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How Far Can Dexter Holland's Gringo Bandito Go?

What started as a gag gift by the Offspring singer is becoming a serious business

The hands of Dexter Holland have helped sell millions of records, their deftness on the rhythm guitar for the Offspring contributing to numerous catchy melodies over two decades, the lyrics that flowed from them enshrined in the American punk songbook. They’re thick and gnarled, each finger like a pink Cuban cigar, each knuckle cracking with just a tug—the perfect pair of hands to handle the wear and tear of furiously strumming an Ibanez RG for a living.

But last week, in a pristine commercial kitchen in the industrial-park section of Newport Beach, those hands did something unseemly for a celebrity of Holland’s stature: They helped deseed blistering peppers under the watchful eye of a Mexican.

Holland was at Da’Kine Kitchen, surrounded by boxes and buckets and sinkfuls of peppers: habaneros, Fresnos, jalapeños, red Japanese—430 pounds in all. His iconic wraparound sunglasses hung from his right front jeans pocket; he eschewed the hairnets and baptismal-white smocks that other workers wore because he was visiting just for a bit. He grabbed a habanero, gave the notorious pepper a good scrubbing under hot water before effortlessly twisting off its bright-green stem from the neon-orange body, and then put it in a bucket. Then he did it again. And again. Like a pro. Jack FM boomed in the kitchen. After a while, a pile of stems sat on a cutting board. Holland looked at them, unsure of what to do next.

Chapman Baehler
Nice work you did: Arriaga deseeds peppers at Da'Kine Kitchen
Chapman Baehler
Nice work you did: Arriaga deseeds peppers at Da'Kine Kitchen
You're gonna go far, kid: One fine day in the kitchen for Holland
Chapman Baehler
You're gonna go far, kid: One fine day in the kitchen for Holland
I just work here: Checking the pH on the hot sauce before its bottling
Keith May
I just work here: Checking the pH on the hot sauce before its bottling
Keith May
Come out and play
Chapman Baehler
Come out and play

“Just leave it in the same place,” commanded Florencia Arriaga, a native of Uruapan, Michoacan, and longtime friend of Holland who’s now helping him on the strangest venture in his eclectic career. “Now, go wash your hands—with soap. You don’t want those habaneros hurting you later!”

Holland beamed. He usually doesn’t deseed peppers, but today is a big day. Those 430 pounds of multihued peppers, along with 70 pounds of green onions and a couple of other secret ingredients, are being prepped before getting processed into more than 500 gallons of Holland’s hot sauce, Gringo Bandito. It’ll be the biggest single batch ever produced in the brand’s four-year history.

“I want to make sure we’re stirring the pot right,” he said, more subdued in person than his anarchic Offspring persona suggests. “I want to make sure the peppers are at their best. I want to make sure the ingredients settle properly, to make sure the boiling keeps them separated . . .”

He stops himself and laughs in embarrassment. Unwittingly, Holland quoted “Come Out and Play,” the song that set him on the road to fame, put him in a spot where he could concoct a hot sauce on a lark and make it into possibly the best white-guy Mexican foodstuff since the Enchirito.

Everything about Gringo Bandito sauce seems to scream, “clueless gabacho,” a cheap publicity ploy. The sauce’s name, of course. The logo—the blond, spiky-haired, fair-skinned Holland bedecked in bandoliers, revolvers, sombreros and shades—that seems to be mocking the iconic symbol for Tapatío. The promotional pictures on the sauce’s website—Gringo Bandito superimposed on the Virgin of Guadalupe, standing next to a Chihuahua statue, being poured on an unsuspecting drunk—look like slides from a frat-boy visit to Puerto Vallarta.

“I hope you enjoy the adventurous flavor and tingling tantalization of my not-so-famous pepper sauce,” Holland posts on the website in a half-serious, mostly mocking tone reminiscent of carnival medicine men. “For over two years, I have searched far and wide for the perfect combination of spices to make your next dining experience a zinger. And I tried to make it easy on the pooper, too. Try it on tacos, burritos, eggs, pizza—it’s like a party in your mouth. I personally guarantee it.”

