Handy Township couple shares love of spicy food

9/2/2013 1:00 PM
By Associated Press

HANDY TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Matt Blauer and Mandy Tefft are making the world a hotter place one bottle at a time.

The husband-and-wife team have been making and selling Papa Turts hot sauce since early 2011.

The seeds of the business were planted with their love of spicy foods and an abundance of peppers in the garden at their rural home near Fowlerville in Handy Township.

"We had all this land, so we planted a big garden and put in a bunch of chili peppers," Blauer told the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (http://bit.ly/1dIITcM ). "We got a lot more than we bargained for."

The solution was for Blauer to turn the peppers into hot sauce.

"I messed around with it for a while. Everybody liked it and said I should try and market it," Blauer said. "It took a long period of trial and error to get the recipe where I wanted it."

Papa Turts — the name is a play off Blauer's high school nickname, Turtle, and his becoming a father — makes two varieties of sauce: So Hot It Hurts and Smoked Peppa. The sauce is available in nearly 30 stores and restaurants, and it can be ordered online.

Tefft says the hot sauce is popular at Olden Days Cafe in Fowlerville, where diners often drizzle it over breakfast items such as eggs and potatoes.

"We put it on everything," she said. "The So Hot It Hurts is hot, but not so hot that you can't taste anything else. It adds to your food instead of overpowering your food. We put it on pizza. We use it in deviled eggs and Bloody Marys.

"I like the (Smoked Peppa) on lasagna and spaghetti," she added.

Tefft says her husband is an "awesome cook," and he often posts recipes that incorporate the sauce on Papa Turts' Facebook page.

"We recently did a spicy tuna melt recipe online that is amazing," Tefft said.

Creating a commercial kitchen to make the sauce in the basement of their home required a financial investment of a couple of thousand dollars and approval from the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

"We had to tear up the carpet, put in a triple sink and a hand-washing sink, and put up a curtain and epoxy the floor. We put a vent in, too," Tefft said.

While the idea for the sauce originally grew from their own garden, the couple rely on other sources for their produce. They get most of their habanero peppers from Wilczewski Greenhouses in Oceola Township.

"It's two local businesses helping each other," Tefft said.

Blauer said each batch of So Hot It Hurts sauce — about 120 5-ounce bottles — requires 16 pounds of habanero peppers and nearly 2 pounds of dried arbol chiles, as well as some roasted carrots. The peppers need to cook down for about 90 minutes. Blauer later uses a wooden stick to skim off the skins and seeds.

"It's a real hands-on process," he said.

For the Smoked Peppa sauce, Blauer uses chipotle peppers as well as tomato paste.

After the sauce is made, it's bottled, sealed and labeled by hand.

"We learned pretty quick that places don't want to sell it if it doesn't have a bar code on it," Tefft said. "So we went to Buyabarcode.com and purchased bar codes. Some stuff we've just had to wing it and learn as we go along."

Fans of the sauce can even have custom labels made for the bottles. Hometown Bicycles in Brighton created its own label and sells the hot sauce in its store. Papa Turts has also had personalized labels designed and printed for special events such as weddings and bachelor parties.

Blauer, 40, and Tefft, 37, have two children, ages 11 and 4. Tefft, a 1994 Fowlerville High School graduate, keeps busy as a stay-at-home mom while working to grow the sauce business. Blauer, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods, is a FedEx driver who owns his own route.

While attending college in Kalamazoo, they met at Bell's Brewery. The brewery recently began selling Papa Turts sauces, which Tefft called "very exciting."

Blauer works 10- to 12-hour days, leaving only the weekends for making his namesake sauce.

"When I first started, I'd make a batch every couple of months. Now, I'm working at it one full day every weekend," he said.

The couple think about the day when Papa Turts can become their full-time occupations and Blauer can sell his FedEx route.

"We're not quite ready to do that just yet," Blauer said. "Slowly, over time, I may do less FedEx and more hot sauce until one day I'll be doing hot sauce full time."

Tefft said they "broke a little more than even" on the sauce business in 2012, and she's sure they will do even better this year. When her youngest child starts preschool in the fall, she hopes to have more time to dedicate to Papa Turts. She also plans to revamp the Papa Turts website, where sales currently require a PayPal account.

"We don't take credit cards, and I think some people just don't like PayPal," Tefft said. "When our website gets better and we show up in more searches, we can get the credit card thing going."

Still, they count people from as far away as California and Texas among their loyal customers.

"It's been fun; it's a really cool thing for Matt and I to do together," Tefft said. "It's something that we really like that we believe is a quality product."

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Information from: Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, http://www.livingstondaily.com


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