Shellie Mierwald wants to do more than tingle taste buds with her hot sauces.
She also hopes to help farmers markets catch fire among consumers.
Mierwald and her husband, Dave, of Patton Township, make a line of sauces for their business Sweet Heat Gourmet. Most of their ingredients are grown at farms in Centre County and the surrounding region and sold at local markets.
And they’re proud to say so.
Each bottle of hot, barbecue or spiced chocolate fudge sauce identifies the farm that supplied the produce and herbs. The labels are meant to promote the farmers markets blooming this month, and refute the notion that they’re more expensive than supermarkets, Shellie Mierwald said.
“I want people to know it’s cheaper and better for them to buy at local markets,” she said.
Mierwald comes from a culinary background. After graduating from high school in Connecticut during the 1980s, she stuck around and ran a restaurant for years.
Once the oldest of her three children left for college, she decided to go back to school, commuting from State College to Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport to earn a culinary arts degree.
While managing a school catering project, she became enamored of farmers and locally grown produce through frequent visits to a local farmers market.
Around the same time, Mierwald started canning and making sauces at home.
The two interests dovetailed after her 2011 graduation. She knew she didn’t want to return to the world of restaurants. Friends liked her hot and barbecue sauces so much they urged her to sell them.
In the fall of 2011, she followed their suggestion and started Sweet Heat Gourmet.
With help from Linda Feltman at the Penn State Small Business Development Center, the Mierwalds secured the necessary insurance, licenses and permits.
“I got everything done, except I didn’t have a kitchen,” Shellie Mierwald said.
That final piece fell into place when the couple rented kitchen space in the Old Gregg School Community and Recreation Center for a modest hourly rate.
Nothing prepared them for a painful lesson early on.
Burning eyes taught them not to stand over a pot of cooking fiery ghost peppers.
“The water vapor from the peppers was like napalm going off,” said Dave Mierwald, a software engineer when he’s not stirring sauces.
The first year Shellie Mierwald spent experimenting, arriving at successful recipes through trial and error. There were setbacks, such as the tasting event that drew 100 people for samples of such unusual concoctions as a cherry/vanilla barbecue sauce.
“I can honestly tell you we don’t sell one sauce we made that day,” Shellie Mierwald said. “They were bad.”
Since then, the Mierwalds have come far.
Selections such as Honey Jalapeno BBQ Sauce, Apple Bourbon BBQ, Habanero Peach Hot Sauce, Pineapple & Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce, Moruga Scorpion Hot Sauce and Bulgogi Asian BBQ Sauce — inspired by Shellie Mierwald’s Korean sister-in-law — have garnered rave reviews from It’s a Fiery World, Sauce Authority and other food blogs.
In addition to selling through its website and www.iburn.com, Sweet Heat Gourmet maintains a regular presence at the Boalsburg Farmers Market on Tuesdays and the North Atherton Farmers Market in the Home Depot parking lot on Saturdays.
Locally, the Mierwalds also sell their sauces at several retail outlets and wineries. Their website includes a directory.
A trip to the first 2013 New York City Hot Sauce Expo as one of 45 invited manufacturers boosted their confidence and their company profile. In March, they returned to the event with 700 or so bottles.
If her production ever expands, as she’s contemplating, Shellie Mierwald plans on staying true to her tastes.
She’ll continue buying the seasonal produce that go into her regular recipes and short-lived creations such as strawberry and roasted pumpkin sauces.
She’s stuck on local markets as firmly as the labels affixed to her bottles.
“Working with farm-fresh produce is a lovely experience,” she said. “This is the first year we’ve come into our own. I’m really proud of the sauces we sell.”
— Chris Rosenblum