Mike Cooper serves up zesty hot sauce in airport hangar
By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on June 21, 2005 1:45 PM
Local Hispanics may refer to it as "gringo" sauce, but Mike Cooper says plenty of people still think his Mile High Hot sauce packs plenty of zest.
Cooper, a retired Air Force colonel, came up with his own secret recipe for a hot sauce in the 1990s, based on pepper plants he grew in his back yard.
He first bottled the sauce for friends but it proved so popular that he expanded his pepper garden and bottling operation. Eventually, he said, his wife "ran me out of the back yard."
So Cooper started renting land adjacent to the Goldsboro-Wayne airport to grow peppers. Only certain crops can be grown next to the runway because some plants attract birds that can prove dangerous to aircraft. The pepper plants pose no problem.
Cooper continued to give away his sauce until three years ago, when he decided to see if it could turn a profit. He now sells his hot sauce on the Internet and in some small grocery stores.
Cooper rents space in a hangar at the airport for his sauce-making operation.
"This hangar houses small twin-engine airplanes," Cooper said, "but the geometry of T-Hangars means there's wasted space on each end."
He said his operation is "government approved," with all the necessary permits.
After harvesting, peppers are cleaned and topped, then run through a machine that Cooper designed himself to separate the seeds from the peppers.
Cooper said he created the "de-seeder" machine based on a butterbean shelling machine he saw when he was younger.
The workers that help with make the sauce were dazzled by his invention, he said.
"They couldn't believe all the seeds that pile up so quickly under the machine," Cooper said.
Mile High Hot Sauce is a vinegar-based sauce which allows it to be stored without refrigeration.
Once the additional ingredients of salt and other secret spices are blended with the peppers and vinegar, the entire mixture is cooked, allowing the natural juices of the jalapeno to be released, creating the sauce's flavor. The mixture is bottled while still hot, sealing in the flavor and creating an air tight seal.
Zesty eating is a family tradition for Cooper. He said his grandfather learned to make hot sauce in New Mexico before the turn of the century.
"When he was growing up he was widely regarded as a chili pepper aficionado," Cooper said.
Cooper's father came from Florida, where he also developed a taste for hot sauce. Their influences helped lead him to come up with his own brand, which he hopes will become even more popular. He said taste, not heat, is his goal.
To find out more about Cooper's hot sauce, visit the website at www.milehighhotsauce.com
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