A hot sauce created in golf's ultimate think tank

Saturday's classic Army-Navy football game will mark an anniversary of sorts for the founders of The General's Hot Sauce, but many of the decisions have been made on the course

Sure, the concept of The General’s Hot Sauce was launched at an Army-Navy football game, but most of the important business decisions have been hatched on golf courses, not tailgates.

Anybody surprised? A golf course, with its complexities of competition and fellowship, its manicured green grass and natural surrounding beauty — is at times a preferred meeting venue over boardrooms when it comes to business deals and future planning?

General's Hot Sauce founders at North Berwick
The founders of The General's Hot Sauce — from left, Mike Altobello, Drew Tanner, Dan Ballister and Mike Taylor — on a buddy trip to North Berwick, Scotland.

The foursome of military buddies and business partners, headed up by Dan Ballister, surely point to their strong ties on the links and how the various walks-and-talks over the years helped shape the Columbia, South Carolina-based hot sauce product.  

"We can talk business on the golf course in a very relaxed way," Ballister says. "It’s all the things you expect from a group of guys on the course — you know, trying to play competitive golf with some wagers and a couple of cold beers. And we like to just talk about what's coming down the road, what's next with the business? What do we want do? Where do we want to go?

"We started talking about the business model in 2013 and it was really a matter of how do we go have fun, do this different and exist for a better reason than just profits? And it was just all natural, easy to do on the golf course between shot banter as we walked down the fairways because you got to have something to talk about in between shots, right?"

General's Hot Sauce logo

Ballister vividly recalls the first defining moment for The General’s Hot Sauce that took place on the golf course. The company’s four founders and investors were playing a round in the summer of 2013 at Columbia Golf and Country Club in New York when Mike Altobello shouted out what at the time seemed like a radical idea.

"He literally blurted it out between shots," Ballister says. "It was ‘Why don't you make the bottle look like a hand grenade?’ It's funny, as soon as he said that, it was like getting hit by a lightning bolt.”

The second brilliant idea that originated on that very same golf course was by partner Mike Taylor, who grew up in Virginia with an agricultural background.

"Mike placed the flag stick back into the hole and turned to us and said ‘If we're going to do this, we've gotta do it right … and it starts with the peppers. We have to grow our own peppers,’’’ Ballister recalls. "And we immediately set out to finding a grower at that point that could grow at scale for us. It’s exactly what you picture in your mind — us walking down the fairway, thinking out loud, not sure about what to do, knowing we were onto something cool. And slowly, but surely, realizing if we're gonna do this, we gotta do it right. And we gotta be different and we gotta be good at everything we do."

The General's Hot Sauce, which is approaching 2 million bottles shipped since its inception, has ranked as high as No. 757 in the Inc. 5000 listing.

The General’s Hot Sauce now produces six varieties from green cayenne, red cayenne, habanero, jalapeno and Carolina reaper peppers that all contain 86 percent actual peppers when the industry standard is only 20 percent. "A lot of what we do is manual, old-school work. It’s decidedly inefficient, but it’s worth it," Ballister says.

By the end of 2023 the company will have shipped 2 million bottles of hot sauce since its inception.

In the most recent Inc. 5000 rankings, it was also ranked as one of the fasted growing veteran-owned businesses in America. The company employs veterans and college students and has donated $750,000 to military families so far.

"A dream come true for the company would be to hand a military family one of those golf course-sized million dollar checks," Ballister says. "We're a few years away from that, but that's the dream golf shot right there."

The foursome have volunteered at four different Walker Cup matches, adding bits and pieces to the business model at each high-profile gathering. The group also makes annual golf trips to the United Kingdom and their last golf trip was to Ireland in June for some more think tank ideas.  

The General's Hot Sauce is packaged in a hand grenade replica.

Ballister, 60, suffered a stroke in early July and is still recovering, having hit the putting green a few times and just recently getting to the driving range for the first time in early December with sights set on rejoining the foursome of business partners on the links sooner than later.

"All these little things we’ve chewed through as business professionals over the years on the golf course have been amazing, and things just kind of percolate to the top as we’ve walking or strolling or shaking off a little bit of shall we say, ‘the red ass’ over a bad shot, or maybe every now and then hitting a good one, and you know, you're in a better mood for 150 yards," Ballister says.

“It’s still all about the golf when we get together, and the wagers and talking trash and, and you know, standing over that shot in the middle of the fairway and really wanting to step up and hit one tight. I mean, the game wins every time, but we're thankful for what we've been able to accomplish business-wise on the golf course and it just makes us want to do more.”

With Ballister unable to travel to Boston for this weekend’s Army-Navy game because of his health, the crew will be celebrating the 124th running of this football classis at what he calls "World Headquarters" in Columbia, South Carolina. More than 150 pounds of wings will be on hand, along with some cold beverages.

"We know where to get some hot sauce," Ballister jokes.  

The proceeds from the “virtual tailgate” for the Army-Navy game this weekend will be donated to a South Carolina retreat benefitting veterans who are facing post-traumatic stress.