Papi’s Pepper Sauce: How a Collierville Couple Turned a Pepper Patch into a Business 

It started in the garden — and grew to reach 40 stores in eight states.

When life gives you hot peppers, make pepper sauce. That's what Joe and Kay Paul did.

"I was growing all these different peppers out back," says Joe, 73. "And I got to wondering what I could do with them. So I started playing around with different hot sauces. I researched them on the internet."

One day the couple came up with the perfect vinegar-based sauce: Papi Joe's Tennessee Pepper Sauce. Made at their commercial kitchen in Rossville, Tennessee, it is now in eight states and 40 stores, including Whole Foods.

click to enlarge Kay and Joe Paul
  • Kay and Joe Paul

"It's a combination of a lot of different flavors," Kay says. "That's what makes it so special. Joe didn't feel like it was really a hot sauce because it's not so hot that you can't enjoy it. It's got more flavor.

"Every batch has 100 cloves of fresh garlic," Kay adds. "We don't use garlic powder or garlic salt in our sauce. And he insists that it has to be USA-grown."

The couple took the sauce to Jungle Jim's International Market Weekend of Fire in Fairfield, Ohio, where they got a good response. They competed the next year. Out of 3,500 people and 300 sauces, Papi Joe's took first place. "We knew we had them when their eyes got great-big when they tasted it," says Kay.

Their business started to grow after Joe took the sauce to gift shops in Collierville, where they live. "I just walked in and said, 'Hey, do you want to taste something?'"

They then began thinking about making a Bloody Mary mix. "Every time we cooked the sauce, we had the drippings that were literally thrown down the drain," Kay says. So they took the pepper sauce, tomatoes, and celery salt and came up with Papi's Sassy Bloody Mary Mix, which now is in about 40 liquor stores, including Buster's Liquors & Wines.

They then created Papi-Q Tart & Tangy BBQ Sauce. "It's got plenty of pepper sauce in it, brown sugar, local sorghum molasses, no additives," Joe says.

They also have Papi Joe's Tennessee Whisky BBQ Sauce, which is made with George Dickel whiskey. It comes in a 12-ounce flask. And Papi Joe's X-treme Pepper Sauce includes ghost peppers. "It will not hurt you, but it's a lot hotter than the pepper sauce in our original recipe," says Kay.

Joe and Kay's son, Don Paul, is also part of the operation. "We have the original location in Rossville," Joe says. "It's a 100-year-old building. It used to be a general store. We rehabbed that to make our commercial kitchen."

Their equipment includes a 40-gallon steam kettle and a grape press. "It's bottled there, labeled there, and shipped from there. All by hand."

Joe and Kay, who have been married 53 years, met in Lexington, Kentucky. "I was riding down the street backwards on my bicycle and she saw me and fell in love with me," says Joe. "And a week later she asked me to marry her."

That's not exactly how it happened, Kay says: "We were neighbors."

Joe got his Papi Joe nickname after his first grandchild was born. He wanted to be called Papi.

"I took that picture in the backyard that's on the bottle," Kay says. "Every bottle has a picture of Joe on it."

Joe and Kay are considering pepper jelly, glazes, and rubs but aren't planning for more products yet. Kay's thought is, "Let's just do really well at what we're doing now and give ourselves a break. And then we'll get onto something else."

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