When Pueblo County started marketing the Pueblo Chile in 2015 there was a hope — an expectation — that it would pay off in terms of making farming profitable.
Part of that success could be measured in how much more chile is sold by farmers and how much more of the commodity ends up in stores. But it could also be measured in how many secondary jobs the spicy crop creates, such as the small-batch organic, preservative-free sriracha maker that moved to Pueblo from Denver in June just to be closer to Pueblo chile.
Jolene Collins started making Jojo’s Sriracha in Brooklyn in 2010. And in the last seven years her business has grown as she moved to Denver where she created her own industrial kitchen with her partner Rachel. The business has grown so much it doesn’t make sense to keep operating in Denver any longer. Now, Collins will operate Jojo’s Sriracha out of an old middle school kitchen-turned incubator kitchen by a group of organic farmers in Eastern Pueblo County.
The Excelsior Farmer’s Exchange kitchen has 25,000 square-feet of space. Collins will take up 5,000 of that to make the condiment that’s now sold in 80 stores around the U.S.
The move has proven to be good because of the chile, but also presents an opportunity with the co-op-style space.
The following is an interview with Collins, edited for clarity and space.
You’re working out of Excelsior Farmer’s Exchange Incubator Kitchen. What was appealing about that to your business?
Quite a few things. I had worked intermittently in and out of shared kitchens in Brooklyn and Denver and it was always kind of a bleh experience. People are messy, it’s expensive. There are just always issues that come up, and you only have so much power as one person. When I moved back to Denver from Brooklyn, we created an industrial kitchen out of a place in the Highlands. We had almost 2,000 peppers fermenting in the space.
It was really cool that we had our own space, but it didn’t have the longevity to grow with us. So earlier this year, Rachel and I were like what do we want to do — with our business, with our lifestyle, with our lives.
Rachel’s parents live in Colorado Springs, and they kept telling us to check out Pueblo. We called the county and they showed us some spaces and then we went out to Excelsior. It was pretty clear there was a lot of synergy in that place. We were like what is this? It was awesome.
They have this huge vegetable washer — and we’ve been doing that by hand.
Because these guys involved in Excelsior are all chile guys, they have stuff that’s great for processing chile peppers. Everything we needed and then some. The logistics were perfect, and then there’s the fact that the farmers are two miles down the road. They talked about what they grew and we gave them a snapshot of what we needed. The ease of being able to do an in-season process has been the vision since the beginning, but it takes time to grow and for a farmer to take you seriously enough to grow something for you.
We’ve got 10,000 jars and 5,000 mini jars sitting at the school and we’re hoping that will be our year’s supply. We don’t have investors, that’s been part of the growth. It’s a big leap forward, but we’re in a good position to do it.
We’re making a year’s supply in 20 to 30 kitchen days and we’re only paying for that — not 365 like we would in a shared kitchen. We’re going to be cutting our production cost in half. The efficiencies and extra places to store things, that’s going to cut production time. It was just like a yes, yes, yes.
Did you ever imagine you would grow out of Denver and into a small place, like Pueblo?
We knew a couple of people who moved out of Denver to places like Santa Fe or Salida and it was a very romantic idea, and we had an open mind about where we would go next. But the Pueblo thing just happened so quickly. It was just right and it was where we supposed to be. We certainly could have made our space in Denver work.
The other part is even if Denver was affordable, this isn’t where the chiles are being grown. In Pueblo there’s a relationship between the product and the farmer.
The farmers behind the kitchen and exchange have started what they describe as a ‘food hub.’ As a manufacturer, do you see a future in that?
They have an interesting story, going from rivalry farmers to a co-op.
It’s important that we’re not just a producer — that we have that synergy and relationship. Just this morning we were looking up getting a booth at the Chile Festival. We want to have a presence and show what we’re doing.
We hear a lot about collaboration spaces — coworking spaces — and different industries coming together — usually in tech or art. But not so much in food. Do you think projects having a spaces like this changes that for small-batch food products like yourself?
For a while we were working out of Kitchen Network in Denver, and it was cool. We got to collaborate. It was a space where makers could meet. I think there are those moments where you realize I make this and you make this and maybe we should put my sriracha in your hemp burgers. There is that opportunity for collaboration.
It’s cool to be first here, and we’d like to think we’re pioneers and help them create a really successful space. The space is huge. It’ll be interesting to see who comes through. And because it’s not completely built out, it will be maker-driven. Whoever comes through and says what they need, it will become that. That’s a really unique opportunity that they’re all open ears.
You said a lot of your Denver friends are jealous of the space you’re using in Eastern Pueblo County. Do you think the set-up here will attract more businesses like yours?
The major thing that they’re jealous about is that it’s cheaper. You feel that clutter of that cramped space in an urban area.
We’ll totally be supporters of getting people down there if it’s a good fit. If makers have their head on straight and realize it’s a fit, then they’ll come.
So you’re using the Pueblo Chile — which has been marketed as a product that has some variability. Is that a challenge or is it helpful?
It is a challenge. We started with the OG — our red chile sriracha — we typically use red jalapenos or red fresnos for that. We’ve been using Pueblo chile’s for our green — and that’s our baby.
It does make me nervous with the in-season processing, so we work with the farmers on this. We’re filling up 10,000 jars, so it’ll take some risk and nerding out. It’s all in sourcing the peppers. In the green, we use three-to four green chiles and work around the chile.
We want a nice medium to medium-high heat. We’re not looking to blow people’s heads off. But these farmers know these chiles and they’re giving us feedback. The chile can change and the rest of the recipe stays the same.