By: Dylan Heuer
Photo Credit: ShaquandaWillFeedYou
Andre Springer is the founder of Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce. He first created the product to complement his performance at Bushwig, a Brooklyn-based festival celebrating drag, music and love. Springer had no intentions of selling the sauce, which he designed purely as part of his act. But once festival-goers had a taste, they couldn’t wait to buy a bottle. His brand was born that day and is appropriately named after Springer’s alter-ego, Shaquanda. Six years later, Springer’s company now includes four sauces and beginning this week, they can all be purchased in Whole Foods stores across the Northeast. His sauces combine his Barbadian heritage with his Brooklyn upbringing, fusing ingredients and memories that result in unique flavor profiles and an unforgettable story.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dylan Heuer: Tell me about launching Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce at Bushwig in 2014.
Andre Springer: I wanted part of my drag performance to be something a little different and to include food, which has always been part of my life – working in restaurants and also having other family members who worked in food. I went to Bushwig with a shopping cart with hot sauce and brown paper bags. I would roll around the cart and people would ask me [when] I was performing – and I was like right now! I would pull out a cracker or a plantain chip, put a little dab of hot sauce on it, and I’d tell them to eat it. They were all very happy and kind of excited. Well, not the ones that didn’t like heat so much – they were a little freaked out by it. Laughs.
But for the most part, [I got] amazing responses. Every time I got someone to taste, they would ask me how much it was. I was like, this is art, I’m not selling it. This part of my performance. [But] halfway throughout the evening I decided to start selling it because people just kept demanding it.
DH: How did you decide to pursue it as a business?
AS: Just from all the positive responses – the reactions from friends and people who I didn’t know. It seemed like I had stumbled into something that made sense, that I was good at. It only made sense to pursue it. So I just started.
DH: What are the flavors featured in your original Hot Pepper Sauce and how did you create the recipe?
AS: The original is a take on my Barbadian heritage because my family is from the Caribbean, from Barbados. And we eat pepper sauce with everything. Every family has their own variation. I like a lot of fermented sauces, I like a lot of vinegar sauces. My family, we did pickles and then we had chutney. We would always purchase our hot sauce, the traditional Barbadian one, which has mustard, onion, turmeric, scotch bonnet or habaneros, with vinegar, salt, and a tiny bit of sugar, and some recipes call for radishes or horseradish.
I wanted to make my own Brooklyn take on that. Staying true to the core ingredients of mustard, turmeric, hot peppers and onion, I wanted to work around that. So I added apple cider vinegar. It was something that my grandmother loved to make her salad dressing with. That was a memory I wanted to add in there. And then ginger; we always drink fresh ginger tea. That was a memory I wanted to incorporate in the sauce as well. The tomato paste is not something you see in Barbadian sauces. That’s [also part of my] New York take on it. You won’t see apple cider vinegar, tomato paste and ginger in a Barbadian hot sauce, but those things are often around it. As you’re eating something, those flavors will interact at some point. I wanted to preserve that in a bottle.
Photo Credit: ShaquandaWillFeedYou
DH: Tell me about the other flavor profiles you’ve created. How did you develop them and how do they complement one another?
AS: Creating the other flavors [involved] looking at food through my Barbadian heritage. We really love onions, so much that it’s usually in every single dish. Any kind of alliums – whether it’s shallots, onions, scallions, or garlic. It also comes in different forms, whether it’s fermented or pickled or braids, added in fresh, or dried. For every sauce I’ve made in my line, the first ingredient had to be onions – it’s the vehicle for all the other flavors. It just holds them together very nicely.
Thinking of my Green Sass sauce, which is a play on Asian seasoning, we put this green seasoning that has tons of onions and herbs. Every Caribbean Island has their variation of it, whether it’s sofritos or jerk seasoning, or for us green seasoning. I wanted to add that story to my line. So, the green sauce is more citrusy and more mild but very robust with herbs. Then, my Spicier Smoke has the characteristics of the original with some roasted red bell peppers and smoked paprika which is perfect for barbecue season, or for any season for that matter.
DH: And the Oooomami sauce?
AS: That was a fun journey, where I was originally building a recipe just based on the beginning letters of a word. I looked up ingredients that began with B, so like Blackberry juice, blueberry, balsamic, vinegar, and black garlic, a traditional Korean ingredient, which is fermented garlic. And there was something about that, that resonated to me, thinking of the different kinds of fermented onions that I, or that we Barbadians, cook with. They had this beautiful umami profile. And so building that Oooomami hot sauce was about that flavor or that feeling in your mouth.
The story with that label is, when I was younger and I would leave to go out at night to perform [and] I would get hollered at by guys across the street. They didn’t realize that I was a drag queen, until I got close. They were like,“Ooh, Ooh, mami, mami, mami.” Then I would get close to them and they’d be like “Oh, damn.” Laughs. The hot sauce is similar where the flavor is really very unique and beautiful, but then like the heat creeps up and you’re like, “Oh snap.” Oooomami is a homage to that memory.
DH: What is your favorite dish to pair with your original Hot Pepper Sauce?
AS: Since it’s the summertime, it’s so great with fish, especially white fish. And if you’re a lover of mayonnaise and you want to kick it up a notch, I would say mix it with mayonnaise and add it to any of your mayonnaise-based salads. So potato salad or tuna fish, egg salad, it’s really great. It boosts the flavors.
DH: The food industry and food media publications are currently reckoning with race and representation – where have you found community during your career in the food industry?
AS: I’ve always positioned myself to be in my communities, queer and Black [communities]. You know, selling at places like Afropunk, [an annual festival celebrating music, film, fashion and art produced by Black artists]. And doing Queer Soup Night [a series of LGBTA+ parties raising money for local non-profit organizations]. Also [being a part of] different queer-led venues to sell at their market and having the sauce available to Metropolitan [one of Brooklyn’s original gay bars] for their [weekly summer] barbecues, which is one of my favorites LGBTQ spaces in the city.
I’ve always had the support of my community and especially of the community that I grew up with in Bed-Stuy. I’ve been very lucky to have support from different stores, like smaller stores and also Heatonist, who took me on early and really believed in me and believed in my product. Being a queer and Black person, it’s sometimes daunting. There’s the feeling of always having to do two times as much work and just sort of nervousness of people not taking you as seriously. But I’ve been pretty lucky to have a network of people that were there for me.