Watch CBS News

Tabasco: Fighting bland food since 1868

The hot sauce industry is on fire with revenue of more than a billion dollars, but it all began with just one name: Tabasco
Tabasco: Fighting bland food since 1868 12:53

The following script is from "Cajun Ketchup" which aired on March 16, 2014. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is the correspondent. Sumi Aggarwal, producer.

Tabasco is more than a mere condiment -- it's an American artifact. The sauce was first made in 1868 and within a few years, it was being served in the White House. Since then, it's made its way to nearly every country in the world. It is one of America's most prolific exports.

A journey to the island where Tabasco is made 05:26
Which is why we decided to take a closer look and what we discovered is that every bottle of Tabasco has been made by the same family, a very private family, producing their famous sauce, known locally as Cajun ketchup, on their very own private island in the middle of Cajun country for five generations.

The McIlhenny clan has done it by adhering to 150 years of tradition in how they make their sauce and also what they say about it publicly - which is typically very little. Letting 60 Minutes come in with our cameras and our questions was a break from tradition.

Avery Island is located in the bayous of Louisiana, west of New Orleans. Only two miles wide, the island has been owned by the McIlhenny's and their family for almost 200 years.

It's 9 a.m. That means Tony Simmons, the fifth generation CEO, is heading to the warehouse for his daily taste test.

Farmers all over the world grow the peppers, mash them and ship it all back to Avery Island.

Sanjay Gupta: You do this every morning that you're here?

Tony Simmons: Every morning I'm here I check these barrels if they're making mash. Where's this from?

Man: Colombia.

The Tabasco trademark 01:36
That means every bottle of Tabasco in the world has his personal seal of approval.

Tony Simmons: So I'm looking at the color and that's why I've got an incandescent light. I want to look at the color, I want to look at the seed. And when I taste the mash, usually what I'm looking for is I get some salt out on the edges of my tongue and then about the time you think, "Well, this isn't that much of a big deal," the heat comes late. You want to try?

Sanjay Gupta: Sure. I'm watching you first, though. How was it--

Tony Simmons: I do this every morning. It's not so bad for me.

Sanjay Gupta: Is that a good chunk?

Tony Simmons: Yeah that's good. You just put it on the front of your tongue and then just let it sit there for a minute

If you think Tabasco is hot, the raw ingredients are 10 times hotter.

Tony Simmons: And then the heat-- the heat kicks in.

Sanjay Gupta: Yeah, it does.

Tony Simmons: So.

Sanjay Gupta: Wow, Tony. I have newfound--

Man: Peru.

Sanjay Gupta: --respect.

Man: Peru.

Tony Simmons: Tastes like candy.

Sanjay Gupta: Tastes like candy?

Tony Simmons: Smells like money.

Man: Honduras.

Sanjay Gupta: Are there secrets in here though that you don't want the rest of that world to know?

Tony Simmons: Our formula is only red Tabasco mash, vinegar, and a little bit of salt. So I don't know how many secrets we could really have with a process that simple.

It was Simmons' great-great grandfather, Edmund McIlhenny, who created the sauce shortly after the Civil War. He began selling his concoction in old cologne bottles in New Orleans - calling it: Tabasco.

One of Tabasco’s most prized artifacts 01:42
Tony Simmons: There was no commercially-sold hot sauce before Tabasco. Edmund invented the category.

Sanjay Gupta: He is sort of the father of hot sauce?

Tony Simmons: He's the father of hot sauce.

Sanjay Gupta: That would make this the first family of hot sauce.

Tony Simmons: That sounds real good.

The first family of hot sauce turned Tabasco into one of the oldest and largest family owned-and-operated businesses in the country.

Sanjay Gupta: You're the fifth generation family member to run this business?

Tony Simmons: Uh-huh.

Sanjay Gupta: How unlikely a story is this?

Tony Simmons: Only 30 percent of companies outlive the founder or move to a second generation. And only 12 percent of companies actually make it to the third generation. So for us to be the fifth generation and still be doing this is a much smaller subset, I'm sure.

From the beginning, the company has always been run by, and for, family members. The top management, board and 130 stockholders are all McIlhenny descendants.

Sanjay Gupta: Estimates are that sales are close to $200 million a year. Am I in the right ballpark?

