PORTLAND'S FAVORITE hot sauce is not concocted in an underground bunker in Hillsdale, or a drafty old house in the Central Eastside.
Contrary to what you've heard, its purveyors aren't desperate to keep the stuff low profile due to overpowering demand. And they don't have to flee their home for days after cooking a batch because the lingering essence of habanero stings their eyes and nostrils.
They aren't hoping to sell the company for cheap. They certainly aren't moving to Phoenix.
Not that you'd be at fault for harboring any of these notions. Where Secret Aardvark is concerned, lore is often easier to come by than fact.
"The rumor mill," says Rob Metnick, sales director at the Portland sauce company, "has always been there."
But let's stick to the facts, because they're interesting, too.
In less than 10 years, the outfit's thick, tangy habanero sauce has become an obsession for many, an affliction for its addicts and the envy of hot sauce fanatics the country over.
Where five years ago Aardvark was a lucky surprise at the corner diner, or the motive behind a cross-town trek to New Seasons, it's now nearly ubiquitous. The condiment is a staple at restaurants of all stripes, and, as of last month, can be found in most Fred Meyer and Safeway locations in the city. And there's no indication that's even remotely the end of the story.
What began in a sauce-splattered Southwest Portland kitchen in 2003 is poised, perhaps, to be the next big Portland success.
Now, if only people would stop stealing it.
The real story of the Secret Aardvark Trading Company is one of some fairly exceptional highs and one devastating low.
On the high end, of course, it's far more successful than many small businesses. Aardvark Habanero Hot Sauce, the company's most popular offering, has found instant acceptance almost everywhere it's been introduced.
Its creator, Scott Moritz, managed to get a bottle into the employee break room of the Sellwood New Seasons in 2006. The grocery chain, the story goes, put in an order the following day (a spokesperson for New Seasons said she couldn't track that tale down, but that it's entirely possible).
"Scott always said: 'If we can get it into their mouths, they're gonna want it,'" says Stacy Moritz, Secret Aardvark's owner, over beers on a recent Friday. "So that's kind of been our marketing strategy: Get it in people's mouths."
That big low? It's the reason Stacy is speaking in the past tense. Scott, her husband, passed away in September 2009, at the age of 43, due to complications with pancreatic cancer. He'd been diagnosed just a year earlier.
It was a vicious blow for his loved ones, but for Portland, too. Beyond being a food and sauce luminary, Scott was the driving force behind well-regarded Americana band Scotland Barr and the Slow Drags, which in 2011 released an award-winning album featuring his final work.
Tall with dark, shoulder-length hair, Scott had begun toying with hot sauces as a teenager in Southern California. He followed the Grateful Dead and lived in Alaska before moving to Portland, where he co-founded tamale cart-turned-restaurant Salvador Molly's in the mid-'90s.
The business excelled, but the always-restless chef tired of making the same food day after day, friends say. More and more, the many sauces that would pop into his head dominated his attention. In 2002, Scott broke off from the restaurant.
"The first thing he was gonna work on was a really good habanero sauce," says Rick Sadle, Scott's former business partner and still the owner of Salvador Molly's. "I was able to taste a very early version of that, and I just knew."
Stacy estimates it was some time in 2003 that her then-boyfriend hit on the exact blend of tomatoes, carrots, habaneros, onions, vinegar, and spices that's so captivated this city. Secret Aardvark Trading Company was born.
By the time he died, Scott had transformed the company from an unfocused farmers' market stand with more than a dozen offerings to a streamlined two-sauce rocket ship of a business.
Where he once perfected recipes by hand in the couple's Markham neighborhood kitchen, by 2006 Scott was prowling the floors of the Salem-area plant that cooks and bottles Secret Aardvark products to this day. He'd convinced the company, Bell Foods International, to take on the sauce even though its tiny 30-case sauce orders were smaller than anything else Bell produced.
"He spent a lot of time down here with us," says Craig Bell, the company's president. "He wanted it made just how he'd done it himself.
"In this case, we knew it was a small deal, but there could be potential."
It's easy, of course, to find fans of Secret Aardvark.
The company's Facebook page and Twitter feed is choked with a mix of praise and wild-eyed withdrawal.
"I must implore you to contact Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati," one man wrote the company in June.
Two days later, a woman: "Can you come to TX? Specifically Austin?"
"Fulfill your mission," a certain "Daniel Evil" wrote earlier this month. "Distribute to NY!"
But it's also surprisingly easy to come across people whose tastes for Aardvark verge on the absurd.
"Left to my own devices, I would probably go through a bottle of Aardvark every other day," says Lillian Karabaic, a 26-year-old Reed College graduate who works as a database administrator in Portland. "I've been cutting mine with Dave's [Hurtin' Habanero Sauce] in order to make it last longer."
Late last month, as part of her work with Breakfast on the Bridges, Karabaic served coffee and doughnuts to weary cyclists while dressed as a Secret Aardvark-themed superhero. The costume included a custom-made Aardvark logo cut from felt, and a belt holstering more than a dozen empty sauce bottles. And as a committed data wonk, Karabaic actually tracks how much she spends on the sauce: nearly $200 in the last year (Aardvark habanero sells for varying amounts throughout the city, but you can figure to pay $5-7 a bottle).
It goes deeper: Karabaic will eat the sauce straight out of her hand. She puts it in her coffee.
