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Some Like It Hot

Ben Schwartz


Jacob Sacks and Jasmine Bonilla

Strong Start A local nonprofit is helping emerging entrepreneurs get a leg up in the food industry by connecting them to business training and support. Alchemist, a community development corporation focused on bringing economic opportunity to historically disenfranchised and underresourced populations, offers a microenterprise academy, business incubator program and commercial kitchen through its Alchemist Kitchen program. “Starting any business is incredibly difficult. Starting a food business is probably 10 times harder,” says program manager Jacob Sacks. “Our program puts entrepreneurs years ahead of where they would have been otherwise” by connecting them to the information, skills and resources necessary to run a successful business. Jasmine Bonilla, who graduated from the microenterprise academy and is now part of the incubator program, credits Alchemist Kitchen with the successful launch of her line of bottled sauces, Jazz’s Saucy Sauce, which is sold at farmers markets and select retailers. “The class helped me open my eyes to different ways of getting your business started,” explains Bonilla. “I never imagined I could have my product in stores, but with Alchemist holding my hand, it was all possible. My life has changed a whole lot. It has boosted my confidence. I’m part of the food industry now.” By helping food entrepreneurs get their footing, Alchemist is also contributing to greater variety and vibrancy across the local food landscape. Participants’ products include everything from pickled red onions to Jamaica tea to paella. “The world is a better place when it’s more diverse, especially when it comes to food,” says Sacks. “The food scene in Sacramento is already great, but to be able to bring a diverse array of foods into that scene and have them celebrated is a really beautiful thing.”—CATHERINE WARMERDAM

Left: Laura Marie Anthony; right: Aniko Kiezel

A comic shop tucked into a modest suburban strip mall is perhaps the last place you’d expect to make a great gourmet find, yet that’s precisely where Sacramento’s hot sauce fanatics get their fix. Empire’s Comics Vault carries what many consider the city’s best selection of bottled sauces, attracting heat-seeking home cooks, professional chefs and hot sauce lovers from far and wide. Ben Schwartz, the owner of Empire’s, says he’s “always been a big hot sauce guy” but regretted having to travel to get the variety of brands he craved. About four years ago, he took matters into his own hands and dedicated a section of his shop to selling hot sauces from across the United States, including a handful from Sacramento. He often has 50 to 100 different sauces on hand in any given week. Schwartz is choosy about what hot sauces make the cut. Intense spiciness isn’t enough to win him over. “We don’t go just for the pure heat. Aside from playing pranks on your friends or adding a couple of drops to your chili, “EVERYTHING HERE, those aren’t really what we go for,” he WHETHER IT’S MADE WITH explains. “Everything here, whether it’s GHOST PEPPER, HABANERO, made with ghost pepper, habanero, jalapeño, you get the heat but you also get JALAPEÑO, YOU GET THE the flavor. That flavor is really important.” HEAT BUT YOU ALSO GET By developing relationships with THE FLAVOR.” manufacturers, Schwartz has been able to curate an eclectic collection. “The brands I carry are things I’ve tried and liked. I started with three of my favorite brands: Bravado, Lucky Dog and Humboldt. Then I branched out from there,” he says. Some of the standout labels on Empire’s shelves include Butterfly Bakery of Vermont, Colorado’s Seed Ranch Flavor Co. and Formosa Hot Sauce out of San Jose. In the tradition of Comic-Con, Empire’s hosts an annual Hot Sauce Con, bringing together vendors and their hot sauce fandom for tastings and camaraderie. “It’s a great time to grab a taco, try all kinds of sauces and hang out with the people who made them,” says Schwartz. 1120 Fulton Ave.; (916) 482-8779;—CATHERINE WARMERDAM


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