On the Line: John Kessler of Infinity Sauces

I met John Kessler while checking out The Viking Truck’s brick-and-mortar location at McFadden Public Market. He’s got a killer condiment option to pair with their sausages and corn dogs. While the realm of hot sauces is pretty unchartered territory for me, hitting up John for an interview was an excellent way to learn more about Infinity Sauces.

Where does the Infinity name come from?
That’s a funny story. My eighth batch of sauce (currently the “original” flavor) was the winner in my book. So I sent the sample to a “cooking partner in crime” friend of mine with just the number “8” on it. He, of course, read it sideways, called me up and asked me, “What’s up with the infinity stuff you sent me?” I laughed and explained it was an eight, but the name Infinity stuck in my craw, and then the tagline “sauces for infinite uses” sealed the name deal (’cause they truly are).

Favorite dishes to pair your hot sauce with:
It really depends on “What’s on your plate?” There are so many amazing dishes out there that pair so well with the sauces. Lately, I’ve been enjoying them incorporated into more exotic cheeses, salad dressings and marinades.

Tell me about the different flavors available. What’s the best-seller?
At last count, there are 17 different varietals developed (A lot. I guess I’m trying to give Heinz 57 a run for their money.), with seven available year-round; the others are seasonal and/or limited productions. The best-sellers of the regular line are Chipotle, Tri-Haba-Saurus Rex, Ghost Monkey and the Black Sand.

I read that you do more than sauces. What else do you produce?
Right now, the biggest response to market outside of sauces has been the Black Sand seasoning salt/dry rub. This swept all the awards at the OC Fair seasonings category this summer, and is becoming a huge hit. I also have a fun, whole grain mustard that I make with Left Coast brewery using their Trestles IPA.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Be fearless! Don’t be afraid to f*uck it up. Try new things and experiment. We live in an amazing time for cooking with so many resources out there. I’m personally still a fan of checking out stacks of cookbooks from the library. But the internet has great recipes to study and modify to your liking/preferences. Just don’t be one of those jerks who gives a recipe a 1-star rating, then in the notes admit that you substituted all the ingredients.)

Where do you make the sauces?
I use the East End Kitchens at the 4th Street Market in Santa Ana. Their incubator kitchen program has been an awesome place for a food startup like myself and others.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
That we are all a bunch of sadists wanting to inflict pain on your palate (as well as the day after). Sure, there is a large percentage of people in the industry who are focused on giving you pain (You can tell them by their silly names like “blow it out your anus” or “nuclear stomach holocaust”). But there are a few of us that are pushing the envelope by focusing on finely crafted flavor profiles with the heat being a secondary factor.

How did your company get started?
One summer I planted four habanero plants and ended up with habanero trees. I must have had 25 pounds of peppers that summer, and had to figure out what the hell to do with them all. I experimented with making all sorts of spicy goodies, but the family and friends favorite was the hot sauce. I thought they were all being nice to me. Then, after entering some into competitions and sweeping the awards, I realized it was legit and put a business plan together. You know what they say, when life gives you habaneros . . . .

I’d like to know more about people who have inspired you or you’ve collaborated with.
I get inspiration from everyone around me daily. Whether it’s someone I know kick some ass or watching them fail (It inspires me to make the same f*ck up.), I always try to learn and be a better person. I really try to align my business model with the craft beer industry and take lessons from them. Some of those people have been phenomenal in inspiring me. I’ve been fortunate enough to work side-by-side with some like-minded people who I really like to bounce ideas and concepts by; Pejmon at Proper’s Pickles is a great guy who always helps me understand the craft food business better. If you see us at events, we are always collaborating on the best Bloody Marys.

Paul and Julie at Contra Coffee keep me fueled mentally, and by having the most amazing cold brew around. Alex and Richie at Long Beach Jerky always remind me to keep it real. My wife inspires me to dream big, plan and accomplish what you set out to do.

What was your best recent food find?
This meal was nothing new, ground-breaking or industry shattering, but it was amazing. My last trip down South found me in a neighborhood joint called the Gateway Diner for lunch. After being acknowledged that, “you’re not from ’round these parts.”, I was served a plate of half a BBQ chicken with a white vinegar-based sauce, collard greens and green beans. It was the simplest, classic, most amazing Southern meal I have had in forever. It was a big reminder that sometimes we try to over-complicate things and overlook just how good food can taste with very simple preparation. That whole KISS acronym (Keep It Simple, Stupid) crept back to me like a long lost friend.

