A 5th-generation hot sauce dynasty rules a red hot market from a tiny Tabasco island

Edmund McIlhenny sold his first 658 bottles of hot sauce to grocers in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 1868. Today, producing on the same tiny island in Louisiana, his descendents dominate the hot sauce market — and ship the same pepper paste to 185 countries. But, mother nature bows to no man, and […]


March 29, 2018

Edmund McIlhenny sold his first 658 bottles of hot sauce to grocers in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 1868. Today, producing on the same tiny island in Louisiana, his descendents dominate the hot sauce market — and ship the same pepper paste to 185 countries.

But, mother nature bows to no man, and now rising tides and competition threaten to sink Tabasco’s ocean throne.

McIlhenny fanned the flames of the global hot sauce craze

Two years after planting his first Avery Island pepper, red-thumbed McIlhenny patented his spicy stuff — marketing it as an antidote to bland, Reconstruction-era mush. By the end of the decade, the sauce was scorching taste buds from Lowell to London. 

But the eyes were only beginning to water — today, the hot sauce market is one of America’s 10 fastest growing, hitting $1B in sales 2017. McIlhenny Company now produces 750,000 bottles a day.

But as America’s spice tolerance increased, so did the number of pepper peddlers eager to cash in.

Pressures put Papa’s picture-perfect pepper paradise in peril

In the past two decades, shifting demographics and culinary preferences have challenged Tabasco’s dominance. Sriracha sales skyrocketed after the garlicky hot sauce won numerous awards in the early 2010’s and lent its image to everything from potato chips to vodka.

To make matters worse, Avery Island faced a hurricane that nearly destroyed McIlhenny’s perilously perched production facility.

To protect their pepper-production facility from the sea, the McIlhenny Company built a 17-ft levee. To protect their brand from the rising tide of competition, they doubled down on their ingeniously simple strategy — product placement.

Tabasco makes hot sauce fit for a quarterback — or a queen

McIlhenny Company is the only non-British foodmaker in the world to boast a Royal Warrant — making Tabasco the queen’s official hot sauce. Tabasco is also served on Air Force One, in the International Space Station, in US Army MREs, and in NFL locker rooms.

Old Man McIlhenny’s spicy marketing strategy has paid off — Tabasco leads the pack with 17.1% market share, compared to Frank’s 11.3% and Sriracha’s 8%.

The McIlhenny Company continues to “co-brand” with other popular food companies (Cheez-Its, Slim Jims, Heinz, A1, Vlasic, Jelly Belly) and releases new flavors based on trends. 

Their most recent release? Tabasco-brand Sriracha.

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