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McIlhenny Family Using Tradition, Conservation to Safeguard Its Famous Sauce

Tabasco, a brand synonymous with chili sauce, knows what it takes to sustain flavor and success. A family-owned business since 1868, the sauce — known by locals as “Cajun ketchup” — is made on Avery Island, Louisiana and exported to 166 countries worldwide. Today, the McIlhenny family still personally chooses every pepper, tastes every batch and takes proactive measures to boost the Island's natural capital, to ensure the Tabasco tradition can continue for generations to come.

It all began in the mid- to late 1860s when Edmund McIlhenny, a New Orleans banker, was given seeds of Capsicum frutescens peppers from Central America. He sowed the seeds on Avery Island and eventually experimented with them, adding salt from the island and vinegar to make a sauce. Its popularity amongst family and friends led to McIlhenny growing his first commercial crop in 1868 and sending out the sauce in old cologne bottles the following year to grocers in New Orleans, priced at $1 per bottle. McIlhenny patented Tabasco, the first commercially sold hot sauce, in 1870 and five generations later, the sauce is still made from the same simple blend of red Tabasco mash, vinegar and salt.

Until the 1960s, the company grew all the peppers on Avery Island. When demand increased beyond the Island’s capacity to keep up, the company moved the growing and processing operation to farms in Africa and Latin America — but the process still begins on Avery Island. SVP Harold “Took” Osborn, one of Edmund McIlhenny’s great-great grandsons currently in charge of the business, personally inspects and selects the pepper plants from the 20 acres of the Island where peppers are still grown. Seeds from the chosen plants are then sent to the farmers abroad — until then, they are safeguarded in a family vault.

“It’s essentially an heirloom plant, the same stock — we’ve never modified them,” Osborn said in a recent 60 Minutes interview. “Every time you breed something, you give up something — taste is always the first thing that gets cast away.”

Farmers in Africa and Latin America then grow the peppers and send the salted mash back to Avery Island where it is aged for three years in oak whiskey barrels. Once CEO Tony Simmons (another of Edmund McIlhenny’s great-great grandsons) approves the mash, vinegar is added and the concoction is stirred for about four weeks, after which the sauce is strained and bottled for consumption.

Contrary to its name, Avery Island is not really an island — it is a salt dome about 140 miles west of New Orleans roughly 2 miles wide. Not only do Avery Island and the company have a deeply intertwined past but also a present and future. The island's natural capital is intrinsically tied to Tabasco's success: Surrounded by marshes and swamps, Avery Island is at significant risk from storms and hurricanes and was hard hit by Hurricane Rita in 2005; the company lost some of its crop and a gatehouse and narrowly escaped damage to the factory.

So the company is actively engaged in efforts to protect the Island, such as constructing a levee around their operations, installing water-pumping stations and planting new, indigenous grass to build more protective marsh. Other efforts at conserving the area’s biodiversity include a 170-acre Jungle Gardens (with semitropical foliage and wildlife such as alligators, deer and raccoons) and Bird City (migratory egrets).

“As a company that is over 140 years old, we want to build a business that is sustainable to the next 140 years,” Osborn says.

While the long-distance shipping of pepper mash isn’t ideal from a footprint-management perspective, the highlights of Tabasco’s Sustanability Report reveal other ways that the company operates consciously: waste pepper skin, seeds and runoff are used for compost or in other products; discarded barrels are used to build fences and tables; the majority of their products are bottled in glass; and whenever possible, packaging materials are regionally sourced.

The company says it also leases land on the Island for oil and gas drilling and salt mining (the mine from which Tabasco sources its salt). As much as that seems antithetical to the company’s conservation efforts, Osborn begs to differ.

“We use those resources to help the land where the oil isn’t,” he told 60 Minutes. “All of this land protects the Island — protects it from storms, protects it from erosion, and it’s part of our heritage.”

Hot sauce is a billion-dollar industry, with numerous new players always emerging on the scene. Welcoming the competition, Simmons told 60 Minutes: “The market itself has been growing. And the more people that come into this category, we think the better it is. Because if you begin to use hot sauce, we think sooner or later, you're gonna find Tabasco. And when you do, we're gonna get you.“


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