But what started as a joke is becoming an unlikely success story. Gringo Bandito is now available at Albertsons, Food 4 Less and Whole Foods across Southern California; all Mother’s Markets and Wahoo’s locations; dozens of restaurants across Orange County—and increasingly, the Southwest. Last year’s Warped Tour used the sauce during catering, and Metallica just asked for a big order for its tours. It won two Scovie Awards in 2009, one of the longest-running hot-sauce contests in the country, for its recipe: hot like Tapatío, as flavorful as Cholula, packing proper but not hellish heat, with chile seeds left intact to ensure it remains delicious, and no preservatives to muck it up. The hot sauce isn’t selling at Tabasco levels yet, still largely a Southern California phenomenon, and Holland hasn’t left his day job recording with the Offspring—but then again, Smash was supposed to be a local indie release and ended up selling 16 million records. And Holland hopes—knows—Gringo Bandito’s best days are just beginning.

“Gringo is really good—I like it,” says Diane Snyder, Whole Foods’ regional grocery buyer for the Southern California market. “Has a good flavor. He hit it on the head. By the movement that I see of Gringo Bandito at our stores, it’s selling. The customers have decided that they like it.”

*     *     *

Holland understands, even appreciates the bewilderment most people feel about the idea of a gabacho, a punker, a kid from Garden Grove, selling his own brand of the manna of Mexican food. “I realize the inherent contradiction,” he says, munching on a lunchtime pupusa at El Chinaco in Costa Mesa, just up the street from Da’Kine Foods. “It’s unlikely. It’s unexpected. It was wrong to make it, and that’s the fun of it. It’s a challenge.”

But in many ways, Holland is just following the path of his home—white Orange County has long loved its Mexican picante food. From the early 1900s until the rise of the Central Valley, local farmers grew the majority of chiles produced in California. One of them, Charles E. Utt (father of infamous congressman James Utt), invented a pepper dehydrator that revolutionized the industry and made production of hot sauce and other spicy products easier. One of the earliest cookbooks printed in Orange County, a 1926 collection written by members of the Ebell Society of the Santa Ana Valley, lists a recipe for a “Spanish sauce” that called for more potatoes than chili peppers.

The explosion of Mexican fast-food chains in Southern California during the early 1960s, coupled with a growing Latino population, ensured that hot sauce became a sort of condiment lingua franca in Orange County by the time Holland was born in 1965. He immersed himself in Mexican culture from a young age, and not just in the Spanish classes he enrolled in at Pacifica High or with Chicano classmates. At 10, his family took a trip by bus to Patzcuaro, Michoacán, staying near the town’s historic colonial square. “I remember it being so beautiful, eating dulces and watching some type of parade,” he says. “Being so young, it intrigued me.” When he was 13, Holland and his mother spent a month in Guadalajara with a Mexican family as part of a student-exchange program. He recalls eating Mexican food early and often.

“There used to be a place in Garden Grove, El Burrito Bravo, that sold hot dogs and tacos—those hard-shelled kinds,” he says between sips of a Negra Modelo. “It was good. Growing up in Orange County, Mexican culture is just a part of everyone. I don’t want to overstate it—I’m not totally down, totally with it. I don’t know everything about Mexican culture. I just really appreciate and enjoy it.”

This love for mexicanidad translated professionally. Holland sprinkled Mexican motifs in the Offspring’s output, from the 1964 Chevrolet Impala lowrider driven by the clueless protagonist in the video for “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” to the Dia de los Muertos-inspired cover of their 1997 album, Ixnay On the Hombre. The Offspring’s recording studio has a small Dia de los Muertos-style altar in its rest area, and calaveras hang respectfully on the walls.

“There’s a real sense of freedom and happiness in Mexican society,” he says, “not the confinement you sometimes feel with American society.”

One day early last decade, while eating Mexican food, Holland began reading the label of a bottle of Tapatío, the Vernon-based giant that is as common to Southern California restaurants nowadays as Heinz ketchup. “It just clicked that I had to make one,” he says. “People who like hot sauce are a certain type of people. They’re passionate. They’ll have a bottle with them wherever they go. I’m one of those people. And when I’m into something, I really get into it. It’s like my music—I liked records, so I learned how to play a guitar. After that? A band.”

