Serious Eats: Chicago

Behind the Scenes at Co-Op Sauce: Awesome Sauce for a Good Cause

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[Photographs: Tessa McLean]

Chicagoans who love hot sauce know the simplistic black and white labels of Co-Op Sauce well. You'll find bottles in many new breakfast and fried chicken spots, and maybe even in your artisanal grocery store down the street. Co-Op Sauce is stealing the throne from the Frank's and Chulula's of the world, and doing it with just one blender.

Seriously, one industrial kitchen blender. While most of us would assume the tasty hot sauce you dipped your eggs in this morning came from a large warehouse with an even larger kitchen space somewhere on the outskirts of the city, most of us would be wrong. That one blender is all it takes to make the mountain of sauce spilling out of a small kitchen on North Clark Street.

Owner Mike Bancroft and his team are working hard, and they're barely keeping up with demand. They hand-fill most batches with 32 ounce squeeze bottles because it's easier and more sanitary than other options. They even print their own labels, which Bancroft designs, and seal them right there in the shop. "It's as hand-made as it can possibly be," Bancroft says.

The sauce has come a long way from the humble beginnings of a community art project he began over 10 years ago. Bancroft was a teacher who loved to engage his students and make an impact in as many ways as he could. He was beginning a youth education project in 2003 where the students were creating art, and he figured there had to be some way to finance the project since the students weren't allowed by law to sell their art. Another of Bancroft's passions was making sauce, something he generally did only for family and friends, so he figured he'd create Co-Op Image.

He'd been growing chilies at one of the project's community gardens (one they still grow in East Humboldt Park), but wasn't successful selling the produce. Not one to give up or be wasteful, he began making sauces with those chilies and selling them at local markets. It quickly began to take off.

As his hot sauce empire expands, 50 percent of the profits are still going back to this community program. Almost all of Bancroft's staff (which do get paid) are current or former participants in Co-Op Image, and many commute from the far West Side all the way to Edgewater. When I was there, one was hard at work labeling and sealing bottles on a Saturday.

The space is cramped. Boxes are stacked to the ceiling and barrels sit side by side lining the basement. Handwritten recipes are taped to the walls, dotted with red and orange splotches likely from that very blender that makes all the magic happen. Bancroft knows they've outgrown their space, and they're currently looking into other options to expand the business.

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While they're churning out as much sauce as they can, Bancroft is and always has been dedicated to sourcing local ingredients. It may sound trendy now, but to Bancroft it just makes sense: "As trite and contrived as everyone likes to say sourcing locally is, we still think it's super important and we don't care having to say it."

That dedication to their product helps them navigate the path to a great bottle of sauce. It takes a lot of trial, error, and inspiration.

"I'm inspired by the ingredients themselves. And then once we nail a recipe, we try to get it consistent, so that's a challenge. When you're doing stuff in small batches, people start to develop a taste for things. And to keep that consistent is a bigger challenge than coming up with the initial recipe. It's easy to come up with something, it's hard to keep that the same over time. But the key is just to have fun with it. "

He attributes a lot of that fun and success to his connections with the the local business community in Chicago, They've made vinegar in Koval barrels, which the distillery donated to them. One sauce uses Dark Matter coffee, while another contains local beer yeast from Goose Island. "I think that's what's great about small business in Chicago, especially in the food business, it's not super cut-throat. People want to help one another."

Just last year Bancroft was able to partner with Anne Kotroski to open Sauce and Bread Kitchen, which serves sandwiches, coffee, and pastry five days a week next door to the kitchen space. The cafe also plays host to The Stew Supper Club, a monthly five-course dinner where Bancroft and Kotroski are able to try out different recipes with their patrons. The dinners are incredibly reasonable at $45, and sometimes feature interesting collaborations with alcohol producers like a recent one with Pipeworks Brewery. Grab tickets early, as these events always sell out.

As much as the sauce business consumes most of his time, Bancroft's passion is still teaching, and he continues to teach three days a week at after school programs. Still, he's got a big year ahead of him. In April, they'll have a sauce collaboration out with Scrumptious Pantry of Chicago and three sauces will be on Whole Foods shelves nationwide.

So how does he know a hot sauce will be a hit?

"Cooks well, finishes well, good on pizza, those are the three tests."

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