As a 7-year-old at the breakfast table a decade ago, Nicolai Amende watched with curiosity as his father routinely poured Tabasco sauce on his eggs every morning. One day he asked if he could try some and was immediately impressed with the spicy flavor.
A couple weeks later, Nicolai was brainstorming gift ideas for his father’s birthday when he had an epiphany. His dad loved hot sauce, and the ingredients were basic enough on the Tabasco sauce label. Why not pick some of the jalapenos from the family garden and give it a try himself?
“I looked at the ingredients on the label and thought, ‘this looks easy to make, I’ll make hot sauce for my dad,’” Nicolai said. “I grabbed all the ingredients, threw them into a food processor and blended it.”
The initial outcome was essentially pepper flakes and seeds floating in vinegar. But he was determined to try it again.
“Throughout the next three years I experimented with the recipes, sometimes it was too thick, other times it was too thin,” he said. “After many months of doing research on the internet and learning through trial and error, I finally developed the perfect recipe.”
His mother, Svetlana Amende, made a deal with him. If he sold out his entire stock that first year, she would pay for next year’s pepper seedlings. Family and friends were his first customers, but word spread quickly and before long the peppers grown in the family garden couldn’t keep up with demand.
“We outgrew our garden very fast,” Svetlana said. “Now Nicolai has contracted farmers. All the peppers are Minnesota grown without the use of chemicals.”
In the fall of 2012, at 10 years old, he founded Nicolai’s Signature Hot Sauces out of his home. As demand grew, he received his commercial license to sell the product at trade fairs, craft shows and farmers markets.
“You need to attend a class for acidic food preparation; you spend a whole week studying how to handle acidic foods,” Nicolai said. “You need to take and pass a test in order to be eligible for a certificate, pay for a license, and send your product to the lab to get it analyzed and have the proper nutrition facts ready.”
Now going into his senior year at Mankato West High School, he produces over a thousand bottles of hot sauce every year at a commercial kitchen space in St. James.
The Mankato teenager’s hot sauces are found at shops and restaurants throughout southern Minnesota, including Blue Skye Mercantile, the Dam Store, the Wooden Spoon, Hilltop Meat Market and more recently, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store, the big yellow barn north of Belle Plaine on Highway 169.
“That’s my greatest accomplishment to date,” Nicolai said.
He sells five varieties — from the very spicy Knaak Attack Garlic Habanero sauce, named after one of the farmers who grows peppers for him — to the milder Five Pepper Blend, the variety that started it all. Other sauces include a roasted chipotle blend, a chili-lime southwestern and Tsar Sauce, a nod to his Russian heritage.
“I’m half Russian,” he said. “It’s based off of this Russian style hot sauce called Adjika – ideal for cabbage rolls and grilled lamb.”
Minnesota State University business professor Yvonne Cariveau took notice, and invited him to speak to one of her business classes in 2014.
“He was engaging, organized and hit many points that I wanted my students to hear... get mentors and nurture those relationships, get out in front of people and sell your idea or product with passion and keep moving forward despite any temporary setbacks,” Cariveau said.
He’s been a guest speaker at the university every semester since 2014, and Carivaeu said he’s been an active participant in learning about entrepreneurship and networking, frequenting events at MSU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
While that enthusiasm and cultivating business connections are an asset, Nicolai said his recipes stand out from other brands because of a higher pulp to brine ratio, meaning he uses more peppers and less vinegar, a technique he says brings out the natural sweetness of the pepper. Looking ahead, he aims to expand the boutique shops that carry the product, and he hopes to partner with other businesses to expand his customer base.
“My goal ever since day one was to become the hot sauce king of Minnesota,” he said.