Reji White remembers his first habañero pepper.
When he was about 22, stationed with the Marines in Iwa Kuni, Japan, he had a friend from Mexico who often ate the hot peppers whole.
“One day a bunch of guys said, ‘I bet you five bucks you can’t eat it.’ So I did it,” White said. “And, man, it lit me on fire and made me cry.”
White never got the $5, but now he is pursuing what he hopes will be a more lucrative future in habañeros. White, 41, wants to start a business growing and selling some of the world’s hottest peppers to people in Columbia who crave more heat than they can find in common jalapeños.
“So many people into hot sauces go on the Internet to get a recipe, but they use different types of peppers and they don’t get the real taste of the hot sauce,” White said. “If it calls for a Jamaican Scotch bonnet, that’s what you need.”
White planted nine types of habañeros in February, including Scotch Bonnets, Red Savinas, cumaris and the Bhut Jolokia, which holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for hottest pepper. For now, he has 40 plants — still tiny sprouts — in small pots and peat trays in his garage and on the kitchen stove.
But White — not to mention his wife — is looking to get the plants out of his home and into a greenhouse on his mother’s property in Salisbury. His goal is to grow the peppers in a hydroponic system, using nutrient solutions instead of soil. Though it will take money to make that happen, White doesn’t want to give up on his peppers.
“(This business) is not a maybe.,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting everything in order.”
White, who works in maintenance at Old Hawthorne Golf Course, has been learning about habañeros for the past two years.
“Someone a long time ago said if you want to start a business, you’ve got to specialize to be successful,” White said. “I want to specialize in hot peppers.”
Marnee White said her husband is certainly focused on his idea.
“Our lives right now revolve around growing peppers,” she said. “There are days that I just don’t want to talk about peppers anymore, but he always reminds me of the big picture.”
Reji White started seeing the big picture after his friends and family responded well to a hot sauce he created last year. Wanting to make something spicier than he could with peppers from the grocery store, White planted his own orange habañeros. He combined several recipes until he perfected one with peaches, strawberries and pineapples, among other now-secret ingredients. The fruit gives the sauce a sweetness that lasts half a second before engulfing the tongue in fire.
He calls the result “Buzzard’s Breath Hot Sauce.” Label-Maker tape on the remaining jar in his fridge declares it’s “so hot, you’ll fart smoke.”
His neighbor Al Brown Sr. agreed. “It’s not for the weak of spirit.”
Brown also tried one of the original recipes that White created before he learned how many peppers were too many.
“The version I had was just before afterburner hot, like the smoke and flames coming off a hot rod,” Brown said. He later added, “My thought is you could use it at the hospital as a local anesthetic.”
White gave samples of the tamer version to friends and other people around town to test the market.
“It’s got heat and flavor, which is something you don’t see often,” said Gil Wilshire, who works with Marnee White. “Some of these sauces put so much heat into it, you can’t taste it. This has a depth to it. And it’s not wimpy either.”
But just because Reji White makes hot sauce and habañeros in his house doesn’t mean he eats only spicy food.
“I’m not really a pepper person,” he said. “I know that’s crazy. I’m going into the pepper business.”
Marnee White said the sauce is too hot for her taste buds, but she thinks her husband will do well because she said he is a “competitor at heart.”
“He doesn’t ever quit at something once he gets started,” she said. “When we first met, he had never golfed before. We went golfing one day, and since then he’s worked at it and worked at it.”
His mother, Maxine White, said she is proud of her son simply for coming up with the idea.
“I’ve really always wanted him to get into work for himself,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be able to do it. If he’s got it in his head to be successful, then he’ll do it.”
Reji White knows he has a long road ahead of him, but he is set on creating a business.
“I don’t think I’ll become a millionaire doing this, but for now I want to start a business and get customers, maybe get out of a full-time job,” White said. “I want peppers to be my full-time job.”