Tony Simmons: You're probably in the right town.

Sanjay Gupta: Could you put me in a better ballpark?

Tony Simmons: No, like I said, we just don't give out financial information.

Sanjay Gupta: What about margins, profit margins? Can you talk about that?

Tony Simmons: Nope.

Sanjay Gupta: None of it?

Tony Simmons: None of it. It's a private, family-held business.

Sanjay Gupta: Is there any advantage to not sharing this information?

Tony Simmons: We're not sure. But we're probably not gonna find out either.

Harold "Took" Osborn - another of Edmund's great-great-grandsons and Tony Simmons' younger cousin - is next in line to run the company.

Sanjay Gupta: Everyone calls you Took. I mean, you're one of the senior guys in the company, the No. 2. What does that say about this culture here?

Harold Osborn: When I came here I-- I put my name in the company directory as Harold. I didn't get any calls for the first six months 'cause no one knew who Harold Osborn was. They all knew me as Took.

Sanjay Gupta: A decade from now, will one of the best known companies in the world be run by a guy named Took?

Harold Osborn: Well, we might-- we might change that a little bit.

Tony Simmons: They gonna call you Mr. Took?

Harold Osborn: Mr. Took. That's right. Mr. Took.

Even though he's the heir to the Tabasco crown, Osborn inspects the pepper bushes himself...much as his ancestors did, as this company film shows.

Harold Osborn: You have to walk through the field. And we take rope. And we say, this plant, that plant. You can almost see the personality of the plants. And then we tie a string around 'em and come back and pick, just those plants for next year's season.

The company grows peppers on 20 acres of Avery Island - not to produce sauce, but to produce seeds, which are sent to farmers abroad.

Harold Osborn: It's essentially an heirloom plant. It's essentially the original stock.

Sanjay Gupta: So you're saying these peppers are-- are genetically the same as the ones that--

Harold Osborn: As--

Sanjay Gupta: --the original peppers?

Harold Osborn: As far as we know, yes. We've never modified them.

Sanjay Gupta: These peppers are hand-picked. Why not use a machine or some sort of automation to make that easier?

Harold Osborn: We don't want to change the plant. That's the way most-- like, in the cucumber world, or potatoes or anything else you modify the plant to work for a harvester. Every time you breed something you give away something and taste is always the first thing that gets cast away.

Key to the taste of the sauce are the seeds - and they're irreplaceable.

Harold Osborn: We have a vault in our office.

Sanjay Gupta: A vault?

Harold Osborn: --a vault. We keep them--

Sanjay Gupta: You keep seeds in the vault?

Harold Osborn: Keep seeds in the vault.

Farmers in Latin America and Africa use those seeds to grow 10 million pounds of peppers. They mix them with salt, grind them and ship the mash back to Avery Island, where it's aged in oak barrels that were once used by the finest whiskey makers in the country.

The barrels do have to be modified, though. In particular: the metal hoops.

Coy Boutte: We'll have to put stainless steel on 'em.

Sanjay Gupta: Why?

Coy Boutte: The acidity of the peppers.

Sanjay Gupta: The peppers could eat through the steel that's down there in the first place?

Coy Boutte: Correct.

Coy Boutte is in charge of the warehouse. He's also a fourth generation

Tabasco employee, something that's pretty common around here.

Coy Boutte: My grandfather, he ran our processing department. My mom works in our HR Department. And my dad runs our maintenance shop.

Sanjay Gupta: How big a part of your life would you say Tabasco is?

Coy Boutte: It's my whole life. I was born and raised here.

Sanjay Gupta: Do you eat Tabasco every day?

Coy Boutte: I eat Tabasco every day - morning, lunch and supper.

As the mash slumbers for three years, spider webs grow on the 60,000 barrel inventory.

Sanjay Gupta: The last time I saw this many barrels is usually a place like a winery.

Tony Simmons: We think about our process similar to the way, I think, a winemaker would think about his process.

Once Simmons approves the mash, it moves on, to the next pungent stage.

Tony Simmons: We add vinegar to fill the tank and then we mix it and stir it for up to about 28 days.

Sanjay Gupta: Takes your breath away--

Sanjay Gupta: Do you ever-- do you ever get used to it?