In between recording and touring with the Offspring, Holland began experimenting with different blends of hot sauces at his house—just him, some knives and pots, a cutting board, and a stove. He relied on his master’s degree in molecular biology from the University of Southern California to determine how to make hot sauce smoother, how to bring out certain flavors, but mostly he relied on trial and error. Once Holland was completely satisfied with a batch, he poured it into bottles and handed them out to workers at his Nitro Records label as a gag Christmas present in 2005.

“They came up to me after tasting it and said, ‘Dude, this is good,’” he says. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. ‘No, we’re serious. We’re addicted to it.’ I thought they were just being polite.” But once workers finished Holland’s hot sauce, they asked when the next batch was coming.

“That’s when I realized I might have something,” he says. “From there, we just went with it. ‘I need a label—hey, it’d be funny if I dressed up like Pancho Villa, how silly would that look?’ And then the name—someone said ‘gringo,’ someone rhymed it with ‘bandito.’ Then someone else suggested we should sell it, and it just clicked.”

*     *     *

Bottling day for Gringo Bandito: Two massive vats—one holding 250 gallons, another holding 230 gallons—are filled with the ingredients to make Gringo Bandito. More ingredients still need to be prepped for a second round. Holland couldn’t make it—the Offspring, you know—so running the operation is Florencia Arriaga, a stout woman with stylish eyeglasses who has been a friend to the Holland family for more than a decade. “Brian is a kind man,” she says, referring to Holland by his given name. “He has a lot of money, a lot of fame, but every time he talks to me, he always asks. ‘Florencia, may I? Can I, please?’ He doesn’t make you feel like a nobody; he treats you like family. He’s bien cool. My kids are very proud that their mommy works for the guy from the Offspring.”

Arriaga is the quality-control director for Hungry Punker Inc., the official company that produces Gringo Bandito. She makes the orders for ingredients, checks for ingredient quality—if a pepper is bruised or blackened, Arriaga makes sure to cut out the bad part or toss it altogether—and even takes into account the changing seasons to ensure she stocks up on peppers before they stop growing. She’s proud that the sauce is all-natural, using no preservatives, extracts, concentrates or powders. “Natural is better,” Arriaga says, “but it takes more time to do right. If you don’t have the patience, it all comes out bad. It’s like cooking una olla de frijoles [a pot of beans]. If you put the heat on too high, they’ll come out bad. Do it slowly, and it’s wonderful.”

More than anyone working for Gringo Bandito, Arriaga is the least surprised at its existence. “I’ve been seeing Dexter eat for more than 10 years. My god, he loves salsa!” she says proudly. The Santa Ana resident first got to know Holland at family gatherings where she helped prepare food. “I would always see him tasting different salsas, looking at them, studying them. Eventually, I would hear him say, ‘I want to make salsa. Will you help me?’ Of course. Over the years, I’d tease him—’So when are we going to start?’ He’d always say he’s too busy. Finally, one day, he asked me, ‘I want to make a salsa. Can you help me?’ Of course!”

This was shortly after Holland had wowed the Nitro Records staff with his homemade recipe. For about eight months, two to three times per week, three hours per day, Holland and Arriaga would work in his kitchen, mixing and tweaking. Arriaga employed her knowledge of Mexican food, but she stresses it was Holland’s vision that created the final product. “He noticed most hot sauces had too much salt already and that a lot of people liked to eat chips with their hot sauce,” she points out. “So we reduced the salt, which not only made it taste better, but it was also healthier. Little things like that showed he was serious.”

Once Holland decided to begin selling Gringo Bandito, he realized he needed to rent a commercial kitchen to produce it properly. But since no one involved with the hot sauce had any experience with food production, Holland learned on the fly.

“Want to start a hot sauce?” Holland asks half-seriously. “Start a band. We started it DIY, not just as a philosophy, but out of necessity. That’s how we started Gringo Bandito. No consultants, just us.”

