Kansas City-based rock photographer (and frequent PresentMagazine.com contributor) Todd Zimmer is the man behind Zim’s Hot Sauce. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Zimmer grew up with Buffalo wings.
A slow burn builds from the first taste. The mild heat blooms, dances across my tongue, tingles the edges of my lips. Sweetness arrives initially, like the anticipation of a first kiss, and then spice follows, builds in intensity, and sparks a memory that lingers. The heat migrates upward where perspiration beads on the scalp. Zim’s Hot Sauce works its voodoo gradually, seduces with its sizzle but encourages you to admire its substance as well.
Kansas City-based rock photographer (and frequent PresentMagazine.com contributor) Todd Zimmer is the man behind Zim’s Hot Sauce. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Zimmer grew up with Buffalo wings that, according to legend, originated in 1968 at the Anchor Bar. Over his lifetime, Zimmer has eaten plenty of the deep-fried chicken wings and drums doused in the traditional combination of Frank’s Hot Sauce and butter.
Zimmer began regularly cooking wings himself in the mid-80s at home and later at a local Buffalo restaurant. After college, Zimmer and his friends hosted sauce-making parties to develop variations on the classic Frank’s. He says, “A medium to hot sauce in Kansas City would be considered mild in Buffalo.”
Skip forward to 1997 and leap halfway across the continental United States. Zimmer relocated to Kansas City because of a job transfer, but he didn’t leave his love of hot sauce behind. He began to concoct a version that respected the roots of hot wings and Frank’s Hot Sauce (both veritable institutions in Buffalo) and also paid homage to the barbecue heritage of the Kansas City area. For the past six years, Zimmer has tinkered with refining a distinctive hot sauce recipe and working with his wife Janet to bring it to market in Kansas City.
Bite your tongue, hot sauce purists. Zimmer never intended to duplicate an iconic sauce, but rather create something wholly original. “It has the essence of Frank’s, but it is not the same,” says Zimmer. He lets on that Zim’s has a hot sauce base blended with Italian dressing and barbecue sauce (an ode to Kansas) plus a few extras. “I added basil, garlic, nutmeg, and other fresh ingredients. There are no preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. It’s all natural and pure.”
Zim’s Hot Sauce has sweet, fruity notes at first before hitting minor keys of saltiness. Tangy vinegar and the mild bite of cayenne pepper picks up the melody and forms a piquant flavor structure. The aroma is unlike the smoky tones of chipotle pepper or the sharpness of jalapenos steeped in vinegar. It reveals a hint of the tropics, reminiscent of a Jamaican jerk sauce blended with the rich molasses base of barbecue sauce. A complex blend of spices and herbs takes this hot sauce in a fresh direction. Notably, the sauce contains sesame seeds, bits of onion, and herbs that add body and distinguish Zim’s from other pure liquid sauces on the market.
The process of developing a commercial brand of hot sauce began in Zimmer’s kitchen with experimental batches to develop the desired flavor combination. Next, he sought assistance from Original Juan, a Kansas City company on Southwest Boulevard that specializes in developing multiple lines of specialty foods under its own brand names and for entrepreneurs like Zimmer. Scan the supermarket shelves in the sauce section and familiar names might pop up – Mama Capri Marinara Sauce, Fiesta Artichoke Spinach Dip, Cowtown Steak Rub, Pain is Good Batch #114 Sweet Caribbean Jerk Screamin’ Wing Sauce, and Zarda’s BBQ Sauce. In order to manufacture and bottle a brand of hot sauce with consistent quality and sustain production, Original Juan was a logical place for Zimmer to start testing and refining.
“We tested a small half batch to adapt the hot sauce from my kitchen version and to confirm the conversion of ingredients,” says Zimmer.
From there, Original Juan will ramp up to a full batch of 136 gallons and begin bottling the sauce by July. Zimmer will handle distribution and sales of Zim’s Hot Sauce. Local artist Tyson Schroeder created the illustrated artwork – a hybrid chicken with a buffalo skull – for the label with typography and overall design by Zimmer.
The hot sauce is set to debut at two local music clubs, The Brick and recordBar, where Zimmer has spent plenty of time photographing music shows. The Brick will serve hot wings with Zim’s Hot Sauce on Tuesday, 6/29 and recordBar will serve wings on their trivia nights after July 7. The plan is for Zim’s Hot Sauce to appear regularly as a menu option with wings when the product is ready for re-sale by mid-July. “I want the hot sauce to be available at select locations and to let word spread through a grassroots approach,” he says. “The 10-ounce bottles will make 30-40 wings.”
Zimmer made his hot sauce with hot wings in mind, but he already knows that it marries well with a variety of foods. “I’ve taken samples of my hot sauce to work,” he says. “Co-workers have told me it tastes great on everything from pulled pork to eggs.”
I put Zim’s Hot Sauce to the test at home. After marinating a pound of chicken tenders for a few minutes in Zim’s Hot Sauce with some vegetable oil, a dash of salt, and fresh ground black pepper, I grilled the tenders until slightly charred. The thin consistency of the hot sauce didn’t adhere to the meat. I tasted the grilled chicken without adding additional sauce. The marinade didn’t impart any spiciness. Perhaps if the chicken were marinated longer, even over night, then it would have more pronounced flavor. However, Zim’s was made to be a sauce for cooked food more than a marinade. With that in mind, I conducted the crucial taste test.
In one dish, I poured a straight dose of Zim’s and filled another dish with a blend of melted butter and Zim’s to simulate a traditional hot wing sauce. The unadulterated sauce added zing to the chicken, hitting the sweet spots of my taste buds followed by the zip of vinegar. The bouquet of spices and herbs complimented the smokiness of grilled chicken. Gradually, the heat built until I radiated a low-grade glow. A piece of fresh-sliced mango dabbed in the sauce brought out tropical fruit flavors, playing off the mango’s sweetness. This experiment encouraged me to try the hot sauce in myriad food combinations when I could buy a bottle or two of Zim’s.
When blended with melted butter, Zim’s Hot Sauce transforms into a more mellow condiment that perfectly suited the grilled chicken. The sauce still has heat and a few sassy moves like an elder aunt at a wedding reception that still knows how to shake it. The butter emulsified in the sauce not only softens the heat, but also imparts a silky mouth feel. I can’t wait to try this sauce, with and without melted butter, on a properly prepared batch or three of hot wings.
Zim’s Hot Sauce, it zips and it zings. Surprisingly versatile, the sauce lends itself to adaptation as a condiment. Perhaps blending it with lime, honey, and tequila before brushing it on grilled shrimp or flank steak. Or basting grilled salmon with Zim’s and serving it with slices of grilled pineapple. Maybe spooning some Zim’s on rice and chicken and black bean quesadillas. Or doing a classic dunk of hot wings in this lively sauce.
In a city that debates the merits of barbecue sauces with gusto, that dashes Tabasco and Sriracha sauce and salsa on just about any food, there are thousands of people in Kansas City that will taking a liking to Zim’s Hot Sauce if they seek it out. Count me as a convert.
Originally published in Present Magazine, June 2010.