Clayton native re-engineers Sriracha sauce

Nathan Litz and his girlfriend, Caitlin Stayduhar, work together to run the business behind Sriracha Granada. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Passion fuels success and, in the case of Nathan Litz, that success is Sriracha Granada, a spicy-sweet green hot sauce he created in his home kitchen. This delicious condiment is now distributed nationwide. You can find it locally in grocery stores and on the tables of many of our town’s great restaurants. 

Litz, 29, grew up in Clayton, became a bar mitzvah at Temple Israel and graduated from Clayton High School. While in college, he worked at several local restaurants. More than the cooking experience, these restaurants gave him insights into how to run a business. 

Litz, the lead network engineer at the Advanced Technology Center at World Wide Technology, credits his mother, Tracey Elbein, for helping him cultivate an adventurous palette and an appreciation for spicy food.  

“She is a great cook,” he said, “and an even better baker.”

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Elbein said: “From the time Nathan was 3 years old, he favored adult food over typical kid food. He’d eat cut-up raw vegetables as long as he could dip them into some type of sauce. When we ate in restaurants, I allowed him to order whatever he wanted with the understanding that he had to eat it. He soon developed a sophisticated palate.”

She did most of her family’s cooking over the weekends. Quite often, her son would be by her side.

“I’d give him measuring tools, and he’d help me measure out ingredients,” Elbein said. “Soon he was helping mix stuff and reading recipes. He’d ask questions about what I was cooking or baking, and we’d talk about what happened scientifically – such as why the cake rose in the pan – and talk about different spices and herbs. He’s always had a good nose for herbs and spices and an innate sense of what smelled or tasted good.” 

As a teenager, Litz got hooked on the original Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, a recipe that some have attributed to a woman living in Si Racha, Thailand. A Vietnamese immigrant to California adapted that recipe, started his own business and now makes that ubiquitous sauce with the rooster on the bottle. 

Litz squirted that sauce on everything.  Eventually, it inspired him to create his own version. His, he decided, would be free of chemical preservatives, and artificial flavors and colors. He saw this as a challenge, and never intended it to go into commercial production. 

That process began six years ago. Litz researched the original Sriracha sauce and learned everything there was to know about hot peppers. Soon, he started growing hot peppers. For perspective, he tasted every hot sauce he could get his hands on. He found some too vinegary, others with a gnawing raw pepper flavor and some that simply lacked depth. 

“I wanted my sauce to really taste like an amalgamation of the different ingredients rather than any single one,” he said.

Litz prepared at least 20 versions of his hot sauce, experimenting primarily with green jalapeños and green Thai bird peppers. He filled his Vitamix blender with varying amounts of the unseeded peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt and sugar, processed the ingredients and sampled the result. Each batch tasted just a little different. 

Once he was satisfied with the combination of flavors, Litz  cooked his sauce in a large pot on the stove, poured it into mason jars, and ate it: straight, as a dip with chips, or mixed into some of his favorite foods, such as fried rice and eggs. Family and friends were eager to help out with the testing, too, and their feedback was unanimous: Bottle the stuff.

Litz took their advice. He went online, bought a 50-pack of 12 oz. plastic bottles, and cooked a huge batch of his sauce. He sold those bottles to friends and friends of friends. Over a couple of years, the size of the batches grew. He began keeping track of the numbers and recording his costs. 

Before long, the pot he had been using wasn’t big enough; nor was his Vitamix blender. Litz invested in an 80-quart pot and a three-quart Robot Coupe commercial food processor with a chute. The chute allowed him to grind the peppers and shoot them straight into the pot in a single process. Once all of the remaining ingredients were in the pot, he used a commercial immersion blender to blend all of the raw ingredients together. Then he cooked it. 

Keep in mind that all of this was taking place in his home kitchen. I asked him how he was able to process the nearly 80 quarts of sauce he made at one time.

“I dumped the whole pot’s worth into an Igloo cooler and let the mixture cool,” he explained. “The next day, I hoisted the cooler onto the counter, opened the spout, and filled bottles one at a time. I lined the bottles up on my left, and to the left of them, I lined up special caps with liners on the inside. One Igloo-full made enough sauce to fill 100 bottles.” 

Litz called his sauce Sriracha Granada because it was explosive and spicy. A gifted graphic designer, he went on to create a label for the bottles, similar to the one now used commercially. 

Once the bottles were ready, he loaded them into milk crates and drove around town delivering Granada Sriracha to friends and family members who bought it. Along with his girlfriend, Caitlin Stayduhar, who has been in this venture from the start, they set up a booth at the Loop Ice Carnival in 2014. Passersby were encouraged to sample the sauce for free. In just 90 minutes they sold more than 100 bottles of Sriracha Granada. 

“That was when I realized I needed a private label/co-packer, one that could provide manufacturing scale to a little guy like me,” Litz said.

He did some research and found a private label manufacturer in Chicago. He toured the plant and handed over his recipe for testing. Soon thereafter, the manufacturer mailed a sample of the sauce to Litz, along with the list of ingredients and their preparation process to make the recipe work for commercial production. 

“I was so excited when the sauce arrived,” Litz said. “It looked great and was the perfect color. Unfortunately, it tasted disgusting. It was way too garlicky!” 

Thus began nearly two years of sampling the sauce until it was just right. The first official production was in mid-September  2016. The initial production: 3,500 bottles (500 gallons).

Months before commercial production began, Litz realized that he would need a lot more customers than his loyal friends and family. So he began driving the sauce around St. Louis, dropping off sample bottles at restaurants that he liked. He also created a website and began marketing Sriracha Granada online. 

Fast forward to today:

You can purchase the sauce at Lucky’s Markets, more than 30 area Shop & Save stores, Larder and Cupboard in Maplewood, Parker’s Table, Local Harvest, Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton and Creve Coeur, and Edibles and Essentials on Hampton. You can also order the sauce online from Litz’s website,

In addition to the restaurants that carry his sauce, he and Stayduhar have booths at the Tower Grove and Edwardsville farmer’s markets once a month. There also are collaborations with Vincent Van Doughnut for a breakfast sandwich, multiple sandwiches with Hi-Pointe Drive-in, daily specials with Sugarfire Smoke House, and the Jamaican Jerk Chicken sandwich at the Gramophone in the Grove neighborhood. 

Sriracha Granada is also the heat behind the pizza called Sweet Heat Pizza at Zza Pizza + Salad on Skinker Boulevard near Washington University. 

While Litz hasn’t quit his day job, which he genuinely enjoys, he is hoping to grow his business.

“Right now, the majority of my business is wholesale,” he said. “Every penny I make goes back into production. In other words, I’m not making money at it. My dream is that one day I can pursue this as ‘my thing,’ something I created, from the sauce to the label.”

Litz markets Sriracha Granada under his company name, Sunrise Foods. He is in the process of developing other sauces. His mission is to bring healthier versions of popular sauces and condiments to the market.

His father, Rob Litz, who is the incoming board president at Temple Israel, said: “Nate has been very organized and strategic in rolling out Sriracha Granada. He researched everything, including production, bottle type, labels, marketing, accounting, obtaining a trademark, as well as selling to distributors, grocery stores, restaurants and at farmer’s markets. I am confident he will continue to have great success with Sriracha Granada. I could not be more proud of him.”

My husband, Mike, and I are hot sauce fans, and Sriracha Granada is right up there with the best of them. It’s the perfect condiment: just a faint touch of sweetness with a good, well-balanced, hot pepper kick. It can be enjoyed as a dip; as a condiment for eggs, burgers and sushi; and is great mixed into mayonnaise or Greek yogurt as a spread for salmon burgers or fried fish. 

In addition to using it as a condiment, I have found that it works well incorporated into soups, stew and sauces. Here is one of my favorite recipes for a cold cucumber bean soup, perfect on a hot summer day. If you like heat (spice, not temperature) simply add more Sriracha Granada.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five  and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve   the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]