Seed to Bottle Takes Root on The Big Island
Lauren McKinley first met Christopher Bornstein through a friend when she was on vacation in Hawaii in 2014. The two hit it off and started a long distance relationship. Lauren moved to the Big Island on a whim and soon after, the Spicy Ninjas were born.
An Accidental Blend
The couple met up at a coffee shop with two friends, Ben and Duke, who were making chili sauce for local restaurant. “We thought we could make a business so we got together with guy getting his PhD in plant biology with a focus on banana research,” Chris says. “We made three little batches of hot sauce that tasted terrible and looked horrible! I ended up pouring all the batches in a blender. We ended up with this beautiful orange color and a citrusy smell and flavor. It took a month and a half to recreate because we didn’t write down the original and now it’s our best selling sauce!”
S.N.S. OG – Three Wrongs Make a Right! Sauce features organic carrots,ghost chili, Hawaiian chili, Datil chili,and Hawaiian Akua chili, which the Spicy Ninjas say goes with everything from a gourmet stir-fry, popcorn, or a margarita rim.
Organic Seed to Bottle
That almost mistake led to the organic seed to bottle hot sauce company, Spicy Ninja Sauce. Chris and Lauren describe Spicy Ninja as “fantastically tasty and singularly unique hot sauces with an eclectically wild and exciting array of flavors fashioned from local ingredients that represent tropical bliss and paradise.”
Chris says one of the couple’s goals is to boost organic farming on The Big Island. “The state of Hawaii imports 90% of its food and it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to protect our oceans and wildlife here,” he says.
Today, Spicy Ninja Sauces are available in Foodland, Hawaii’s largest grocery store, health food stores on the island, and are also used as wing sauce at Kona Brewing company, as well as in other island restaurants, as well as on the Spicy Nina Sauce Website.
Bring on the Heat
In addition to the O.G. sauce, the line includes whimsical sauces such as God Fearing Monkeys in the Temple of Sweet Chili Bang Bangs, a Thai-inspired sauce with local organic lemongrass, ginger, ghost and Hawaiian chili, bananas, and dried jackfruit; Mauna Kea Magma with organic local coffee and beets; T-Rex similar to Magma but with turmeric; God Fearing Monkeys in Bob’s Disco Inferno with banana, poi (taro root) and raw cacao; Super Typhoon and the Pina Colada of DOOM with cast iron-toasted coconut and Hawaiian pineapple, Biblical Burn with organic sweet potato, burdock root, cardamon, frankincense and myrrh, spiced with yellow Peruvian chili; God Fearing Monkeys and the Bengali Spice Pirates – Calypso’s Full Tilt Boogey with chocolate habaneros; Mapaches Voladores y el Ejército de los Fantasmas Verdes! (Flying Raccoons and the Army of the Green Ghosts!))with tomatillos, Green Ghost and other chilis; and Tiger Claw Lee’s Smooth Groove Releases the Kraken! with organic soursop, nettle leaf, jasmine tea, sarsaparilla, and a host of peppers.
VERY HOT – Advanced Tactical Weaponized Starfruit Darth Star O.G.; VERY HOT – Cupid’s Rock n’Roll will Never Die! A Spicy Ninja Love Ballad V 3.1 with ghost chillies, dried habaneros and dried ghosts, damiana, toasted black sesame, ashwaganda, maca root, cinnamon and raw cacao pods; Flaming Piña Hopocalypse!; “Pussyfootin’ Around” Bengali Spice Pirates with banana and papaya; ‘Pussyfootin’ Around’ Piña Colada – Revenge of The Happy Chinchilla!; and Tipsy Coco Mango Madness.
Just in time for Pumpkin Spice season is Drunkin’ Pumpkin with kabocha squash and Koaloa Spiced Rum.
“Spicy Ninja has really taken off with mixologists,” the couple notes. “Heat has found its way even into companies that make sriracha or habanero beer, as well as spicy vodkas. Adding hot sauce to rims is a thing. When we are at Lava Beach Club, we get mai tais with hot sauce for a spicy mai tai. It’s also good in a Bloody Mary. Mauna Kea Copper Bar uses our sauces and PAU Vodka in Maui does a whole series with vodka, a mixer thing. Craft Brew Alliance sells the sauces in its gift shops, including an airport location. It’s huge!
Despite the runaway popularity, the Ninjas are focused on growing their business slowly. “It’s the first business we’ve ever had and we didn’t expect it to blow up quickly,” says Chris. “We were expecting to be able to buy our ingredients from farmers and it breaks my heart but farming has taken a downturn. It’s hard to find people who want to have anything to do with farming, especially organic, so we have to do lots of it ourselves.”
Large scale farming doesn’t vibe with the couple’s philosophies. “We don’t agree with it, especially on an island like we are. What goes into the ground goes into the ocean. Reefs die off. We blame it on sunscreen but it’s also chemical fertilizers that end up in the ocean,” explains Chris.
As a result, the couple has created their own growing methods. They are becoming more complex with what they do and are getting ready to build their first manufacturing facility.
Lauren says she and Chris come from two different backgrounds with different spice tolerances. She grew up in New England with parents who “didn’t even do onions and garlic” and had to build up her spice tolerance. “I have always been appreciative of food and worked in restaurants and the food industry. I enjoy cooking but would happily have someone else cook for me!” She enjoys coming up with different flavor ideas.
Chris, who was stationed in Asia when he was in the Navy, was involved in cooking and food. He loves to experiment with ingredients. “The crazy thing is how you change one part of something and the whole outcome will be different if you saute before or add in the beginning or end, the resulting sauce will be different.”
The couple’s long-range plans include expanding across the U.S. but still keeping the manufacturing local with regional flavor differences. “Every region would have its own flavor and ingredients grown in that region,” says Lauren. “We’d have our best-selling sauces but also regional variations. We want to support local organic farming and to put our money where our mouth is.”
“We want to keep it simple and use what we have learned about growth,” says Chris. “Each region can have up to 15 sauces eventually, including the three main Hawaiian flavors, Magna OG, Super Typhoon, and Pina Colada of Doom.”
Taking Over the Spicy Green Planet
“We’ve done our research. Salsa is replacing ketchup and is now America’s number one condiment. We’ve been in business 3 years and seen heat tolerance building up and up. We have no trouble impressing some of the big hot sauce fanatics who like high heat,” says Chris.
“We’re also covering lot of people who don’t normally like hot sauce but are surprised by the flavors. It’s not peppers and vinegar,” adds Lauren.
The Spicy Ninjas want to blanket the US with hot peppers and groovy combinations. “We tell people to use in whatever you’re cooking as a seasoning and to add flavor,” says Lauren. “Our sauces are gourmet hot sauces for everyone, including the college student with no money who can add organic durian and chocolate habanero peppers to microwave ramen. It’s pretty darn good!”