Tony Simmons: I don't know if you can get used to it but it doesn't affect ya quite as much if you--

Sanjay Gupta: After awhile?

Tony Simmons: After awhile.

The sauce is then strained and bottled. The company's 200-person workforce can produce more than 700,000 bottles a day.

Sanjay Gupta: This is a big product around the world. I mean, how big are we talking about?

Tony Simmons: We are currently shipping to 166 countries.

Sanjay Gupta: Do you want to be in every country in the world?

Tony Simmons: Well, yes, we do.

Meanwhile the hot sauce industry in the U.S. is on fire with revenue of more than a billion dollars. Eating spicy food has risen in popularity. It's even become a competitive sport.

[Chili Head Festival: You got hotter? This'll be a 20 minute burn.]

As can be seen at this chili festival near Dallas...

[Chili Head Festival: That's hot.]

Lately, Tabasco, the grandfather of condiments, is trying to keep pace with these brash, new rivals.

Charlie Chang, Tabasco’s secret weapon 01:47
Tony Simmons: 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.

Sanjay Gupta: You're gonna hook 'em.

Tony Simmons: We're gonna hook 'em.

Avery Island is located in hurricane country -- making Tabasco very vulnerable. In 2005, Hurricane Rita caused massive flooding.

Sanjay Gupta: How at risk was Tabasco?

Tony Simmons: We had four inches before water would've come into a food plant. And you can imagine, we would've been shut down for months and months.

Sanjay Gupta: That's very close to being on the edge.

Tony Simmons: It's the only place in the world we make Tabasco.

In order for the family to protect Tabasco, they must first protect Avery Island. Fighting the erosion of Louisiana's picturesque bayous is a constant challenge for Took Osborn.

Harold Osborn: Some of the problems that we have are saltwater intrusion. If you bring direct sea salt in it'll kill all this grass.

Without the grass, the area's biodiversity will also disappear. So the company has a program to replant new grass.

Harold Osborn: It's an indigenous grass. It's very inexpensive to do. It's very effective. It grows fast. What you see here, this grass will start spreading out by the roots. And it stops the sediment that's floating by. And the sediment drops out, and builds marsh.

In just a few years, this will turn into this...

As much as they like to talk about their conservation efforts, the family also leases their land for oil and gas drilling, as well as, salt mining.

Sanjay Gupta: Those two things seem at odds with one another.

Harold Osborn: No, 'cause we use those resources, to actually help the parts of the land where the oil isn't.

Sanjay Gupta: How does that benefit Avery Island and Tabasco?

Harold Osborn: All this land protects the island, protects it from storms-- protects it from erosion. And it's part of our heritage.

That heritage includes unique Cajun musical and culinary traditions that the McIlhenny family cherishes.

[Tony Simmons: If you work on the leg to get some of that nice crab meat...yeah.]

And at the heart of Cajun cuisine is Cajun ketchup.

Sanjay Gupta: Could you do what you've done here with Tabasco someplace other than Avery Island?

Tony Simmons: I think we could make Tabasco but I'm not sure that the joy would be anywhere near as great if it wasn't being done where it is.

They are fiercely protective of their island, their business and their sauce, which has been trademarked since 1906.

Sanjay Gupta: Now that I've been here for a couple of days, I sort of feel like I got the formula for this Tabasco down. And if I wanted to go out and create Sanjay's Tabasco Sauce, what would happen to me?

Tony Simmons: If you called it Sanjay's Tabasco Sauce, you'd get a cease and desist letter from us pretty quickly saying that you can't use the word "Tabasco" in that context. You could call it Sanjay's Hot Sauce made with tabasco peppers. But you couldn't call it Sanjay's Tabasco Sauce.

Sanjay Gupta: How far would you guys go to enforce that?

Tony Simmons: We'll go to court with you. Absolutely.

Sanjay Gupta: There will be no other Tabasco sauces out there?

Tony Simmons: No.

Sanjay Gupta: There have been rumors that there have been offers for purchase of Tabasco. People that offer a billion dollars, maybe even more. Is there any amount of money that would make this company for sale?

Tony Simmons: The shareholders of the company would have to decide what they want to do.

Sanjay Gupta: And they say, "Mr. CEO, what's your recommendation?"

Tony Simmons: You know, I like owning a family business.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.