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Yeah, it's good. But how did Cry Baby Craig’s hot sauce take over the Twin Cities?

City Pages investigates.

City Pages investigates. Cry Baby Craig's / Getty Images

Cry Baby Craig’s has exactly one negative Amazon review.

The critic, “Dave,” notes that their neighborhood “once overflowed with a virtual cornucopia of interesting and delectable hot sauce flavors.

“With his fascist one hot sauce policy he single-handedly wiped out hot sauce diversity in the Twin Cities,” he complains of Craig. “The only burning this hot sauce should be doing is in Hell.”

A bit dramatic, but our guy has a point: In the Twin Cities, Cry Baby Craig’s is everywhere.

There it is, waiting to be drizzled on your brunch at Bull’s Horn or add a pop of pickled spice to your Parlour burger. It’s in dishes themselves: At Sheridan Room, the habanero-garlic hot sauce appears in their North by Northeast Nachos and in the Big Ass Cry Baby Fried Chicken Sandwich. Wrecktangle Pizza—North Loop Galley’s Detroit-style newbie—makes whipped hot honey with it, and at Lowry Hill Meats, you’ll find it on the infamous weekend-morning-only breakfast sandwich.

In no way is this breaking news. “So, another article on Cry Baby Craig—as if he needs any publicity!” David Taylor of Hellraising Hot Sauce (not Amazon Dave, as far as we know) joked when contacted for comment on this story.

But the question remains: Why? What makes Craig’s the heat standard? How did an accidentally discovered, weirdly made, electric-orange sauce come to dominate tabletops across the Twin Cities?

Ask creator Craig Kaiser, and you’ll get a humble but absolutely unsatisfying reply: “It just kinda… you know. One restaurant at a time.”

***

A cynical person might say Craig’s is such a hit with Minnesotan palates because, to paraphrase more charitable online reviewers, it’s “not that hot.” Max Thompson at Nighthawks in south Minneapolis notes that it’s “not too spicy”; Kate Lloyd at Rise Bagel Company in the North Loop likes that it’s got “the right amount of heat.”

“We use it because, besides being tasty, it’s outside the flavor profile and heat level for most of the common hot sauces,” Thompson adds. He likes how the sharp punch of garlic works with the fruity acidity. Nighthawks stocks a few big pepper purveyors—Sriracha, Tabasco, Cholula—but in Craig’s, they’ve found a locally made option “with the same name recognition here in the Twin Cities.”

Cry Baby Craig’s tastes different from those other, more common hot sauces because it really is different. In 2012, Kaiser was working as a chef at Cafe Maude when he got a big batch of habaneros instead of jalapeños. Not one for waste, he pickled them, forgot about them for a few months, found them, blended them, put the results on pizza, and blew away Maude’s staff. Et voila: The sauce that’s now a Twin Cities ubiquity was born.

Eventually, Kaiser started bottling the stuff, calling it “Cry Baby Craig’s” after his infant son. Tilia became his first restaurant client early on, when “it was just, like, emptied-out Tabasco bottles that had my name and telephone number on it.” Now it’s available in hundreds of restaurants and grocery stores. Kaiser and co-owner Sam Bonin moved—first to a production facility in Northeast, and then again to a bigger space in Faribault.

Cameron Clarkson

Cameron Clarkson

The accidental cold-pickled process made his hot sauce unlike any other in the country—so much so that he spent 18 months fighting with the FDA and Department of Agriculture to get it approved. “It really brings out the sweetness instead of being a spice bomb,” says Jaren Turley, managing partner at Eat Street Social (where Kaiser worked while he got the brand up and running).

At Eat Street Social, it’s the only hot sauce on offer, Minnesota-made or not. Turley says they don’t need another. “It works for brunch, lunch, and dinner.”

“It’s like salt and pepper,” says Thompson at Nighthawks. “It’s like butter and maple syrup on the side for pancakes. It gives our guests choices to round out or customize their food to their palate.”

The versatility, the flavor, the story—Cry Baby Craig’s had it all, and word spread fast through the Twin Cities’ culinary community. Kevin Kraus at Stray Dog says he first heard about it through a friend. Erik Sather at Lowry Hill Meats says the same.

Kaiser likens it to a domino effect: It’s in Tilia, some sous chef from somewhere else tries it and wants it, and things expand exponentially from there. Two restaurants turn to five, which turn to eight, which turn to 20. By chance, he wound up in a lot of canonically cool places—industry hangouts where a single bottle had a lot of reach.

But it wasn’t just the knife-wielder’s whisper network. The guy behind the hot sauce was hustling. Jordan Smith, founder and chef of Black Sheep Pizza, remembers falling in love with it when they were bottling it in a Northeast basement, back when Craig was making deliveries out of the back of his car.

“He was the guy running around in his own truck delivering everything for a long time,” Sather says. “He’s put the sweat equity in it, for sure.”

Lloyd at Rise Bagel Co. explains it simply: “The man himself stopped in the shop one day. We heard the story. We tried the sauce. The rest is history.”

