They’re weeping in Mel Gancsos’s country kitchen in Fairfield. Two grown men — one burly and the other slim — trimming and slicing six and-a-half pounds of onions, releasing pungent vapors into the cozy ten- by sixteen-foot room. The vapors float into the baskets and crockery hanging from the beams and seep into the blue and brown floral wall-paper. They blast the men behind their glasses. Mel fumbles with his onion and it skitters across the faux brick floor. “It’s no wonder your wife doesn’t want you working in here,” Bobby Toth, Mel’s buddy, admonishes.
Mel — salt-and-pepper beard, more hair below his ready smile than above — doesn’t respond. His wife’s absence in the kitchen is a sore point. Ever since Mel sliced his skull selling his wares at a motorcycle rally, Anne Gancsos, a nurse at Norwalk Hospital, has opted out of Mel’s entrepreneurial ventures. That leaves Mel and Bobby, both workers at Sikorsky Aircraft, to carry the load. Today the men are whipping up a sample batch of Mel’s Hellish Relish, a sweet and hot concoction that has taken the condiment world by storm. The red bell pepper–based blend — as well as its sister product, Mel’s Sweet Inferno Pickles — has captured top prizes three years straight at the national Scovie Awards in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Super Bowl of condiment contests. That success has placed Mel in a quandary. To devote every waking moment of his free time to preparing and peddling his product in the hopes of making it big? Or to keep it status quo, retaining time for himself and his family but always wondering “what if … ”?
By day (and evening) Mel machines helicopter parts at Sikorsky’s overhaul and repair shop in Shelton. It was at Sikorsky that Mel’s Hellish Relish was born. Back in 1999 one of the machinists brought in some mighty tasty homemade salsa to share with Mel and the guys on the 3:45 p.m. to 12:15 a.m. shift. The salsa sparked a competition of sorts in the snack room. Mel is nothing if not competitive. He was New England Motocross Champion in 1967 and 1968 and would not back down if you challenged him on his Honda Magna 750. So Mel whipped up his own batch of salsa.
“After that I just started trying to make different things. I would bring in four or five products and the guys would sample them all. They would write down which one they liked better,” Mel recalls. A hot cherry pepper relish proved to be a standout. Mel brought it in often, along with chili, stuffed peppers, anything he thought the guys might enjoy.
One day one of the machinists gave Mel an entry form to the Scovie Awards, an annual competition that judges hot foods in dozens of categories, including snacks, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, salsa, even beverages. Mel captured third place in the amateur division for condiments/relish. When Mel tried to re-create the relish recipe, though, returning to the same farm in Easton to pick the cherry peppers, inconsistent rains had rendered them wormy and unreliable. That proved to be a pivotal episode in Hellish Relish history. Mel changed his recipe, based it on bell peppers instead, and added spices to provide the heat. A coworker proclaimed to Mel, “This relish takes the hot dog to new heights.”
From that point on, Mel believed he might be on to something. He and Anne spent much of their free time picking, preparing, packing or pitching pickles and peppers. They researched FDA requirements for making a healthy food product and contracted with a laboratory to test their wares. Mel dug out a photo taken of him at a Halloween party thirty years ago in which he was a devil covered in red from horns to toes. Mel’s sister used the photo to design labels. Mel’s son built a website (hellishrelish.com). And a business was born.
Two years later Mel entered the Scovies as a professional and captured first place with his pickles, and third with his relish.
“It’s been hard to keep up with the demand at this point,” says Mel, who sells his products through local vendors in Fairfield County, as well as on his website and at country fairs. But he keeps trying.
Surrendering your kitchen to piles of peppers and losing your husband to habaneros can be unkind to a woman. But to actually see your betrothed bleed over his newfound passion, well that’s another thing altogether. Shortly after Mel’s professional debut at the Scovies, Mel and Anne rented a sales booth up at Americade in Lake George, New York. The event is a gathering for upwards of 50,000 motorcycle riders in the Adirondacks.
“It’s everything that I love,” Mel says, “the mountains, the water, the woods, motorcycles and motorcycle people all day.” He had put in a long day at the booth and was fetching more boxes of relish and pickles when whack!, he slammed his head into the mirror on a tractor trailer. After his head split open and the ambulance carted him away to the hospital, Anne, apparently, made a decision.
Says Mel, “I kind of wandered around for eight months, wondering what happened, why she didn’t want to help me anymore. I guess she figured I was burning myself out and working too hard. She figured if she didn’t help, maybe I’d quit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on doing this without her.”
Anne refuses to talk about it. “That’s Mel’s baby,” is all she’ll offer. Even after several attempts she won’t budge.
Mel was tempted to quit but the accolades kept coming. He won another round of Scovies and Chile Pepper Magazine awarded his Hellish Relish first place in its fiery foods contest. Eventually Mel asked Bobby to help. Bobby is Robin to Mel’s Batman. The sidekick, the supporter, the cheerleader. “Mel’s been a good friend,” he says of the man he met fifteen years ago at Sikorsky. “I’m glad he asked me to do it. I coach him to be positive. You can’t go through life saying, ‘I should have done this,’ or ‘I should have done that.’”
The pair are chatting during yet another R&D session, which Mel conducts to stay on top of the competition. Bobby empties out a twenty-five pound box of fresh peppers and Mel crushes each pepper with his meaty palm then slices the pepper with a butcher knife, a dainty process deftly handled by a man who is five feet, ten inches tall and weighs 220 pounds. Mel moves a little slowly across the kitchen on account of his bad left hip, the result of too many falls on his motorcycle over the years. He refuses to say how many years, though. The thought of incessant needling by the guys over motorcycle riding at his age, whatever that age is, has sworn him and Bobby to secrecy.
Someone’s in the Kitchen with Mel
Machinists like things configured perfectly, and this effort is no different. Mel places the ingredients on a kitchen scale then calls out the precise weights. Bobby takes scrupulous notes. After each measurement Mel tosses the ingredients into a giant Rubbermaid vat on the wooden kitchen table, which is covered with a crisp, clean, white linen tablecloth, soon to be sprayed with red pepper juice. The men measure and pour sugar and cider vinegar by the cupful.
The unique thing about Mel’s products is that the heat sneaks up on you. As Bobby puts it, “Mel makes the product so you can enjoy the best of both worlds: heat and flavor. In the back of your throat you taste the flavor first, and then the heat comes up. People love that. They get addicted to it. Hey, Mel, remember that lady who bought the pickles at the fair? She opened the jar as soon as she bought them and they were practically all gone when we saw her later.”
“That’s what makes it all worthwhile,” Mel responds.
While Bobby stirs the concoction in the vat, Mel fishes out spices from the cellar. There, in the freezer, is a treasure trove: Thai dragon peppers, chile peppers, Anaheim chiles, poblanos of New Mexico, chile pequin seeds, bags of red chile powder, India red chile and, in bubble wrap, twenty pounds of habanero powder from Belize that cost Mel $450.
Today’s batch will feature India red chiles and habanero powder. Mel measures out the spices into a tablespoon that he levels with a knife, then pours into the vat, which Bobby continues to stir. Says Bobby, “People think you make this and you instantly become a millionaire. But it’s not like that. It’s a lot of hard work and persistence and a little bit of luck.”
All this work is generating an appetite. Mel grabs a bowl of spinach dip (Hellish Relish added, naturally). Bobby shovels up the dip with scoop-shaped tortilla chips. (After at least a dozen trips to the chips heaped with dip, Mel says to Bobby: “Quit eating the profits, will you?”) Finally, Mel pours the ingredients from the vat into two stainless steel pots and while the relish cooks, the pair shares a pizza.
They eat in the dining room-turned-office, accompanied by the soundtrack of hunting programs on TV, which keep the pair company all day. Photos decorate the room: Mel with the Hot Sauce King of Savannah, Mel with the Pope of Peppers, Mel and Bobby monkeying around at the Fiery Foods convention, Mel dressed head to toe as a devil. There are others, too. On the computer, under the half mount of what was a twenty-five-pound brown-feathered gobbler until Mel shot it in Redding and ate it, runs a slide show of images dear to Mel: pies filled with wild raspberries that Mel and Anne picked in Fairfield; photos that their son e-mailed from his semester abroad in Hungary; pictures of Mel’s three grandchildren, including his favorite fishing partner, eleven-year-old Julie, who is a champion equestrian at Greens Farms Academy. “When she was a little girl, she told me she wanted to fly, so she started riding horses. I’d say, ‘Let’s get rid of that damn horse and get a motorcycle.’ And she said motorcycles weren’t for ladies, horses were for ladies.” Mel still chuckles over that one.
The Proliferation of Pickles and Peppers
Nearly five hours after the food preparation began, the relish begins to boil. Four minutes later the pickled peppers are cooked. Mel begins ladling the relish into jars but he’s forgotten the funnel. “You gotta be Hungarian,” Bobby, also Hungarian, teases, as he takes the white dish towel and wipes scalding hot relish off each jar before screwing the lid on tight. Then he turns the jar upside down to secure the seal.
“It’s like being in a machine shop,” Mel says. “Setting up the job and making sure it’s going to run smoothly takes more time than doing the job.”
Mel is getting hasty though and Bobby calls him on it. “Stop pouring it all over the place and looking like a superhero. Just do the job right,” Bobby says, a toothpick in his mouth bobbing up and down as he speaks. Mel could certainly take shortcuts, as many of his colleagues in condiments do. He could buy already chopped and frozen peppers, for example, which would slash the number of hours he needs to spend preparing. But Mel is not a shortcut kind of guy. He grew up on his grandfather’s farm, where he cultivated, hunted or fished for some of his food. “I want my product to be made from scratch, like me,” he jokes. “I want it to be fresh-tasting.”
Mel’s grandparents and father were born in Hungary. Mel sat beside his grandfather at the breakfast table each morning and enjoyed half a “Hungarian hot,” a yellow and green hot banana pepper, along with his bread and butter, while his grandfather downed the peppers whole. Mel and his grandmother took the bus to the west end of Bridgeport to catch Tarzan movies, which were dubbed in Hungarian. Mel’s mother was a fabulous cook, turning out the best chicken paprikash this side of the Atlantic. Mel’s father was a taskmaster who taught tool and dye work as well as machining to young Mel. “You worked fast and you worked hard,” Mel says. (To which Bobby retorts, “Too bad you didn’t get any of those traits.”) For years Mel worked in his father’s shop, but the place wasn’t big enough for two strong personalities. In 1988 Mel went to work at Sikorsky.
These days Mel finds that the potential of his pickles and peppers is calling louder than helicopters. He wants out of the second shift. “I want to spend more time with my grandkids before they’re grown up,” he says. “At this point in time it’s almost impossible.”
Mel has taken several giant steps toward ameliorating that situation. He signed up a co-packer in New Haven who can produce more Hellish Relish in three hours than Mel and Bobby can make in three days. He is trying to do the same for the pickles. “I have to get co-packers for both products and get them made in larger quantities so I can get the price down,” he says. “I’m not giving up. I know the product is good.”
If only that were the sole prerequisite to success. “I tell people, don’t fall in love with your product,” warns Dave DeWitt, known in the condiment world as the Pope of Peppers. Dave produces the national Fiery Foods and Barbecue show in Albuquerque and runs the Scovie Awards. The contest is named for the scientist who devised Scoville units, actual scientific measurements that quantify the amount of capsaicin in a product. Capsaicin is the heat-inducing chemical contained in foods such as chile peppers. (It’s also used in pepper spray.) Since peppers are so unpredictable in terms of heat levels, manufacturers rely on Scoville units to help gauge the heat and keep a product consistent. At the Scovie Awards, heat isn’t the sole criterion. In fact it isn’t even the most important. “We have several criteria for judging: aroma, appearance, heat and spice. It’s flavor and heat combined,” Dave says. “Flavor plays the most important role.” Even though flavor makes a winning product, that’s not what first makes people buy it. The key to the whole enterprise, Dave says, is distribution and marketing.
“There are tens of thousands of independent food companies trying to make it in the specialty food business,” he says. “For every success story there are probably twenty or thirty companies that didn’t make it. I tell people that until they’re making a profit, don’t give up their day job.”
Mel knows what he has to do to get into that minority. “To go to the next level I’m gonna have to start putting a lot more time into it,” Mel says. “It seems like there’s never an end. It seems like if I go just around the corner, that’s the end, but it’s just like Pandora’s box. There’s always more. There are points in time where I figure this is too much work, I can’t keep doing this. But this is my passion now. This is my motorcycles. When people tell me how good my product is and how much they like it and they come to me with recipes, it feels great. It lifts you two feet off the ground.”