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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 8, 2010

At Pleasant Valley Kitchen Company
A winner: Carolyn Barrett follows her dream to re-create the perfect sweet sauce

By Philippa Stasiuk

KNOX — So pungent was the smell from Caroline Barrett’s first attempt at mass-producing her Sugar and Spice Sweet Sauce that she fled to the bedroom, and could only stir it by crawling on all fours back to the kitchen, wearing snorkeling goggles.

Two years and one commercial fan later, the executive-assistant-turned-entrepreneur has taken her dipping sauce to the Scovies, the Oscars of the spicy foods industry, and emerged the 2010 grand-prize winner against over 800 spicy products from 32 states and four countries. 

The Scovie awards are named for Wilbur Scoville who pioneered a rating scale for spicy foods.

“When I found out I’d won the Scovies, I literally cried tears of joy,” said Barrett, sitting in her kitchen in her ranch-style home on Pleasant Valley Road. “But there was a lot of luck involved in getting this sauce business started, not the least of which was having an excellent product.”

While winning a sauce contest may not seem like a good reason for such an outpour of emotion, the story behind Sugar and Spice Sweet Sauce is one of immense personal risk, and of rejecting a life that is paved through to retirement with good compensation and job security.

But first, a bit about the sauce. Barrett stresses that she is not the original creator of the sticky reddish orange concoction. That honor goes to James Hill, a now deceased owner of a bar in Rochester. Through a friend who regularly procured it for her, Barrett became so obsessed with its flavor that, after years of dipping everything from chicken wings to bacon-wrapped scallops in it, she worked up the courage to ask Hill for the recipe. He obliged, but never explained the process or the proportions, rendering the list of ingredients useless.

Figuring out the recipe and turning it into a business is what Barrett describes as the pursuit of the American Dream, and she says she never believed it was for her.

“I said to myself ‘You’re stuck in an administrative role.’ I was bored and dissatisfied but they paid me really good money,” she said. “So then I started writing a self-help book called Dating Advice for Women Who End Up Hurt. A couple of years went by and I said, ‘This book is crap,’ and I put it away. By this time, the restaurant owner had had a heart attack. I pulled out the last jar of sauce I had and we only used it on special occasions, and we had wings with it. I said, ‘Oh my God. I have to figure this sauce out!”

For four months, Barrett experimented, combining various amounts of vinegar, sugar, molasses, red pepper flakes, and spices to no avail. “My husband would dump the failed batches down past the pond,” she recalled. “It looked like something had been butchered down there, but the bunnies loved it.”

Then came the “A-ha” moment, the details of which Barrett declines to go into for fear of giving away the sauce’s secret. When she finally figured out the recipe, the next step was for Barrett to learn how to operate a business. She began by conducting market research, pairing the dipping sauce with different foods for her husband, Chuck, and his co-workers at Albany’s main post office.

Referring to the Service Corps of Retired Executives, Barrett said, “I even talked to people at SCORE, which are retired business people willing to teach entrepreneurs about business. They all but talked me out of it,” she recalled. “They said, unless you have something really special, I wouldn’t bother. Well, I said I do have something special and, to this day, I still don’t have a business plan!”

Barrett still may not have a plan but she now has a fan: a giant, whirring one so powerful that, when she turns it on in the commercial kitchen in the basement that her husband built, it can suck all the smoke out of her chimney upstairs.

“By the end of the day, when I make a batch of sauce in the winter, the house is 45 degrees inside. We can’t have any heat on. We had to upholster a new bed for Toby with a heating pad so that the dog has somewhere warm to be all day,” she said. “I have to have so many layers of clothes on that I look like a linebacker.”

Barrett sells her sauce wholesale to local places, like Indian Ladder Farms, as well as to over 17 stores in New York City alone, where she personally oversees the product placement. One of her New York outlets is the Garden of Eden, a high-end gourmet cornucopia of gastronomic delights.

Nowadays, the only living thing suffering from the fumes that come from creating her sauce — which is indeed the perfect balance of spicy and sweet — is her lawn: For 10 feet around her fan’s vent, the grass is perfectly and irreversibly brown.

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