Can you handle the heat?: Firefighter hot sauce funds scholarships


Art: David Tomz

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. … I was given peppers, so I made pepper sauce,” said Lee Taylor, retired firefighter and owner of Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce.

The pepper sauce bottles can be found on the shelves of grocery stores all over the Bay Area, and Taylor’s twist on this life lesson is emblematic of his path from a career in firefighting to becoming a hot sauce business owner — and community hero.

Taylor began his culinary journey back in 1994 at Palo Alto Fire Station 5 on Arastradero Road. During his years as a firefighter, a surplus of peppers grown in the station’s garden led Taylor to cook up a batch of hot sauce with them, which he then gave out to friends and family. After receiving lots of praise, Taylor decided to increase his pepper planting.

“I planted some more peppers, more than I did the first year, with the intention of, ‘Okay, I’ll make a little bit more sauce,’” Taylor said. “Well, that went on for 10 years — planting more, making more, planting more, making more and near the end there, I was making about 40 gallons of hot sauce a year in the kitchen.”

Once he started selling bottles, Taylor found success quite early: the first test batch of 500 bottles sold out within a week. After entering the Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 to expand his connections, he won first place.

The proceeds made from hot sauce sales go toward the Palo Alto Firefighters Charitable Fund, a program that sends students to college every year.

The scholarship program to date has given away 180 college scholarships,”

— Lee Taylor, Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce owner

“The scholarship program to date has given away 180 college scholarships,” Taylor said. “I’m ultra, ultra proud of that. My goal was one scholarship per year and we’ve been doing it since 2003, so 20 years and we’ve done 180, exceeding my goal, which is fantastic.”

Funding the scholarship program has been Taylor’s goal from the start; before the birth of Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce, he would ride his bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles, collecting sponsors, in order to raise money for the scholarships. The company became his way to continue this work.

In his last year of bike riding, Taylor was hit by three separate cars, which pushed him to find another way of making money along with the encouragement of his friends.

“Two of my friends … said, ‘What if you sold that hot sauce you’ve been making for all these years and didn’t ride your bike?’” Taylor said. “‘You could make money all year long. It wouldn’t be a one-time thing, and you won’t die selling hot sauce.’”

While Taylor’s hot sauce business has since blossomed from its humble beginnings into a successful pepper sauce company, it has remained family-oriented. Taylor runs the business with his son, and the recipes listed on their website are his wife’s creative concoctions.

I got a little nudge, I got a little help, and I feel very fortunate for that … I wanted to return that favor, that gift,

— Lee Taylor, Palo Alto Firefighters Pepper Sauce owner

“When I made it, I was kind of like, this is gonna be great for tacos or burritos or on eggs, but since I’ve had years and decades of it, it’s phenomenal on Asian food, Italian food all kinds,” Taylor said. “Those recipes that are on the website are inventions of hers [his wife’s] that we have eaten for years.”

The company produces three kinds of sauces: Original Pepper Sauce, XX Habanero Sauce and XXX Ghost Pepper Sauce. The sauce is available both online and in-store in 82 chain and independent retailers in California and at many more locations in 18 other states.

Despite a setback during the pandemic, where the company experienced a loss of 60% of its wholesale customers, Taylor said he is looking to bounce back and continue to grow the company.

Taylor said that after growing up in a single-parent household and struggling at times to eat, he is grateful for the people in his life that helped put his life on track, inspiring him to continue giving back to the community through pepper sauce.

“I got a little nudge, I got a little help, and I feel very fortunate for that,” Taylor said. “I wanted to return that favor, that gift.”