"Aardvark pretty much got me through writing my thesis at Reed," she says. Later, after evident reflection, she writes in an email: "If there's a 12-step group for Secret Aardvark addiction, it's probably in my future."
And the thing is, she's not alone. Sadle, Salvador Molly's owner, confesses to putting Aardvark on his breakfast cereal. ("Not a lot," he says. "I don't make it screaming hot.")
People have accosted Secret Aardvark employees because they're wearing an item of branded clothing, or driving the company van.
"I was out to dinner once and had one of my original Aardvark shirts on, and the waitress made me give it to her," sales director Metnick says. "I resisted at first but ended up giving it to her and went home shirtless. I do miss that shirt."
Then there's the more insidious aspect of Aardvark's popularity: It drives people to petty theft.
Restaurants throughout the city have been forced to limit customers' access to the sauce, after bottles began disappearing at worrying rates.
"We used to have it openly available at the condiment counter until we caught people stealing the bottles," says Bob Peyton, director of operations at Sizzle Pie, which uses Aardvark in one of its pizza sauces. "Now we're having our servers individually pump out small portions at a time."
At the Florida Room on N Killingsworth, staff tries to ensure bottles of Aardvark handed to tables are a quarter full or less, to diminish the odds someone will snag it.
Even Salvador Molly's, an early incubator for Aardvark, has curbed its habits.
"Too much of it disappeared," Sadle says, adding: "We no longer leave it on the table. People have to ask for it."
It's tempting to consider this pilfering a symptom of puckish allegiance, and condiment theft is hardly news. But these troubles present a real worry for Aardvark's three-person staff.
"Theft is probably our number-one obstacle in life," says Metnick. "If there's people out there stealing it, it's absolutely the worst thing that can happen to a small business. People stop carrying it."
On the other hand, the fanaticism has made hiring easier. Metnick was marketing shoes for tweens when he first tasted Aardvark in 2007. Immediately, he began leaving voicemails for Scott Moritz, more or less pleading to work with the company.
"I think I even went into New Seasons and tried to have them call him," Metnick says. "I asked them: 'How do you get this sauce?' They said: 'We call him up and maybe he'll bring us sauce.' It didn't seem like the most well-run organization."
But Portland's favorite hot sauce company has grown up.
Stacy Moritz has always worked a day job in the health care industry, so it was mostly up to Scott Moritz—before he got sick—and Metnick to make deliveries and push product. Sometime in 2011, it became clear Aardvark had outgrown that arrangement.
In 2007, the company could expect to sell something like a dozen 12-bottle cases a month, where now it might offload 155 cases—1,860 bottles—in a single week.
"Rob came to me and said, 'I'm getting to the point I'm not sure I can do all these deliveries,'" Stacy says. "And I know I'm doing deliveries on the weekend and evenings and on my way to work. We're both feeling this."
The company by then was supplying to Whole Foods, New Seasons, the SE Hawthorne Fred Meyer, and dozens of restaurants and smaller grocery stores.
"It really got to the point where we either had to change our business model, or we were gonna stay right where we were," Stacy says.
They decided to work with a local distributor, who'd take control of Portland-area sales and deliveries, largely removing Metnick and Stacy from that part of the operation. The pair spent more than a year researching companies and, last summer, Secret Aardvark inked a deal with Point Blank Distributing, a Portland beer distributor with a focus on local products. It's also begun tentative steps in the Seattle market, delivering sauce to a distributor in Washington.
And only months ago, the company hired Kip Lindig, its first new employee in six years. He works out of the basement of the same Southwest Portland home where Aardvark was born, filling out the many mail orders pouring in from various parts of the country.
Potentially the biggest development, though, came just last month, when Secret Aardvark reached an agreement with Safeway, the second largest grocery store chain on the continent. All three of the company's sauces—the habanero, the Drunken Garlic Black Bean Sauce, and the Drunken Jerk Sauce—landed on shelves at most local Safeways just before Halloween.
"It could be a game-changer for us, long term," Metnick says. "If we do well there, then they wanna go regional and possibly national."
It's an exciting step—Metnick can't help drawing parallels between their growing business and companies like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and VISO Beverage Company that have pushed past the sticky Portland orbit to achieve national success.
But they're cautious, too.
"The goal of Aardvark has never been to be a giant business, it has been to be the right kind of business," Stacy says. "You have to line up all the dots. You have to figure out: When are we ready to go?"
Whether that readiness comes in months or years, people watching Secret Aardvark are fully confident it will arrive.
"You get a lot of people with grandma's secret recipe, but it's what they do with it," says Bell, president of the company that bottles Aardvark. "They've been our biggest success story. Ninety-eight percent probably fail."
Salvador Molly's Sadle says, "I fully expect it will happen. I see nothing like it."
But if greater range is one part of Secret Aardvark's continued conquest, it's not the whole picture. Scott Moritz created far more sauces than the three in production. The company is planning an expanded line.
And there's something else—a more-fraught goal that Scott first revealed in the months after his diagnosis. "Scott's vision," Metnick called it.
"We were going out and doing deliveries together, and he said, 'My dream is one day to have a guy in an Aardvark costume running down Hollywood Boulevard with his dick hanging out.'"
"That," Stacy Moritz says, "was not the meds."