Pepper Preppers heating up old Benton City fire station

A former fire station in the heart of Benton City will be the new home of Pepper Preppers LLC, a hot sauce business, as well as a commercial kitchen available for lease to a limited number of food startups.

Cheri and Bill Smoot, founders of Pepper Preppers LLC, have a $211,000 agreement to buy the 4,538-square-foot former fire station, 713 Ninth St., from the Port of Benton. The deal is scheduled to close Dec. 13.

The Smoots secured a $550,000 loan from the Hanford Area Economic Investment Fund to purchase and equip the building, which has been empty for a year and last housed a glass-making business.

The Benton City couple will move their hot sauce business from the Pasco Specialty Kitchen and plan to operate a co-packing business to produce small batches of hot sauces on behalf of clients.

They will establish a small commercial kitchen to serve about six up-and-coming food manufacturers, echoing the PSK model. The commercial kitchen will operate as Pepper Preppers Kitchen.

Pepper Preppers is rooted, as food-based startups often are, in a friendly workplace competition.

Bill, a health physicist at the Hanford site, got into a breakroom hot sauce competition with a coworker, each escalating the rivalry over a series of new sauces. Bill didn’t have an old family recipe to drawn on, but he enjoys putting ingredients together and compiled one for his workplace.

The competition went back and forth until a colleague made an offhand remark about Bill’s version with its smoked veggies and three-pepper base: If this were sold in a grocery store, I would buy it, he said.

Bill and Cheri Smoot of Pepper Preppers are buying the former Benton City fire station, 713 Ninth St., for their fast-growing hot sauce business, Pepper Preppers LLC, and to create a commercial kitchen in Benton City. (Courtesy Pepper Preppers LLC)

With that, the Smoots established Pepper Preppers in December 2017.

They devoted the first eight months sorting through licensing and food safety regulations.

They developed their first sauce, Smokin’ Hot Threesome – for its three peppers. They selected the unusual square jars and hired an Ohio-based artist to design the label. They created a launch date for themselves by signing up for an event in Seattle: Aug. 5, 2018.

“If you have a refined enough palate, the peppers will hit,” Bill said.

They made it, but lost money, selling about $500 of product and spending $800 on expenses.

Still, they considered it a valuable experience that brought them into the tightknit yet highly competitive community of hot sauce makers.

For the next year, they tooled around the Northwest, selling at farmers markets, street fairs, sportsmen’s shows, home and garden shows and other festivals. A secondary business developed on the internet: Customers who picked up their sauces at events would hunt them down online for refills.

Like most businesses, 2020 was a rough year. The events where they plied their wares dried up, leaving them with nowhere to go. So, they doubled down and spent the year in the kitchen, developing a line of six sauces, ranging from hot-hot-hot to sweet.

Each is analyzed at Washington State University and sent to the Food and Drug Administration for approval. They are carried locally at Ranch & Home stores, Knutzen’s Meats in Pasco and in the terminal of the Tri-Cities Airport – past the security checkpoint.

As the economy revived and their customers found them online, business took off.

Bill still works at Hanford. Cheri left Energy Northwest, where she worked in performance improvement for about 20 years, in February to work full time on the business.

The Port of Benton is selling Benton City’s former fire station, 713 Ninth St., to Cheri and Bill Smoot, who will use it to house Pepper Preppers, a hot sauce business, as well as a copacking business and a small commercial kitchen for about six tenants. (Courtesy Pepper Preppers LLC )

They’ve been happy to call the Pasco Specialty Kitchen home, but about a year ago decided to seek out a commercial space where they could make their own sauces, co-pack for others and set up a commercial kitchen.

It was a frustrating experience, they said.

They even leased space at one point but had to back out when they realized the building couldn’t accommodate a vent hood – a cooking necessity.

Fortune stepped in when they peered into the old fire station and wondered if it could work. The port, as it happened, had decided to sell the building as part of a larger move to relieve itself of the financial pressure of maintaining older properties.

For Pepper Preppers, the building suited its needs. The former ambulance bay on the north would house a kitchen and the old fire truck bay to the south would house storage. Bill reached out to the port just as it was reaching out to him.

The deal was hammered out.

Finding a building was one thing.

Finding a loan to get Pepper Preppers off the ground was another.

The couple pursued then abandoned a traditional startup loan backed by Small Business Administration. They turned to a banker at STCU for advice and learned about HAEIF.

The fund, created by the 1991 state Legislature, finances projects that help diversify the Tri-City economy and is funded by fees collected from the deposit of low-level radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Skip Novakovich, chair of the HAEIF board, said Pepper Preppers had one of the best business plans the group has ever seen and impressed the board with its interest in helping small business grow.

Recent investments include start-up costs for Crumbl Cookies at Columbia Center in Kennewick, Iconic Brewery in Richland and The Nineteen, an apartment project planned for downtown Kennewick.

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