He found a kitchen—in Yreka, just outside the Klamath National Forest in Northern California. “We’d go to kitchens ’round here, and they’d all run away. I only wanted to use natural products—I didn’t want to waste my time on concentrates. We tried using those, and they just don’t have the same flavor. But most of the hot-sauce industry uses concentrates nowadays, and I found out that most kitchens aren’t used to working with fresh produce.”

Holland took Arriaga and others to Yreka in his jet, flying out from Long Beach Airport and spending the whole day making sauce, returning with boxes filled with bottles. “That was the closest kitchen I could find—besides, it was fun. It’s the adventure—fuck, yeah, we’ll fly up there to make some hot sauce.”

Gringo Bandito debuted in late 2006, entering the curiously overcrowded world of musical-celebrity hot sauces. Lynrd Skynrd have a brand, as do Patti LaBelle and Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony; there’s even Joe Perry’s Rock Your World Hot Sauce. It received bemused media reactions—this writer promptly threw the first bottle he received in the trash can, while The Onion included it in a survey of “B-list-celebrity-endorsed foodstuffs,” deriding his celebrity as “middling” and placing him in the same category as a Steven Seagal energy drink and a hot sauce produced by the only person ever to get a perfect score in Pac-Man.

“Dexter’s celebrity helps, sure,” says Matt McCollum, head of sales and marketing for Hungry Punker. “But not as much as people think. I’ll see the hesitation people have about the sauce—they’ll say, ‘I don’t want to try some gringo sauce.’ But then you give them a bit, and it all changes. That’s why we have to get people talking about the sauce and not about Dexter.”

*     *     *

The headquarters for Gringo Bandito are located in a Huntington Beach industrial park, next to the Offspring’s recording studio and not far from where Holland lives. The blinds are usually shut, and even the reception area shows no indication that this is where Gringo Bandito operates. Only when you enter the office—really, a small warehouse about as big as a school classroom, with one wall used by the Offspring members to stack their equipment—is there any indication that the business here is hot sauce.

The business is small—a receptionist, a taciturn guy who spends most of his time handling the logistics of shipping orders, and McCollum. His official title is head of sales and marketing, but he jokes that Dexter’s usual name for him is “hot-sauce guy” or “shit worker.” His job is the definition of multitasking—meeting with restaurants and grocery stores to pitch the sauce, standing outside the same restaurants and grocery stores handing out free samples, making deliveries of bottles, even picking up the hundreds of pounds of chiles that go into Gringo Bandito. For this, he uses the Toyota truck Holland has had since high school and that served as the Offspring’s original transportation. The Dallas native has been with the brand for three and a half years, a time that has seen Gringo Bandito grow way beyond Holland’s expectations.

Before McCollum, most of Gringo Bandito’s sales were at a couple of stores and via a website. Most of the restaurants that carried the hot sauce were in Huntington Beach or run by people enamored with the Offspring. It was always done person-to-person, slowly. But under McCollum, the brand has doubled the number of restaurants that carry bottles. He convinced Albertsons to sell the sauce in all its Southern California locations instead of just a Huntington Beach branch whose manager knew Holland’s friend and was a huge Offspring fan. McCollum secured the Whole Foods and Mother’s accounts. At one point, he even secretly followed distribution trucks on their early-morning routes, waking up at 5 a.m. to note where they dropped off produce. “I got caught once—the guy was mad at me until I gave him a bottle,” he admits.

Production started to increase—from one batch per month of 100 gallons to two—as word-of-mouth grew and Gringo Bandito’s decision to make the label into a sticker paid off, as it became increasingly popular across Huntington Beach and in the county’s surfing community. Holland eventually found Da’Kine and hired Arriaga to oversee production. He continued to deseed alongside Arriaga until last year, when the increase in production—by then, it was 150 gallons twice per month—and the Offspring’s tour forced Holland to step back a bit.

