetables or mixed with Ranch dressing as a dip.
Some of the concoctions are so strange they put loyalists on the defensive. Liam Umek, another Uncle Burtha's employee, swears the green sauce tastes great on ice cream -- cookies and cream, to be exact.
"Uncle Brutha's mother dared me to," he quickly explains in response to the strange looks.
The unique taste of Uncle Brutha's sauces are the result of years of trial and error, mostly as a hobby for Proctor. Despite the reaction his first attempt at hot wings received, his focus at the time was on another passion: music. So when he moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to pursue his music video career, he took his nascent red hot sauce with him. However, even though hot sauce development moved to the back burner while Proctor focused on his music career, he says he used his co-workers, clients and friends as "guinea pigs" for taste-testing his special hot wings. In a way, the hot sauce began to steer the way in Proctor's plans.
"The next thing I know, people are going crazy," Proctor recalls.
He found himself invited to all kinds of parties, including wedding receptions and baby showers along with a request that he bring his hot wings. It was his business partner who came up with the idea of bottling his original red hot sauce to give to clients as Christmas gifts in 2001. This sauce would later bear the name "Uncle Brutha's Fire Sauce No. 10," reflecting the 10 years it took to perfect. Proctor was later inspired to create his green sauce with leftover chilis from his red sauce.
"The green came easy because I already had the process down," Proctor explains.
Proctor used garlic and ginger to create a distinctive taste and called the green sauce "Uncle Brutha's Fire Sauce No. 9" because it is not as hot as No. 10, which blends four different chilis and garlic.
But even while he concentrated on music, the possibility of selling his hot sauce remained. In 1997 Proctor established Four Gem Enterprises Inc., a parent company of four different businesses: a music production company, a record label, a music publishing company and a vacant business.
"In the back of my mind, I thought I might do something with the hot sauce. I thought maybe it could not just be a wing sauce," explains Proctor.
The name Four Gem Enterprises Inc. has a deeper meaning for Proctor, reflecting strong family ties rooted in his ambitions. "Gem-E" is the nickname Proctor's nephew, Ryan, gave to his grandmother. Thus, the company's title is a play on words -- "for Gem," established "with the hopes of taking care of Gem in her old age," explains Proctor.
While Uncle Brutha's now enjoys a nationwide fan base, the road to get there was anything but easy. Proctor left Los Angeles in 2003 to bring his hot sauce back to the place of its birth: Washington, D.C. Motivated by the 20 awards his sauces won in just 18 months at events such as Zestfest 2004 and from magazines like Chili Pepper Magazine, Proctor took the risk of pursuing the fourth gem. But Proctor did not receive the immediate acceptance and enthusiasm he expected.
"I spent a year getting the door slammed in my face," he remembers.
While it was actually more like four months, Proctor remembers feeling so discouraged he almost gave up. He started out pitching his sauce to stores and restaurants in January 2004 but received few bites.
"I was almost losing hope when I got the spot at Eastern Market," he recalls.
Proctor credits his Eastern Market booth with propelling his business. The venue was perfect. Once people were given the chance to try his sauces, they were hooked. Proctor quickly developed a fan base of customers who came by for what he calls their "weekly supply of Uncle Brutha's."
Today, he can confidently sit at his hot sauce tasting bar in his brand new store and challenge customers to sample other sauces. He knows that once they try his hot sauces, his point is made.
Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator