Dressed in a hazmat suit, respirator and goggles, Ashleigh Aldridge looks like something from a science-fiction movie. Risking burns on her face, she begins mixing ground Bhut Jolokia peppers from India into a vat of other ingredients to make another batch of Pepper Sauce Fantome, a sauce made with D’arbol, Pequin and Bhut Jolokia (ghost) chile peppers.
“This one has a little heat in it,” she said with a laugh.
The sauce is also infused with lime and garlic and is a favorite among heat enthusiasts and foodies. It’s just one of the products produced for Aldridge’s company, D’Evereux Foods in Natchez.
“A little of the ghost pepper powder goes a long way, so we just use it in very small doses,” she explained. “Oddly, it smells like dried grapefruit.”
Armed with a degree in marketing from the University of Louisiana Monroe, Aldridge started her company with a hot sauce recipe and a $10,000 loan, both from her dad, Courtney Aldridge.
“This wasn’t always the plan,” she recalled. “After college, I had planned on moving to Australia to get a master’s degree. The summer after graduation I met my boyfriend, and I had to decide whether to go or stay.”
Love won out and, knowing that her dad’s hot sauce was a winner, Aldridge decided to start a company that would produce and sell the sauce. D’Evereux Foods, named after the historic mansion her family owns, was founded in 2014.
In addition to manufacturing hot sauce, Aldridge opened a storefront in downtown Natchez where she also sells a mix of Southern, regional and international food and kitchen items.
“We have a full tasting island where we do food samplings daily,” she said.
The first year, the company manufactured only the original hot sauce.
“The next year, we added two more sauces and three pepper jellies,” she added.
A major manufacturing shift occurred when her pepper jams were selected in 2015 as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things” in O, The Oprah Magazine. Aldridge was at the Atlanta market when Oprah Winfrey’s media reps stopped by her booth to sample her products.
“They asked for me to send product in to them and, about a month later, I learned that I had made the top 100,” Aldridge said. “A while after that, I learned I had made the final list, but I couldn’t tell anybody until it was announced.”
Knowing that she would have to ramp up production significantly, it became necessary to get another loan, this time from the bank.
“It was a tricky situation. I was only 25 years old and I had not been in business very long. I had to be careful, telling only one person at the bank why I needed the loan, and that person had to sign an agreement not to tell anyone else,” she said.
At the time, Aldridge had made only one batch of the jam to take to the Mississippi Wholesale Market in June.
“I went from making 1,000 jars to 70,000 jars,” she said.
The jam had been manufactured in Natchez, but Aldridge had to seek a manufacturing facility elsewhere due to the volume they sell.
“I am very proud to say that all our products are manufactured in the United States, with ingredients sourced and made in the U.S. — except for the Bhut Jolokia peppers, which we import from India,” she said.
Aldridge explained that the huckleberries used in one of the jams are hand-picked in Oregon.
“They wouldn’t hold up well enough to be shipped to Mississippi, so that’s another reason we had to find another facility to manufacture the jams,” she said.
In addition to the Pepper Sauce Fantome, the D’Evereux Foods line now includes Pepper Sauce Rouge, a smoky and spicy blend, and Pepper Sauce Fermente’, a bold and tangy blend. There is also Strawberry Jalapeno Jam, Sweet Pepper Jalapeno Jam and Huckleberry Jalapeno Jam. The products are sold wholesale to more than 200 businesses in about 20 states. In addition, there is a full line of products for sale on the company’s website, www.devereuxfoods.com. The site also has recipes, including one for crab and shrimp dip that was Mississippi Magazine’s recipe of the year.
“It’s a recipe my mother and I developed,” Aldridge said. “It is really, really good.”
Doing business in Natchez has been a great experience for Aldridge.
“I can’t imagine doing this anywhere else,” she said. “Natchez was founded in 1716, and our family has been here since 1717, so we’ll be celebrating our 300th anniversary this year! I am a ninth generation Natchezian. I know so many people here, and they have all been very supportive. And Natchez is just a fun place — it’s a river town and, with its architecture and attitude, it’s like a mini New Orleans.”
Aldridge has big plans to grow her business.
“I’m going to start doing cooking classes called ‘How to Boil Water with Ashley,’ perfect for kids, college students, brides, as well as both locals and tourists,” she said. “We’ll do online classes and demonstration cooking with guest chefs. I’m excited about the possibilities.”
And the boyfriend who kept her in Natchez?
“He’s still my boyfriend, and he was definitely worth my staying here,” she said.
Photos by Karry Hosford