Photo by Chris Casella

Hot Times

John Hard is never too far from the flame.

A fire-protection engineer by trade, he was born into a long line of specialists—his father, Harold owned a local fire-protection agency. John was also drawn to fiery foods while young, beginning with an accidental purchase.

While growing up in Linden, his mom sent him to pick up a can of beans for chili. He was supposed to get kidney beans, but standing in the aisle of Carfagna’s, Hard saw a can of chili beans that he figured was a better fit. His mom was none too pleased, begrudgingly cooking chili that she deemed to spicy, for the family palate. That family palate has changed quite a bit decades later, as John went on to found the hot sauce juggernaut, CaJohns Fiery Foods.

Throughout the late-1970s and 1980s, the fire-protection business took Hard to Louisiana and Texas, where he picked up a taste for spice and heat. In his travels he met his wife, a woman from Mississippi coastal country with a family that loved the fire of cajun and creole cooking. His in-laws were more than happy to serve as hot-sauce enablers, and he began to haul carloads of cooking ingredients back home to Columbus. Further expansion of his palate and passion for hot peppers came from countless cajun cooking shows and a cookbook by PBS favorite Justin Wilson, as well as a wide variety of spices pouring in via mail order. John had plenty of fuel for his transformation to “CaJohn.”

Cajohn

The next turn on his peppery path came when his kids returned home from school with a flier to sell periodicals, one of which was Chile Pepper Magazine. An ad from the publication led him to the 1996 Fiery Foods Festival in New Mexico. His visit to the event opened up a new world of pepper purveyors, and Hard started selling products he enjoyed. But his quest for hot sauce perfection led him to create his own line. In 1999, he began to mix his own sauces and next found himself at the Fancy Foods Show in New York City, which perked up sales. The true turning point for the business was a short article in April 2001 by the Dispatch’s Grumpy Gourmet, Doral Chenoweth. Even more fuel was added to the fire when the local Frigidaire office placed an order of 7,500 gift packs with a CaJohns catalog included in each. That bulk order fired business up., and in short succession, Hard opened his own pepper processing plant (2002), sold the family fire-protection business (2004), and launched a stand at the North Market (2006). The next jump was in 2010 when the company moved operations to Westerville, a homecoming of sorts for Hard since he graduated from Westerville High School and Otterbein University. Along the way, CaJohns Fiery Foods has earned over 650 international, national, and regional awards, with the majority of accolades in the first-place category. Starting with a few hot sauces, the company now cranks out over 200 sauces, salsas, mustards, rubs, and more. CaJohns also co-packs products for several other well-known local companies. A significant shift in the business came when Hard began making salsas to cater to demand. Many will linger over a bottle of hot sauce for six months; most people go through a jar of salsa in six minutes.

Whether it be fire or heat, it’s still a family business for Hard. His wife and children help out, and often they and family pets serve as inspiration for product names and labels.

All from a guy whose first experience with spicy food literally wasn’t worth a can of beans.

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