FARGO — Jeremiah Utecht and his wife, Rachel, have made a business out of something North Dakota isn’t known for: heat. They make hot sauce that has been sold in 28 states.
It all started when Jeremiah Utecht was attending North Dakota State University. His roommates constantly ate his food, so he started cooking with chili peppers to stop them. From there, he studied fermentation and experimented with making hot sauce. He made a habanero hot sauce (now called “Habenero Hustle”) that he, his wife and all their friends loved, so Rachel pushed him to share their new creation.
"I still was kind of hemming and hawing, so my wife held my feet to the fire and we did a large sampling at an event. Most people wanted to buy it — the vast majority — so if people want to give me money for this I should probably make it," Utecht said.
Thus, Off the Deck hot sauce was born. The hot sauces are created through a process Utecht calls, “whole recipe fermentation."
The process includes mixing the peppers, salt, garlic and other ingredients before they sit in a five-gallon bucket to ferment for at least 21 days. Off the Deck emphasizes good flavor, uses primarily peppers and doesn't contain a lot of vinegar, unlike other popular hot sauces.
“We wanted to make the peppers shine and support them with really good other ingredients that are really good when fermented all together,” Utecht said. "When you look at the bottle, the pepper is the first ingredient, not vinegar. We put vinegar in it, but it's not a vinegar sauce, it’s a pepper sauce."
Utecht values flavor in the hot sauces he creates, but one of the biggest factors in the flavor is trusting local farmers and their product.
"We aren’t a big pepper-growing region, so it’s not soil that’s been used to grow a lot of peppers. It’s got a richer flavor and another thing is, I want to support local farmers. Fargo has a growing food scene and I want to support that, so for me it’s really important," he said. "All of our super hots have come from the Hildebrandt's farms in West Fargo this year. We have ghost pepper sauce made from ghost peppers grown in North Dakota. That’s mind-blowing and awesome."
When Utecht says super hot, he means it. The ghost pepper hits up to a million scoville heat units, while some scorpion peppers can reach about two million scoville heat units. To put it into perspective, a jalapeno is in between 2,500 to 8,000 scoville heat units.
"We joke about the ghost pepper sauce, 'Dad Jokes,' and the scorpion pepper sauce, 'Norwegian Napalm,' and call it our 'crazy ex' series. It’s like that person you were told not to date, and you went out with them anyways. And it was kind of exciting and then something happens. You try these sauces, it’s got all these flavors, then it hits," he said.
Utecht markets his hot sauce with a friendly approach and provides a wide variety of sauces for those with lower heat tolerance. That method has spread his hot sauces far outside of Fargo.
“I make hot sauce in a town where we joke ketchup is spicy and we’ve shipped to 28 states, including Hawaii, last February. She sent us a picture of herself at the beach as a thank you, and it was 20 below that day. So, I would say overall the response has been very, very good,” Utecht said. "We also try to be a lot more approachable. We have a guy jumping off the deck for our label. It’s not death sauce, or flame sauce or any of those. That’s all been done and overdone. We just really want to pay homage to where we live."
You can now buy Off the Deck hot sauce at Prairie Roots Co-Op, Mint + Basil, Unglued, Luna, Bernie’s Liquors and Baker's Garden & Gift. No matter how popular his hot sauce gets, Utecht will always work to make the best product he can.
"As long as our quality remains high and we maintain good relationships with our farmers and our customers, I’ll take this as far as it will go," he said.
The Utechts also own Flannel Fizz, a craft soda company that prides itself on using natural ingredients that are made up of local cranberries, honey and water.