In 2014, John Crotty ’96 was running Workforce Housing Advisors, a company he had founded to help the city of New York improve and develop low-income housing. Working regularly in the Bronx, Crotty began to feel that while he and his team were able to improve housing in a physical sense, they weren’t really serving the communities. “We fixed brick and mortar,” Crotty says, “but we realized that the people who were there had been forsaken.”
Crotty began looking for a way to improve the economic and social circumstances of Bronx residents. He soon focused on the numerous community gardens popping up in empty lots throughout the borough. “We had this idea to make a product from something grown in the community gardens, but the only product that made sense was some-thing that you could grow a little of to make a product you could sell a lot of.” Hot sauce was an obvious choice, since serrano peppers, a core hot-sauce ingredient, are relatively easy to grow and typically account for only 40 percent of a hot-sauce formula.
SPICING IT UP
Small Axe Peppers’ business plan is simple. Each spring, the company distributes serrano pepper plants free of charge to participating community gardens. Then, the company offers to buy back peppers grown in the garden, paying about four dollars per pound—roughly 25 percent above market rate. The peppers are then processed and, with some culinary magic by New York chef King Phojanakong, transformed into the Bronx Hot Sauce, a bottle of which retails for about six dollars online, as well as in New York–area Whole Foods and specialty grocery stores. Last year, Crotty’s company purchased three-quarters of a ton of peppers from Bronx community gardens, and an even larger harvest is expected this year.
The money community gardens earn from selling their peppers to Crotty’s company supports improvements and expansions of the gardens, while providing the gardeners with a sense of ownership. “We have created a new economic model to help the gardeners support themselves and become commercial enterprises,” Crotty says. “Their members don’t always have the cash to make improvements to the gardens, so often it means they can do something, when before they couldn’t. And it gives them autonomy. People want to control their own fate.” The gardens, which are cultivated by people from the surrounding neighborhoods, are also an important source of inexpensive fresh produce for many in the community.
The Bronx Hot Sauce has been such a success that Small Axe Peppers is expanding outside the borough, first into Queens, which will have its own recipe dubbed the Queens 7 Hot Sauce (named not for the train that runs through Queens but rather for the sauce’s seven ingredients). Crotty hints that a broader regional expansion centered around community gardens beyond New York could be in the works. “We’re an urban agricultural play,” Crotty says. “We’ve got a niche.”