The flame game

June 1, 2006

If the month of August weren't hot enough, Howard Olivier is doing all he can to move the mercury from sultry to searing—in the mouths of his customers.

August is Habañero Month at Flying Pie Pizzaria in Bosie, Idaho. For 31 days, Olivier serves up his Double Habañero Pizza to hundreds of "chile heads," patrons who yearn so badly to burn that some drive a couple hundred miles for their fiery fix.

Olivier created the pizza 10 years ago with a friend who wouldn't even sample the final result.

"When she asked me what I wanted it to taste like, I told her it should be like an amusement park ride where, halfway through, you think you're not going to make it, but at the end you're glad you rode it," Olivier said. "She didn't want any part of that, which was good in the end, because we went a level even higher than that. This pizza is like a Central Park mugging."

The chile chompers at Flying Pie are among a growing number of people playing with edible fire. Sales of hot chiles and their byproducts continue to grow not only at the retail level, but in restaurants. According to Mad Coyote Joe, author of the cookbook "On the Chile Trail," exposure to cuisines of the world—especially those originating near the equator—is opening the minds, mouths and wallets of Americans via chiles. According to a recent NPD survey, 19 percent of Americans want more hot and spicy offerings in restaurants.
While some varieties of fresh chiles aren't always available, grocery store shelves stocked with super-hot sauces and salsas are proof enough that legions like toast their taste buds.

Why all the hoopla over heat? According to Joe, the appeal of hot chiles is rooted in capsaicin found in their seeds. The chemical opens the tongue's pores to receive subtle flavors discovered only by those who chew through fire to find them.

Arriving at that point can be a daunting challenge with questionable results. Olivier said after a few slices of Double Habañero, his tongue "can't discern between an olive or a piece of chicken." Joe, who caters large dinners, said working habañeros for extended periods leave his hands feeling as though "they've been slammed in a car door, and I wear gloves!"

Does such behavior make sense?

Only to those who've "gotten the rush," said Joe.

"A substance inside the chile pepper affects your brain

"Chile Trail" offers many great recipes and is available at (Both photos above by Christopher Marchetti, from 'Chile Trail.' Reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher.)

the way morphine does, and when that happens, endorphins are released," he said. "Even though your tongue's on fire, you keep reaching back for more, and the second you put that in you mouth, your brain goes 'Ahh,' because you get that rush."

Author and futurist Joyce Goiya pooh-poohs such palate-pleasing claims about American's growing chile fascination. She said the increased desire for such oral ordnance is merely a manifestation of our cravings for "extreme" experiences.

"It's true that our taste buds lose their sensitivity over time, and with a large aging population, that's part of it," said Goiya, president of the Herman Group in Greensboro, N.C. "But I believe we've become somewhat jaded in a number of different ways. Boredom is our enemy, so we require more and more to turn us on and to get our adrenaline going. Some of the spiciness I find in restaurant foods now doesn't even seem reasonable to me. I can't eat it."

Pleasure with the pain

The Double Habanero isn't all about tongue torture. Some pleasure comes along with the pain. The pizza is topped red sauce, grilled chicken breast, garlic, olives, onions, cheddar and mozzarella and served atop a corn meal-infused crust. Olivier said the pie's quite tasty if one's tough enough to tackle the two to three ounces of sliced habañeros on each.

A former cooking show host, Joe said he's seeing more chiles used as ingredients in mainstream restaurant foods, but only recently is he finding them on pizzas. One he mentioned included mesquite-smoked

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duck breast, handmade mozzarella and a mix of green and chipotle chiles.

"You find chiles in Mexican food, Cajun food, Caribbean food, Thai food and African food, but now those are coming to more common food," he said. "Chefs are finding they can be used in simple foods like pizza."

Jalapenos are more common than ever on pizza makelines, partly because of their wide acceptance and limited lethality. They're also widely available fresh or pickled. Many hotter chiles such as serrano, habañero and cayenne typically come fresh, which makes them somewhat impractical to keep on hand year round. A good way to ensure you've always got heat on hand, said Joe, is to offer a variety of hot sauces.

"People will try different things if you offer them, and we all know there's no end to the supply of hot sauces out there," Joe said.

And no end to their uses in pizzerias. Lisken Lawler, director of concept development for Yum! Brands' WingStreet concept, said about 40 percent of her customers want wings drenched in searing sauces.

"We serve a pretty mainstream audience, so 40 percent is a significant amount of people," she said. The 750-unit company's hottest flavor is Flame Thrower, while its spiciest is Cajun. "We find in focus groups that people who like spicy foods tend to be passionate about them and will order them all the time."

We've got the heat!

Since fiery foods are, well, hot, Joe recommends operators promote them if they have them. If your

For those times when fresh chiles aren't available, bottled hot sauces will do well. Literally thousands are now available in stores or on the Internet. (Photo by Marty Snortum, from 'Chile Trail.' Reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith, Publisher.)

pizzeria is in a college town, he suggested offering a habañero pizza that, if eaten by one person, it's free. Take a picture of the customer and put it on your own Wall of Flame. "It's that young man's testosterone thing. Do it and they'll come running to try it."

Olivier said Flying Pie's Habañero Month gets only word-of-mouth marketing, but that equates to more than enough business for the occasion since about half the people are reheat customers.

"What you'll hear people say is, 'Oh, no, I tried that once and I'm not doing it again,'" said Olivier. "Then there are people who come in almost every day of the month that we offer it."

Those who don't finish the pie and want to take the rest home are required to sign a waiver that reads, "I, (insert name), being of sound mind and body, and in full control of my mental faculties, do hereby request permission to leave the premises of Flying Pie Pizzaria with a Double Habañero Pizza. I understand that I am taking these risks freely and without coercion or encouragement. Signature (insert name)."

The waiver was developed when a patron took home some leftover Double Habañero slices and left the pizza box on the counter—within reach of a toddler.

"The kid ate some of the pizza and became totally hysterical," he said. "The mother called us and said we poisoned the kid. We didn't get sued over it, but it was plenty close. We figured we'd better protect ourselves in the future."

Topics: Independent Operation , Marketing , Operations Management , Pizza Toppings

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