Updated: February 26, 2020 09:20 PM
Created: February 26, 2020 06:05 PM
ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Gene Olczak is packing heat. As in hot sauce. He founded the Karma Sauce Company in the City of Rochester. And recently, he took us on a tour of the plant.
Brett Davidsen: “What are they bottling here today?”
Gene Olczak: "Today we're bottling Cherry Bomb. It's our award-winning tart cherry, habanero-based sauce."
Olczak grew up loving to cook, working at restaurants in the Hamptons during summers home from college.
But this maker of hot sauces is actually an optical engineer by trade and started Karma as a side gig while he was busy designing test hardware for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.
Brett Davidsen: “I find it interesting that somebody who was working as an optical engineer on a space telescope is now making hot sauce."
Gene Olczak: "It's not completely lacking in technical stuff, but it's a little different from what I had been doing, for sure."
Once his work on the telescope was completed, Olczak turned his attention full-time to launching his sauces to a nationwide audience.
"We started out with this butternut squash based recipe, that was what I came up with initially," Olczak said. "So we had Good Karma Sauce and Bad Karma Sauce -- mild and hot. And then we added, to make it a little more interesting, we added a little curry in there and smoky."
Karma uses primarily locally sourced ingredients. Olczak even bought a farm in South Bristol to grow some of his own.
There are now more than a dozen varieties of sauces, many of which have won national awards, including the Funken Hot Sauce, which won the 2018 Grand Champion Award at Zest Fest in Irving, Texas.
They've even been featured on the smash YouTube program "Hot Ones" which is regularly seen by millions of viewers.
On it, host Sean Evans interviews celebrities as they sample hot chicken wings.
"Every wing of a set of ten is associated with a different sauce they put on it that go from very mild to insanely hot," Olczak said.
Karma now private labels a brand of hot sauce called Los Calientes specifically for the program, which then markets the sauce.
"We're now making this four days a week," Olczak said about Los Calientes.
And while they are still operating a manual production line, Olczak says they are growing quickly and looking to go to an automated system soon.
"We're experiencing about 90% year over year growth for the past couple of years," he said.
A problem-solver who took his passion for cooking to create some of the most flavorful sauces on the market.
"It's very gratifying and glad that people enjoy it,” Olczak said. “That's the main thing. We make these as food, to go on food. So we want people to be able to use them and not just sort of stash them in the back of the refrigerator and forget about them."
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