“We don’t do advertising,” McCollum says. “The clichéd thing to say is that it’s the punk-rock way. But seriously, the best way to advertise it is to put it in people’s mouths. We Google any mention of the sauce, and if someone says something nice, we’ll get in contact with them and send them a free bottle. What happens is that the person will be so touched that they’ll tell their friends. And then they’ll buy it to try it, and then buy it again.”

But McCollum also uses different strategies depending on where he’s hawking. “At Albertsons, I’ll try the local angle—‘Try a locally made product,’” he says. “With younger people, I push the Dexter-Offspring angle. At Mother’s, we do the all-natural angle. At Whole Foods, I do the gluten-free angle.” Asked to explain the latter, McCollum says that one question he usually fields from shoppers at Whole Foods is whether Gringo Bandito is gluten-free. He pulls out a page filled with small gold-colored stickers that say, “Gluten-Free.”

“We started putting that on the bottles at Whole Foods, and we noticed it sells faster that way,” McCollum says. “Almost all hot sauces are gluten-free, but hey, that little touch—any angle we can find.

“We want to get Gringo really big, but not just yet,” he adds. “Our goal this year is to double sales. It’s a five-man operation right now, which is a good thing. We want to keep a grasp on it, stabilize everything here before moving on to bigger things.”

The biggest problem McCollum says the company faces is theft—restaurants keep reporting that consumers steal Gringo Bandito bottles. “When they’re free, it’s no big deal,” McCollum says. “But if you’re paying for it, that’s a problem. That’s our Achilles heel. We need to chain it to the table, put a magnet on it, something. We need to figure that one out.”

Holland grants McCollum autonomy but always keeps up with the Gringo Bandito business. “Ultimately, the sauce is all him—he has the final word on everything,” McCollum says. McCollum gets an e-mail from Holland every day and a visit once per week when he’s not on tour, and the two talk regularly on the phone.

“He’s always looking to make people happy,” says McCollum, who grew up listening to the Offspring. “We tried to get into the Sugar Shack, and the owner liked our sauce but didn’t want to carry us. The bottles say, ‘For God’s sake,’ and she’s very religious. I told that to Dexter, and he said, ‘Let’s make a special label just for her.’ We spent money to make a new printing plate that reads, ‘For Pete’s sake.’ Only for the Sugar Shack—every other bottle has the original God quote. That’s attention.”

*     *     *

“We’ve had it almost since the beginning,” says Wing Lam, founder of Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. “I know a lot of these bands from before they were big. I know they all have their hobbies—in Dexter’s case, it was hot sauce. I don’t know where he got it from, but who cares? It’s good.

“When he came to me, he needed places to carry it to add credibility,” Lam adds. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been a fan, and we should do something together.’” The relationship between Holland and Lam is such that Hungry Punker recently started bottling its second hot sauce: Mucho Aloha, found only at Wahoo’s, created to help them stave off the Gringo Bandito-theft problem.

“I’m not surprised it’s taken off,” Lam says. “It’s a good brand.”

Holland still can’t believe Gringo Bandito’s run. “I’m very surprised,” he says. “It feels like ‘Come Out and Play’ did when it was going big. We’re hearing a lot of great things from people. It feels like it’s something happening, and that’s really cool.”

The immediate goal for this year: break even. Last year, Holland stopped giving away bottles to restaurants and began charging; most continue to carry it because of consumer demand. “It’s nice to have a hobby, but it’s nicer if it can turn a profit,” he says. “I probably should’ve started a clothing company, something that made more sense. I should’ve picked something that sells for more than two bucks per bottle. But we do it because we love it. It’s just fun.”

He pauses. The pupusa is almost done. He still needs to return to the Gringo Bandito office for a couple of more hours of work. “I never thought I’d be looking at those things that control the flow of salsa—they’re called reducers—for a living and saying, ‘How can I make the hole size right?’”

“My nephews in Mexico say, ‘Gringos don’t eat chile,’” Arriaga says. “Oh, this one does.”

garellano@ocweekly.com

This article appeared in print as "Hot Licks: What started as a gag gift by the Offspring singer Dexter Holland is becoming a serious business. How far can his Gringo Bandito hot sauce go?"
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