When you hear the words candied jalapenos, are you wary of the potential heat or intrigued by the aspect of candy?
Josh Merchant and his wife, Brenda, created Sweet Heat Peppers Candied Jalapenos, and he finds that first-time visitors to their booth at farmers markets are usually somewhere in the middle. In an effort to allay the fears of foodies who don’t seek heat, the couple created a dip featuring their candied jalapenos, and they serve samples at their booth.
The dip proved so popular, Merchant had it printed on the label: Combine a jar of Sweet Heat Peppers Candied Jalapenos with two eight-ounce packages of cream cheese in a food processor and process until smooth. Serve with crackers.
Merchant says that a taste of the dip immediately alleviates the anxiety of anyone who is not overly fond of heat. When you take a bite of a fresh jalapeno from the garden, the heat lingers, but the sweet of the candied jalapenos combined with the taming effects of the cream cheese quickly offset the sensation of heat.
Years ago at a cookout, he said, a friend of a friend who lived out of state shared a jar of candied jalapenos. Everyone loved the sweet heat on brats, but no one had ever heard of the brand, nor could they locate them in local grocery stores. Thus began Merchant’s quest to duplicate the flavor sensation that had so captivated him and his friends.
In 2006, he experimented with jalapenos, sugar and various spices for about six months until he found the perfect flavor combination. “The process is a bit like brining but with sugar and spices instead of salt,” he said. “It takes about three days to candy each batch of jalapenos.”
He and his wife candied their peppers and shared them at family barbecues, gave them away as gifts and consumed copious amounts at their own home. They hadn’t considered selling the peppers, but friends and family members were so impressed with the unique flavor that they continuously encouraged the Merchants to look into setting up a booth at an area farmers market. In 2008, they applied to sell their candied peppers for four weeks only at an Omaha farmers market.
In less than two hours at their first-ever farmers market, they sold all 60 jars of candied jalapenos. A few days later, the market manager called and asked the Merchants to become season vendors and sell every week instead of the original four. They nervously agreed.
Both Merchant and his wife have full-time jobs that they consider their dream jobs, so working all day and preparing for the market each week initially was overwhelming. Candying the peppers had been a hobby, but candying and canning dozens of jars each week for the markets was tremendously time-consuming, and they faced a greater dilemma: The demand for their jalapenos far outstripped their backyard garden’s ability to produce them.
Each week, they bought every jalapeno they could find at Whole Foods and Hy-Vee, and demand was so great, they eventually had to preorder the jalapenos and Ball jars.
As the sales volume continued to increase, they realized they needed a commercial kitchen to meet the demand for their candied jalapenos. Unfortunately, Merchant had been laid off from his former job, and their baby was born a month early, so instead, they opted to find a co-packer -- an industrial manufacturer who would use Merchant’s recipe and produce and can the jalapenos. After trying five co-packers, they eventually found a determined co-packer who was capable of replicating their recipe and located a local distributor.
In addition to the Haymarket Farmers Market in Lincoln and a couple of farmers markets in Omaha, Sweet Heat Peppers Candied Jalapenos are now carried in grocery stores and specialty markets in 14 states. The Skinny ’Rita cocktail at Beyond Golf Sports & Spirts, a La Vista bar, is served with four Sweet Heat Peppers Candied Jalapenos as garnish, and the menu features nachos and nacho pizza topped with the candied jalapenos, too.
In Lincoln, look for the peppers at several Hy-Vee stores, A Street Market, Ideal Grocery, Smoking Gun Beef Jerky and The Saucy Cook. The Sweet Heat website (www.sweetheatpeppers.com) has retail store locations and can take online orders.
Last fall, after their first year at the Haymarket Farmers Market, the Merchants debuted their Sweet Heat Peppers Sweet & Spicy Pickles. In March, they added Sweet Heat Peppers Seasoning, a dry rub, to their growing product list. Next up is Sweet Heat Extreme Heat Jalapenos for people who prefer a bit more kick in their peppers. Merchant says a few customers have asked about candied ghost peppers, but he and his wife are inclined to consider candied habaneros before making the jump to ghost peppers, which are the hottest of the hot.
Merchant is amused and impressed by the creative ways customers have used their candied jalapenos. They’ve been poured into chili, baked into brownies and stirred into a crockpot of cocktail sausages with barbecue sauce. A few have told him that after polishing off the jalapenos, they drizzle the juice on salads or grilled fish. “I’ve heard one really odd use, though. One guy used the peppers as topping on ice cream,” Merchant said. “I was so surprised, I didn’t even ask what flavor of ice cream.”