Robyn Jasko’s “hyper-organic” peppers
ensure a farm-fresh hot sauce
When Robyn Jasko launched her Kickstarter campaign in March 2013, her husband implored her not to be upset if her attempt to crowdfund a new hot sauce business was unsuccessful. By the time she woke up the next morning, her $850 goal had been met, and 45 days later, when the campaign came to an end, she had raised more than $53,000.
“It was insane,” Jasko says, still incredulous nearly a year and a half later. “I just thought, ‘Let me put this out to the universe and see what happens.’ I never thought this company would take off like it has.”
Jasko and her husband, Paul David, both now work full-time producing Homesweet Homegrown hot sauces from their home in Kutztown. Their products can now be found in more than 100 retail stores, including the Fair Food Farmstand, Harvest Local Foods and Volta Market. The endeavor grew out of Jasko’s 2012 book, Homesweet Homegrown, which was itself an offshoot of her website, Grow Indie (goindie.com/grow). Both encouraged readers to grow their own food no matter where they live. Jasko grew up gardening with her father and kept up the habit even when space and circumstances proved challenging.
“I’ve always been interested in the DIY mentality of learning how to make, grow and do everything myself, so I’ve always tried to grow something,” she says. “Even if it’s just a windowsill basil plant or a garden on a fire escape. It just tastes better, and when I learned about the political and environmental aspects, it became our way of living. Now it’s exciting to see people really get behind it.”
Jasko grows all of the peppers used in her sauces, rare among even artisanal hot sauce producers. She and David lease a two-acre field in Kutztown adjacent to a public park and a cornfield, where they have almost 5,000 pepper plants. Each of the brand’s three sauces features one type of pepper: Orange Crush, the Scotch Bonnet Caribbean red habanero; Punch Drunk, the ghost pepper; and Aramingo, a pineapple mango-flavored sauce, the lemon drop pepper. Punch Drunk is produced in partnership with Victory Brewing Company, which serves the sauce in its Downingtown brewpub.
Jasko planted her first pepper plants in the community garden she founded at Kutztown University shortly before embarking on a book tour for Homesweet Homegrown in 2012. She returned to find 300 plants and hundreds of pounds of peppers, which went into her first sauces. She began selling the sauce at book signing events to positive reactions, and then at farmers markets in Berks County.
While Homesweet Homegrown is not certified organic, Jasko describes their methods as “hyper-organic.” They don’t use pesticides in the field or artificial thickeners in the sauces. They even forgo using black plastic in between the rows of pepper plants, instead opting to use organic paper mulch. That’s an anomaly in their locale, which is dominated by farmers growing genetically modified (GMO) corn and soybeans.
Jasko says that the presence of a female farmer in the community was a bit of a novelty for what she calls the local “good ol’ boy farmers,” but her methods were met with even more head-scratching than her gender. “A lot of them expect us to fail because we’re not using pesticides, but I refuse to listen to naysayers,” she says. “I think people are curious to see how it works out.”
Homesweet Homegrown hires community members and college students to help pick the peppers three days a week. One regular at the field is Jeri Carroll, a local Community Service Officer who met Jasko when they both served on the Kutztown Environmental Advisory Commission. “We’re pretty environmentally conscious in Kutztown,” Carroll says. “This property was just GMO corn, but Robyn took it over and was able to take it more organic. It’s a small piece, but everything makes a difference.”
Jasko has ambitious plans for her newly minted brand, beginning with taking their hot sauces national and eventually introducing new products. With her Kickstarter success and her background in journalism, marketing and web design, she intends to keep social media an integral part of those plans.
“I love that the walls have come down,” she says. “The Internet makes it possible for people to connect with others around the world, and together we can make anything happen.”