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Small Axe Peppers revitalizes Bronx with its homegrown hot sauce

Back in 2014, real estate developer John Crotty and his partner, John Fitzgerald, were working to rehabilitate some of the worst apartment buildings in the Bronx. But fixing the physical problem was only half the battle.

The affordable housing developers realized to create a thriving community, more needed to be done. So they enlisted the help of local community gardens, and a solution to help revitalize one of the poorest boroughs was hatched in an unlikely form — hot sauce.

Crotty co-founded the New York City-based start-up Small Axe Peppers with Fitzgerald and Chef King Phojanakong. Small Axe donates thousands of serrano pepper seedlings to more than 40 community gardens in the Bronx each year.

The start-up then buys back 100 percent of the peppers at a premium price to make its Bronx Hot Sauce, in partnership with GrowNYC and the New York Botanical Garden. This year the start-up donated 1,800 seedlings to the community gardens across the Bronx. Each bottle purchased directly supports the gardens and gardeners who grow these serrano peppers.

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A fresh, sizzling idea

"Our model is very unique, we believe, because we've brought the economy into the community gardens in a way that hasn't been done before," Crotty said. "It's structured to help create economic resources for them by utilizing what they do best — namely, grow food for people."

In year one they bought 100 pounds of peppers from the community gardens, which grew to 750 pounds in 2015 and hit 1,500 pounds of peppers in 2016. Last year the company sold $100,000 in product, which translated into $8,000 back to the community gardens.

To get off the ground, the company self-funded and raised angel capital for a total of nearly $200,000. Different community groups, from education to nutrition, work on the gardens, even an alternatives to incarceration groups.

"We've brought the economy into the community gardens in a way that hasn't been done before." -John Crotty, co-founder, Small Axe Peppers

The sauce recipe was created by Phojanakong, a childhood friend of Crotty's, who is also chef and co-owner of Kuma Inn in New York City. He is well versed on working with sauces: His restaurant offers dishes that features everything from Asian Fusion to traditional American fare.

The Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce has just six ingredients and is truly farm-to-table, retailing at 100 stores throughout the tristate area, including Citerella, Gourmet Garage and Whole Foods, as well as in stores in Oregon and Washington State. For the past three years, the sauce was made and bottled at an organic food incubator space in Queens.

"It's just amazing — everybody feels great because they actually saw the seedling, they grew it, we harvested it, made the sauce, bottled it, brought it back and ate it," Phojanakong said.

Now Small Axe Peppers is looking to expand into a second borough, hoping the concept can help to fund gardens and bring the community together. They're also working on their first real capital raise.

"When I go to the community gardens to collect the peppers and I see the incredible amount of pride the gardeners themselves have taken on from the product — it's a source of something really positive coming from the borough," Daniel Fitzgerald, senior vice president of operations, said. "Our guiding philosophy is, if you have a bunch of community partners coming together and working together to make something great, hopefully we tackle some of society's problems, small and large."

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