When you’re not in the kitchen, what are you doing?
Trying to make sure that my kids grow up with a good understanding of how the world works in a healthy environment, and make sure they have a good sense of humor without being too much of a smart ass.When I have time, I really enjoy mountain bike riding. I just returned from a trip to Brevard, North Carolina where we stayed on Oskar Blues bike ranch and did some epic bike riding followed by epic beer drinking. Also, trying to stay on top of laundry; that’s a daily battle.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Mill Valley, California. My travels to get to SoCal could make a book in itself. Even my wife hasn’t been able to piece my travels together yet. I had a long stint in Seattle where my culinary interests peaked (I still miss the fresh fish) and ended up in OC via a job transfer to be closer to my daughter. Fell madly in love while here, and now you can’t tear me away.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
When I was about three, I was at my grandma’s house for Christmas Eve, and my Uncle Rex stepped out, shortly followed by a GRAND entrance by Santa. My siblings and cousins were thrilled beyond belief to have a Santa visit. Shortly after Santa left, my Uncle Rex returned, and I felt so bad for him to have missed Santa Claus! It was the coolest thing I ever witnessed in my three short years, and he had to miss it! I still feel sorry for him.

That, and then when I was eight and dashed off to swim practice late. Got to the pool only to have the coach razz me for being late in front of the entire team. I then proceed to jump in the pool by throwing off my shirt and quickly discarding my pants, only to realize in my haste that I had forgotten to put on my swim suit on (under my pants) in front of the whole team. Sometimes it’s the humbling moments that you hold onto dearest.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I filmed a Nirvana concert in 1991 where they played Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. Yup, that’s all my footage you see floating around the internet and box sets.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned.
Failure is always an option. And write a concise business plan.

Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?

What was the last thing you looked up online?
What is the actual airspeed velocity of an Unladed Swallow? Turns out an Unladed European Swallow flies 11 meters per second, or 24 miles per hour. Now you have your answer. You’re welcome.

You’ve won a few awards with your sauces. What are they?
I have won best hot sauce at the OC Fair four years in a row. Not an easy task, considering you are only allowed to enter one sauce per year, and you can never repeat entries. Chipotle, Scorpion Monkey, Ghost Monkey, and a yet-to-be-released “Chiptole-Cabra” have all garnered the top awards. 2017 also saw the Black Sand winning top seasoning, judge’s choice and division winner. The Chipotle and Scorpion Monkey have also taken top awards at the Marin and Sonoma County Fairs.

Where can we find Infinity Sauces?
The best place to find almost the entire line is at Alta Baja Market in the 4th Street Market. Since I make it there, I can walk products directly to the shelf. They also have sample bottles, so you can try it on their delicious food. The website (www.infinitysauces.com) always has the entire line, as well as specials and discount packs. My favorite OC restaurant to enjoy it at is at Snooze, An A.M. Eatery in Tustin (and their other San Diego locations). When in Solana Beach, Pillbox Tavern is a favorite stop of mine. Their food and chef are top notch, and the bar isn’t bad either.

What would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
Being a whitewater rafting docent. But only Class 4 and 5, only. Also, a couple of weeks ago, when I was on the aforementioned trip in Brevard, North Carolina, we hired Matt, a mountain bike guide that worked for Oskar Blues bike ranch. Now that’s one hell of a gig. You get paid to ride bikes all day, talking to people and learning all sorts of shit about them (and thus, life) with brewery access privileges. That I would try.

Any new collaborations or flavors we should look forward to?
Hopefully soon there will be a new release of “Chipotle-Cabra”, a spicy habanero/chipotle sauce. “Pyro”, a custom blend hot sauce for The Slidebar in Fullerton should be hitting their tables soon. Also, a collaboration with the Long Beach Jerky Company should be wrapping up soon. Infinity Sauce-flavored Jerky; imagine how f*cking good that is going to be. There are also a bunch of other collaborations in the works. Some that are really cool, and some that might be hen house talkĀ  . . .until that egg has dropped.

As John Kessler referenced earlier, you can learn more about his products at www.infinitysauces.com.

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