Hot sauce impresario Jacob Cutino owns the Valley hot sauce scene. Up next: world domination?
Looking at Jacob Cutino surrounded by bottles of hot sauce glowing tomato red, mango yellow and crocodile green, it’s difficult to imagine him being a picky eater as a child.
“I would pick the onions out of my spaghetti sauce. I would only have ketchup on my hot dogs or hamburgers,” Cutino says of his Colorado Springs childhoood. “My mom told me that if I wanted to go out to eat – we didn’t have much money growing up – she said, ‘I’ll take you out to eat, but you have to try something new.’ She would take me to Vietnamese and Moroccan [restaurants], and that’s how my palate developed.”
And, oh, how it has developed. Cutino, 41, is the mastermind behind Homeboy’s, his line of hot sauces that debuted three years ago at Uptown Farmers Market in Phoenix to immediate fanfare, regularly selling out early and netting a coterie of chef devotees including Bernie Kantak, Justin Beckett and Juan Zamora (Chula Seafood). More recently, Homeboy’s has made headway nationally, with retail accounts in Michigan, Massachusetts and in New York City’s HEATONIST, a hipster boutique that boasts the first “hot sauce sommelier.”
Recently, Jimmy Kimmel posted about Homeboy’s on Instagram – a PR coup that instantly pushed it beyond local brands like Ass Kickin’ or Arizona Gunslinger on the hot sauce awareness index. It also raised an important question for Cutino: How big does he want Homeboy’s to get?
Cutino partly credits the success of his sauce to an evolution of the public’s collective palate. People are demanding more from hot sauce than the one-note sting of vinegar and peppers. “Hot sauce has always been an afterthought, just something you put on your food when you’re done with it,” he says. “Now people are actually going into dishes saying, ‘Where can I implement this to enhance the flavor? How is this going to give me the different angle I want in my food?’”
Cutino’s sauce is cut from a different cloth. His original brew, Homeboy’s Habanero, is an approximation of his Trinidadian stepfather’s secret recipe, a fruity, naturally sweet sauce so scorching that when Cutino was in high school it sent a Korean exchange student living with the family to the hospital with intestinal distress. Nothing could convince his stepdad to part with the recipe – not even the entreaties of Cutino’s South African wife Natalie, 35, whose heat tolerance eclipses even her husband’s. “In true island fashion, he was like, ‘A little bit of this, a little bit of that,’” Cutino remembers. “I reverse-engineered it, and I got it to the point where people said it was better than what he was making.”
Cutino, a restaurant vet who has worked every job from cook to manager, started sharing sauce with coworkers at True Food Kitchen. “Have you tried homeboy’s hot sauce?” they asked each other, planting the seed for the business’ name. He knew he was onto something when the jars he stashed in the work fridge started disappearing. “Sriracha was such a big deal [then], the first time that hot sauce had ever been trendy,” Natalie says. “[We were] riding that wave of excitement about all things spicy.”
Cutino was ready to make the jump into entrepreneurship in 2014. Natalie, an aesthetician, encouraged him to quit his job to focus on Homeboy’s. He enlisted Natalie’s sister, then an art student at Arizona State University, to design a minimalist bottle sans wrapper to showcase the vibrant sauce.
“He cashed out his 401(k), and now he tells me he took out a credit card that I didn’t know about,” she says with a laugh. Natalie, now creative director of Homeboy’s, was with Cutino for his first farmers’ market at Uptown. “On day one, Chris Bianco came by to our stall. He tried the product and he loved it,” she says. He became their first retail account. “That was huge for us... And now it’s come full circle.” The Cutinos aligned with the Bianco braintrust to scale up the company, focusing on mass production and distribution à la Bianco’s popular canned tomatoes and cookbook. Bianco isn’t an investor; he’s acting as a mentor.
“The next step is to focus on national growth,” Natalie says. “E-commerce will be a big focus for us.”
The couple hired chef Brent Kille, late of Crudo, as chief production officer of the cooking and bottling facility. He oversees a staff of eight and is tasked with maintaining Cutino’s exacting specifications.
“You understand the standards he’s setting, and that’s good,” Kille says. “Off the clock, he’s a jokester... Every chef wants to work with him when they get the opportunity.” His Valley food CV is another reason for his rapid and continued success. “Getting the word out to the community was easy for us, because so many people were excited and wanted to help,” Natalie says.
Another early supporter was chef Stephen Jones, who featured Homeboy’s hot sauces (there are now four regulars – Habanero, Jalapeño, Verde and Ghost – and seasonal and limited-run sauces) on his menu for the now-defunct the larder + the delta in DeSoto Central Market and plans to employ them in his forthcoming restaurant.
“It’s an evolutionary hot sauce. There is nothing of its kind,” Jones says. “Yes, there’s Sriracha. Yes, there’s Frank’s. There’s Louisiana hot sauce... You can pick this out of a lineup of a hundred sauces. It’s gonna change the game. It is changing the game.” Jones and the Cutinos are now dear friends. He praises Natalie for grounding his and Cutino’s rambunctious bromance. “She holds it down,” he says. “That’s Uncle Jacob to my son, that’s Aunt Natalie to my son. That’s the level where we’re at.”
Will Uncle Jacob and Aunt Natalie’s sauce be the next Tabasco, keeping salt and pepper shakers company on every dinner table in America? Do they even want that? Yes and no, Cutino says.
“With the type of market that we appeal to, we definitely do have our own space. It’s more people who are food-focused, who like to use hot sauce more as an ingredient than as a condiment,” Cutino says. “There’s nothing wrong with being that big company, but that may not be our long-term goal. But I mean, we may still want to be everywhere that good food is being cooked.”
How the Hot Sauce is Made
A typical production day for Jacob Cutino:
5 a.m. – Wake up and read the news. “I start with a couple of articles to wake up, and then I head straight to a local coffee shop” like Dutch Bros., Jobot or Lux.
6:30 a.m. – Get the team together at the production facility in Phoenix. “Unloading, prep work, breaking things down, washing peppers, destemming peppers. I don’t ever think I’ll be too far away from that. I like being in the kitchen with the guys.”
2 p.m. – Answer emails, take stock of the day, plan deliveries for the next day.
6 p.m. – Wind down and make dinner. “I may go see some of my buddies at The Gladly, decompress a little bit, then I’ll probably go home and cook... I can really find myself when I relax and cook.” Cutino is a grill master who loves cooking meat, veggies and especially – surprise – chiles over an open flame.
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