*** 

Minnesota might not be Hot Sauce City, U.S.A., but there are a lot of locally made brands: Hellraising Hot Sauce, Lucky’s, K-Mama, Isabel Street Heat, Nuclear Nectar, Double Take. And many of those offer several flavors. With the exception of the occasional limited-edition special sauce, Kaiser’s only got one: the happenstance habanero that made him famous.

“Sometimes I’m envious of Craig—he has one sauce, and he can market the hell out of that one sauce,” laughs David Taylor, who runs Hellraising Hot Sauce out of Richfield with his wife, Leigh.

So… why Craig’s? Surely the other brands were hustling too?

Taylor has a theory, one echoed by hot sauce makers around town. “He’s a chef, or he was. I think it’s pretty obvious that opened a lot of doors for him. That’s a culture in and of itself—a very tight culture—especially in a city of our size.”

“Mr. Fuzz,” who’s behind Minneapolis-made small-batch hot sauce Nuclear Nectar, agrees: “Among other crucial tenets like timing, apt ambition, and luck, not to mention a truly excellent and unique product… Craig also has tons of chef friends here in the Twins who have been more than happy to blaze and pave table estate for ‘the tears.’”

So it wasn’t just Craig’s pickling process that was different—it was his entire entrée into the market. He didn’t go knocking on doors selling it wholesale; he didn’t spend years building the brand up on the farmers market circuit. Being in restaurants acted as a passive demo—the bottles were on tables, marketing themselves.

Kaiser arrived at the right time, too. Taylor remembers trying to get his sauce in restaurants during the company’s early days, and hearing, over and over: “Craig’s been here.” The guy left a trail of bright-orange bottles behind him like the Joker dropping playing cards at the scene of a crime.

Courtesy of Cry Baby Craig's

Courtesy of Cry Baby Craig's

“It’s really good advertising, at the end of the day,” says Tony Stoy at Isabel Street Heat. “If you’re able to get your product on a restaurant table, they’ve got constant customers coming in, and you’ve got a constant new supply of customers that are tasting your product on food.”

It snowballs: If you notice that the other three restaurants on your corner have Craig’s, Stoy speculates that maybe you’ll want it too. (Certainly, looking at the neighborhoody clusters of Cry Baby stars on Craig’s location map, that seems at least a little true.) And once you’re on tables, those bottles go fast—much faster than brands selling to individual people who might take months to polish one off at home.

“I’ve talked to people and said we’ve got a hot sauce company and they’ll say, ‘Oh, are you Craig?’” Taylor laughs. “He’s so—you used the word ‘ubiquitous.’ He’s got a large presence, and I think once the ball got rolling with that, it kind of took on a life of its own.”

*** 

At Smack Shack, Craig’s has been such a hit that it unseated Tabasco as the third hot sauce stocked on tabletops. Executive chef Dave Buxton and GM Colin Stumbras say the heat and flavor make it an obvious choice for almost everything on their Cajun-leaning menu, whether that’s spicing up shrimp dishes or adding a dash of unexpected heat to the clam chowder. They’ve used it in all kinds of sauces and specials over the years: A favorite is the habanero hollandaise on their brunch benedicts.

“And unfortunately for us—but fortunate for Craig—the bottles tend to go missing from our caddies quite a bit.”

If Kaiser’s success had only to do with Minnesota’s spice tolerance, that wouldn’t explain why Cry Baby Craig’s has spread to all 50 states, available on restaurant tables and online from coast to coast. And if it’s just about having chef friends, well… that doesn’t really explain it either. We’re talking about people known for being comfortable telling you to your face that you suck, while staking their reputation on the flavor of the foods they put in front of guests. If Cry Baby Craig’s wasn’t excellent, they wouldn’t serve it.

“He had the right network, but at the end of the day it’s everybody’s favorite,” says Sather at Lowry Hill Meats. No one’s kicking Tabasco off of tables to be nice.

Although there’s at least a little bit of Minnesota Nice at play here. Because the thing you hear over and over when you ask folks about Craig is this: He rules.

“Craig’s a really good dude, and he’s for sure a local that’s been in the food scene a long time,” says Sather. Turley at Eat Street Social concurs. “His sauce is tasty and he’s an all-around good guy. There is nothing he loves more than personally delivering his sauce to his restaurant partners.”

“In our industry, sometimes it’s as much about a relationship as it is about the product,” the Smack Shack crew says. “We were excited to see him grow into the distribution that he has today, but he still comes by.”

“Having met the man and the cry baby a couple times here at Nighthawks, we’re happy to keep supporting a good guy and a great sauce,” adds Thompson.

As for Kaiser? Well, he wouldn’t take the credit. He owes his notoriety—and his cry baby’s college fund—to an almost magical accident. It’s like how songwriters talk about iconic lyrics flowing out of them, as if thanks to an external power, as if they needed to exist. Cry Baby Craig’s is a culinary “Yesterday.” Or… our Flubber.

“It became what it became on its own. I definitely worked hard, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in the bottle that really matters.

“If you try, you just get in your way,” Kaiser adds. “Either it’s there, or it’s not.”

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