Co-Op Sauce: A Chicago Hot Sauce Company With a Great Mission

Maker Tour

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Who: Mike Bancroft of Co-op Sauce
What: Hot sauce on a mission! Fifty percent of Co-op Sauce proceeds go to fund nonprofit arts and culinary education programs around Chicago.
Where: Chicago, Illinois

As someone who likes her chilaquiles soggy with salsa and needs more than cheese on my enchiladas, I was interested when Co-op Hot Sauce starting popping up all over Chicago. I first encountered the small red and green bottles as wedding favors and then in my neighborhood grocery store, The Dill Pickle. When I saw the Co-op Hot Sauce stand at the Logan Square Farmer's Market, I had to know more. As it turns out, Co-Op Hot Sauce started as a way to raise money for local arts and culinary education programs in Chicago — and the story just gets better from there.

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Mike Bancroft is the founder of Co-op Hot Sauce. "I just love hot sauce, I'm a fanatic," he tells me. Ten years ago he started Co-op Image, a free youth arts program in Humbolt Park on Chicago's North West side. When support for the after school programs exceeded volunteered time, the organization sought alternate fundraising opportunities, so Mike took advantage of the program's access to community gardens and started to making and selling hot sauce to bring in some extra money for the program.

Through some luck and convenience Co-op Hot Sauce was able to gain access to eight community gardens. "We started by trying to sell the produce but it never worked because we were next to these giant farmers, and we were were tiny. Ultimately Co-op Image was operating at a loss so I started bringing my hot sauce to the markets. The markets let me sell it, and soon some restaurants started using it. People love the mission and really like the sauce."

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Soon they were dealing with a new kind of demand and faced with the challenges of commercial production. "It was easy to come up with a great recipe to share with family and friends. But to think about making 50 gallons of it? It was a challenge, but I love the process." In order to keep up with requests for the sauce, the company needed to grow production, gain access to commercial kitchens and be able to pay for different certifications. "I wanted to think about it in terms of establishing real jobs for the kids instead of short term, seasonal positions."

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Exactly one year ago, Mike and his girlfriend Anne Kostroski started Sauce & Bread. The cafe is further north in Edgewater and is quite the commute from the founder's roots in Humboldt Park. As a tradeoff the space houses all the needed production equipment and provides a large amount of storage. When I visited, two former Co-op Image students were helping Mike make sauce while Anne and another employee were busy baking in the space's fully outfitted kitchen.

Looking forward Mike says, "I feel like this could be a model for other NGOs. There's a lot of need for fundraising through earned income." Essentially, Mike advocates good programs for the community and good food for our brunch. I can get behind that model and look forward to more tasty sauce 'experiments' from this unique little business.

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5 Quick Questions for Mike Bancroft

1. How do you usually enjoy coop hot sauce and which is your favorite?
I usually cook with it or line up an arsenal for pizza and BBQ'ing needs. My year round go to is the Poblano or the Too Hot. Around harvest (now) the latest creation, Aji Manzano, is my favorite. Seedling Farm apple cider with Aji Peruvian peppers is also great — its sweet heat is perfect for a braise or to brighten up a kale salad.

2. Do you have any safe advice for novice hot sauce makers trying to make their own at home?
Use goggles if you are doing a big batch. The vinegar is the most dangerous part, as you saw the glasses in the photos. Wash your hands with dish soap, and keep your space well ventilated.

3. If you could have any two people over for dinner (dead or alive) who would they be and what would you eat?
I would love to hang with Mel Chin and Malcolm X over a crazy spread of nachos — less the pork, of course.

4. What is the best piece of cooking advice you have ever received?
Clean as you go, and don't start new projects until you finish your last (still working on both of these).

5. What is the one thing you can't live without?
A good swimming hole close by, even if it is in a 6mil wet suit in the dead of winter.

6. Do you have a favorite recipe that relies on hot sauce that you can share with us?
Simple vinaigrette with Co-op Poblano Hot Sauce on wheat berry salad with green beans and feta.

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Thanks, Co-Op Hot Sauce!

(Images: Lucy Hewett)

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