Some like it hot: The secret sauce behind Cleveland's most caliente condiments

Cleveland and Pittsburgh may have a legendary rivalry when it comes to football, but Matt McMonagle and his wife, Lisa, are taking that rivalry to the condiment arena.

As supporters of locally-owned businesses, Matt, an attorney with Kelley and Ferraro, and Lisa, a Fairview Park City Schools education aide who works with special needs students, noticed that everyone in Cleveland was serving Pittsburgh-based Heinz ketchup.

“My wife and I like to support local businesses—we eat local, we shop local,” says McMonagle. “We saw a lot of [local] mustard, hot sauces, and barbeque sauces. But ketchup? Why are we buying ketchup from a Pittsburgh company?”

So the couple developed their own local brand: Cleveland Ketchup. “We wanted to make something tastier and healthier,” McMonagle explains. “We tried out different recipes, and we cut out the high fructose corn sweetener. There’s nothing artificial, and it has a fresher, cleaner taste to it.”

Cleveland Ketchup products made their debut in November and are now available at local specialty stores—including both In the 216 locations, the Wine Spot in Cleveland Heights, Meister Foods at the West Side Market, and Only in Clev at Kamm’s Corners. The ketchup is also served at restaurants like Gunselman’s Tavern in Fairview Park and Lehman’s Deli in Westlake.

The bottle labels depicting Cleveland scenes were designed by Jameson Campbell, and the McMonagles plan to add new designs. “As we grow and get recognition, we’d like to open up the label designs to local photographers here,” says McMonagle. “We’d really like to showcase them.”

Since its launch, the company has sold an average of 1,000 bottles a month, keeping the McMonagles so busy they turned to a production company in Athens, OH to produce and bottle the ketchups.

But the McMonagles didn’t want to stop with just their traditional ketchup. They simultaneously developed a spicier version—Ghost Pepper Ketchup—for those who prefer a kick to their condiment. The ketchup includes ghost pepper powder in the basic blend, and McMonagle considers it more of a sauce than a ketchup.

“There’s a smoky flavor to it, and a touch of bourbon,” he says, adding that ghost peppers are "kind of trendy" right now. “It’s hot, but not something that will linger with you, for those who can’t handle a lot of heat.”

McMonagle says they hope to launch a third ketchup flavor in time for the summer baseball season.

While McMonagle is following the trends in ghost peppers with his spicy ketchup, Hooper Farm—the oldest urban farm in Cleveland—has been infusing ghost peppers into honey and barbeque sauce for decades. “[Others have] been copying me since I started this farm,” farmer Erich Hooper says.

Ghost Honey from Hooper Farms
Hooper started making his Ghost Honey and Ghost Honey BBQ Sauce 30 years ago after he received one ghost pepper seed to plant on his Tremont farm from friend David Pidcock.

From that one seed, Hooper took his garden-grown dried ghost peppers and blended them with honey to make Ghost Honey. He then added them to his signature limited-edition barbeque sauce, Ghost Honey BBQ Sauce.

In February, Hooper released his latest batch of honey and sauce—made from peppers he planted for the 54th time. The current batch produced about 50 bottles of sauce (12 of which sold at Negative Space ‘s Third Friday concert series). At the event, Hooper made stir-fry topped with a chicken thigh and drizzled with Ghost Honey BBQ Sauce. “I was teasing them [the band], making homemade potato chips and drizzling them with my sauce,” Hooper says.

He sold out of his product at a Sustainable Cleveland event three weeks ago. Hooper says customers can find him at Cleveland’s “hippy fairs,” like Taste of Tremont or Hessler Street Fair, or by contacting him through his Facebook page.

As a trucker who covers Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Hooper sources all his ingredients— including the honey—from sources he’s gotten to know and trust over the years. “It’s a secret recipe and I can’t give it to you,” he warns. “But everything is locally-sourced, and everything is above board.”

Despite the reputation ghost peppers have for being spicy, Hooper says his sauce is usually pretty tame. “It has a nice sweet taste from the honey, then you feel a slow burn,” says Hooper, adding that he does kick it up a notch for his buddies who complain the sauce isn’t hot enough.

Hooper says he will probably make one more batch this season, before he starts growing the peppers again for next year’s batch.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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