Peppers from Brook Park among the key ingredients
While the Bronx name has become a popular marketing tool to sell anything from beer to T-shirts, one company’s founders say they aim to engage with the community their products represent.
One of the latest products to hit the market carrying the Bronx name is The Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce. Last season, Small Axe Peppers, a company started by Bronx locals John Crotty, John Fitzgerald, Todd Snyder and John Warren in 2014, produced more than 30,000 bottles of it, in collaboration with 23 community gardens throughout the borough.
The sauce is made from serrano peppers harvested from local sources, including urban farmers and gardeners throughout the borough and young people doing community service at Brook Park Community Garden.
Places such as Bronx Beer Hall, Bronx Brewery, Garden Gourmet Market and Teitel Brothers, as well as several Whole Foods stores in Brooklyn, Manhattan and upstate New York, now sell the sauce for $6.99 a bottle.
“The gardeners, the different stories with them, have been phenomenal,” said Crotty. “What it means for some of them and how they’ve taken ownership over this, saying that this is what they do […] It’s a group team effort and the results are really gratifying.”
Along with the rest of his team, Crotty had the idea to use the infamous “Bronx is burning” tagline for the sauce. The popular refrain is often used to refer to the string of fires, murders and other violent crimes that plagued the South Bronx throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. According to census data, the borough lost over 300,000 of its residents to other parts of New York between 1960 and 1980. The stereotypes that arose out of that time have been hard for the Bronx to shake.
“It takes something that is decidedly negative and makes it decidedly positive,” said Crotty. “That’s the way I think of the place in general.”
The company, which is named after a Bob Marley song called “Small Axe,” and evokes themes of a smaller opponent taking on a more powerful adversary, donated serrano pepper seeds to community gardens through the GrowNYC organization and offered to buy them back in the spring for use in the hot sauce.
Kelly Street Garden in Longwoood was one of the community gardens that received the seeds, although it did not end up selling back the crops or using them in the hot sauce.
Tiana Thomas, a community coordinator at the garden, said the team of gardeners decided to focus their efforts on producing vegetables such as zucchinis, squash and tomatoes for the community, although they would be open to trying to grow peppers for revenue in the upcoming year.
“Our main objective at the Kelly Street Garden is not producing revenue, at least not right now because we are a young garden and so because of that community focus we didn’t really focus on growing a critical mass of peppers to sell back,” said Thomas.
Crotty said that by teaming up with grassroots farmers and workers to harvest peppers for the sauce, he hopes to open up a part of the borough’s food and farming cultures to people who are not from the Bronx rather than simply push forth a hip new product.
“The Bronx has its own beat,” said Crotty. “It’s not a refuge place, per se. It’s got its own distinct features and cultures.”
Community activist Ed Garcia Conde, founder of the Welcome2TheBronx blog, said that while “it seems like everybody is trying to do something Bronx-related”, Bronx branding isn’t a problem when companies actually represent local interests. The hot sauce’s creators have engaged with the community respectfully rather than in an exploitative way as many others are doing, said Conde, adding he worries that the borough’s increasing popularity creates incentive for those who are simply trying to cash in on the name.
“It definitely would be nice if you’re going to cash-in to at least try to do something for the community,” Conde said.