In November of 1996, a scarred and bankrupt Mick Kipp found himself in his kitchen in Baltimore making hot sauce as an inexpensive Christmas gift that he could bottle for his family and friends.
He had just come through a four-year battle against cancer. The disease had more or less killed his blossoming career as a stuntman and left him with tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills.
As he threw serrano peppers, onions, lemon juice and vinegar into a pot, he had no idea he also was cooking up a whole new line of work.
At the end of the night he had bottled the sauce and dipped the caps in melted wax, made from his 2-year-old daughter's broken crayons. He made labels and called the sauce "Cuyahoga Fire," for the polluted river in his hometown of Cleveland that famously burned in 1969.
"I thought [making hot sauce] was going to be a one-time shot, or maybe a hobby," Kipp says. "But people called me after Christmas and said, 'This is great.' "
Today, Cuyahoga Fire is one of about 10 spicy condiments put out by the Whiskey Island Pirate Shop, and Kipp himself might be better known around town as "Mick T. Pirate."
He usually can be seen on Saturdays at the Waverly farmers' market, wearing kilts, pants or bandannas in bright jalapeno patterns and pushing his tangy Red Hot Hon Sauce or his 'Mazin Crab Salsa on passers-by.
Next month, at a fiery-foods festival in Remington, he'll attempt the ultimate marketing stunt: He'll resurrect a trick from his stuntman days and set himself on fire dressed as a chile pepper.
His condiments, on the shelves of boutique stores in Hampden and elsewhere, have stacked up local awards. Lately Whiskey Island has earned notoriety outside of Charm City.
Last year, Kipp, 44, won second- and third-place prizes at Chile Pepper magazine's 10th annual Fiery Foods Challenge. And this year, he took home a handful of Scovies -- the hot-foods equivalent of a Tony or Oscar -- including a first prize for his pineapple-and-cardamom Island Salsa.
The question now for Kipp is: Where does he go from here?
"The business supports itself, but I struggle," he says. He runs a catering business and does some bartending on the side to make ends meet.
Some people dream about taking a favorite hot-sauce or family recipe, bottling it and making millions. It's never that easy. Lots of people just break even in the condiment business, says Dave DeWitt, the editor of Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine, which sponsors the Scovies.
"The people who are successful have been around for years, and some breakthrough" -- a combination of luck, aggressive marketing and tenacity -- "pushes them over the edge and makes them profitable."
"Unfortunately," DeWitt says, "a lot of people don't make it."
But Kipp has faced long odds before, when he pursued a career as a movie stuntman.
He was a goof-off and a wrestler in high school in Cleveland. When someone pushed him down a flight of stairs at school, he rolled through the fall as he would on the mat, and didn't get hurt. "I got to the bottom and thought, 'Maybe somebody would pay me to do this,' " he says.
He moved to California to do grunt work on film sets, traveled to Atlanta to study with an established stuntman, then started his own stunt business in Cleveland. In 1986, he saw that the film industry was heating up in Baltimore, so he moved here.
He found that Baltimore was a great base of operations for work that took him everywhere -- to San Francisco for a spot on MTV, to Nashville for a country-music video, to Minneapolis to work at the Guthrie Theatre.
A dream life
Among his most unusual jobs were re-creations of accidents for plaintiffs in high-stakes civil lawsuits. The first job mimicked a fatal accident in which an elderly man had been thrown from a golf cart. For about three years he lived his dream as a full-time stuntman.
His life changed drastically in 1991 when a girlfriend lovingly wrapped an arm around him and felt a bump on his neck. His treatment for Hodgkin's disease was a grueling series of chemotherapy sessions and operations. The cancer returned twice before Kipp seemed to beat it, although he still goes to the doctor regularly and monitors his weight, knowing the tumors could return any time.
The battle left him broke and drained. "I knew that my physical days of stunt work were over," he says. "I couldn't just fall down a flight of stairs and walk away from it anymore. Every little thing hurt."
Since he was a kid, when he admired his grandmother's Lebanese cooking, he has had a passion for food. To stay on his feet financially in his early stunt days and after his illness, he worked at restaurants -- particularly at the Wild Mushroom in Canton, where he says he learned some of the finer techniques of food preparation. He considered culinary school, but decided that he was better off learning the way he had in stunts -- just by doing.
After he made his first batch of Cuyahoga Fire, he went to visit his parents, who had moved to Lancaster, Pa. On the way, he passed an Amish farm stand, which was selling a huge basket of tomatoes for $3.
He took it home to his mother and asked her to help him can it as pasta sauce. They stayed up canning until 3 a.m. "My mom made me vow that I would never, ever come to her house and can again," he says. But by the time they had filled the last jar, he knew he had found a new career.
"It's that smell," he says. "The smell of peppers cooking is amazing, but the smell of fresh tomatoes cooking. ... I just thought, 'Wow, this is what I'm going to do.' "
That passion for food, the artisanal side of the business, is what keeps Kipp going -- even as, in some ways, it's what holds his business back.
Driving a chile-red truck on Interstate 695 on the way to some deliveries and to Mama Vida, his packing facility in Randallstown, Kipp talks about his anxiety over the growth of his condiment business. He and his brother, a financial analyst, spent the past year crunching numbers and talking to sales reps from big-box stores.
One said that Whiskey Island might have a place in seasonal packages at a Costco or a similar retail outfit. But Kipp got uncomfortable when he looked at the balance sheet.
"Unless I'm doing thousands and thousands of items, I make very little and everyone else makes very much," he says. Ramping up at that scale also might mean losing control of quality. He has known microbrewers who started with a passion for hops, grain and good beer, but became full-time marketers as their businesses grew.
Kipp's brother tells him that he's "too attached" to Whiskey Island and that the business was "meant to be sold." Kipp instead identifies with the small farmers he works with every Saturday at the Waverly market and he wants to concentrate on building a strong local customer base.
For a time, he ran a small shop in Hampden, but found the overhead too high. About 10 percent of his sales take place online. He counts among his latest successes Wegmans gourmet grocery in Hunt Valley, which recently put his Hon Sauce on its shelves.
"I'd like to think that in our economy today, there is still room for the small businessman," he says.
Kipp's passion for food comes out in his laboratory, a basement kitchen he rents at St. John's Church on Greenmount Avenue. Here he has scorched sugary grilling sauces and burned bananas in his quest to find the next Island Salsa or Hon Sauce.
He hasn't gotten a sauce right the first time since Cuyahoga Fire, so he records every ingredient in composition notebooks he carries with him everywhere.
On a recent autumn afternoon, Kipp is working on Nightmare on West 36th Street, a seasonal hot sauce named in honor of Hampden. He wants a condiment with a frightening pepper kick, yet also with notes of mulled apple cider, which he never has used before. "I want people to be drawn to it by its bouquet as well as its flavor," he says.
He puts onions, apple cider, cider vinegar and a handful of red-
hot lantern peppers into a blender and liquefies them. Kipp turns off the blender, tears off the lid and lets his nose sample the capsicum fumes.
His eyes fill with tears and he chokes for a moment, as if he'd been sprayed with mace. This is a hazard of the job, he says.
Then he reaches for another handful of peppers.
Michael "Mick" Kipp
Grew up in:
Big breaks in restaurants:
The Wild Mushroom in Baltimore and the Watermark in Cleveland
Big breaks in stunts:
MTV, CMT, Saturday Night Live and America's Most Wanted
Whiskey Island Pirate Shop
Favorite chile pepper:
Daughter Matoaka, 12
On how his business got its name:
"I always loved pirates and pirate movies - Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and Douglas Fairbanks. And Whiskey Island is an island that sits at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland."