Monday, September 25, 2023

How Ledwon’s Hot Sauce Brought the Heat to Cape May

The four friends and staff members at Ledwon’s Sauce Company. From left: Tim Durstewitz, Steve Dunwoody, Greg Ledwon, and Chris Baeringer.

By Collin Hall

VILLAS – Ledwon’s Sauce Company began with the “Buzzing Dragon,” a hot honey sauce that bubbled up as a humble at-home recipe. Greg Ledwon, one of the sauce company’s three founders, crafted the sauce for his father, who could no longer eat the spicy foods he enjoyed due to a cancer diagnosis.

“Greg was trying to develop a recipe for his dad that was spicy, flavorful, but all-natural and easier on the stomach,” Steve Dunwoody, a Ledwon’s founder and one of Greg’s best friends, told the Herald on an appropriately hot morning at their new hot sauce kitchen in Villas.

That first “Buzzing Dragon,” with spicy chili notes and strong hints of honey, was a hit with Greg’s dad. But it also wooed Greg’s friends at a happenstance family dinner. Steve remembered being instantly wowed by the sauce. “Greg – is this your recipe? Are you sure?” – he asked in mild shock.

Steve was sure that the formula was a winner. And he was right – the sauce went on to win the first-place prize for best sauce at a major competition in 2022. It is still their most popular sauce.

The “core” group of hot sauces sold by Ledwon’s Sauce Company.

“But at first, none of us knew anything about starting a small business,” Steve said. The hurdles to operation were many, and much of the work meant interfacing with local, state, and federal regulatory bodies.

The federal Food and Drug Administration oversees all acidified foods sold commercially, which means cooking at very specific, documented temperatures. Cape May County’s health department inspects the facilities used to create the sauce. And after all that, they had to acquire a wholesale license from the state of New Jersey.

“Navigating the different levels of government with different stages of regulation was all new to us,” Steve said.

The “Buzzing Dragon,” Ledwon’s flagship sauce, is made using local honey from Swazey Farms. The sauce won “Sauce of the Year” at the 2022 Pepper & the Spoon competition in Minnesota.

But the mightiest hurdle of all was a familiar one: the COVID-19 pandemic. “We got our final inspection in February of 2020, and a month later there were no events, and everybody was told to go home.”

It might have been easy to give up on the whole ordeal. But Steve, Greg, and Chris Baeringer, a third partner, were so confident in the sauce that they pushed through despite heavy setbacks.

Steve remembers biking some of Ledwon’s first orders to customers in the middle of lockdown. Those first orders came from friends, acquaintances, and co-workers within their circles.

But word got around fast: these guys were doing something fresh in the local hot sauce scene. Every ingredient is sourced locally as much as possible, and the gang isn’t afraid to get wild with the flavor offerings.

Four years on, you’ll notice a variety of Ledwon’s hot sauces dotted along the shoreline, with custom hot sauces produced for Exit Zero, Nauti Spirits, and Taco Caballito. A bigger kitchen space in Villas allows them to meet increased demand, along with the addition of a fourth partner, long-time friend and Cape May Firefighter, Tim Durstewitz.

“Despite the bigger kitchen, every batch is still crafted by us, by hand,” Steve said. “Making that jump from borrowed kitchen space – we were working out of the Ugly Mug’s kitchen at first – to having our own kitchen has been our biggest challenge by far,” Steve said.

Every hot sauce flavor is typically cooked in quantities of 100 bottles or fewer. Some sauces with a passionate niche following, like their Wing Night sauce that is popular come Football season, are made just a few times a year.

“This has really been a crazy journey for us,” Steve stressed. “But we love our sauces, and we’re always trying new things.”

Ledwon’s Sauce Company can be found at events and farmer’s markets across Cape May County. You can make an online order via their site for pickup or delivery.

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