Central Florida Zoo CEO finds success with hot sauces featured on Hot Ones

Hotter Than El sauces featured in seasons 12, 15 of chicken wing talk show

Hotter Than El's lineup of products (Hotter Than El)

SANFORD, Fla. – Hot sauce was a hobby for Dino Ferri — something he would make for friends and family, who always encouraged him to bottle it — but he never planned to make it into a business.

“I‘m in the zoo business — my real gig. I’ve been doing that for 25 plus years,” Ferri said.

He is the current CEO of the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, where he’s been since 2017, in addition to running his hot sauce business, Hotter Than El.

“I found myself out of work in 2015 and I thought, ‘You know what — what the hell? Now’s a perfect time to give this (Hotter Than El) a shot and see if it’s got any legs to it,’” Ferri said.

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After looking into using a commercial kitchen, Ferri decided to use a co-packer to bottle and package his sauces. He decided to work with Endorphin Farms out of St. Augustine, which he still works with today.

“I had to do (my recipes) all by weight — by grams. You know, send them the recipe, ‘this is what makes me 72 ounces right here’ — blah blah blah — everything is broken down,” Ferri said. “They (Endorphin Farms) do a sample batch. They send it to me. I try it. If it’s perfect, great. If not, I (give them notes) — less of this, more of that until they get it right — and then they extrapolate that to an 80-gallon vat, and they bottle it and I buy 80 gallons at a time which, comes out to about 150 to 170 case cases.”

Ferri had been working on Hotter than El for about two years before he got his first major customer in Tijuana Flats. By that point, he had moved to Sanford after accepting his current job at the Central Florida Zoo.

“A lady I worked with said ‘Hey, I got a friend over at Tijuana Flats, you want me to put you in touch?’ So, I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot,’” Ferri said. “So I dropped off a sample and about a month, two months later, I got a call — ‘Can you supply us with, you know, 300 cases or 150 cases and 80 gallons for the hot sauce bar?’ and that’s how it started.”

While Tijuana Flats was an early success for Ferri, he credits his partnership with Hot Ones with really helping his business to take off. For those unaware of the YouTube sensation, Hot Ones is an interview show where the host, Sean Evans, asks celebrity guests questions as they eat 10 hot wings covered in increasingly hotter sauces.

Ferri got linked up with Hot Ones through a circuit of hot sauce shows put on around the country. One of those shows hosted in New York City brought Hotter Than El to the attention of Noah Chaimberg, the owner of Heatonist, a well-known hot sauce store in Brooklyn that works closely with Hot Ones. Once he got into Heatonist, Ferri was able to send in some samples for Hot Ones.

“I sent them like four of my 12, and they actually — at the time — they picked my ghost sauce for season 12,” he said.

The Ghost Sauce was featured in the No. 4 position of Hot Ones’ 10 sauce lineup for that season, which featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brie Larson and Dan Levy, among other big-name guests.

Now, Hotter Than El is back in the lineup for season 15 of the talk show, this time with Ferri’s Love Burns sauce in the No. 7 spot. Ferri explained that the partnership with Hot Ones does come with a few caveats.

“They can only sell it for a year online. So, I have to take it off my website — any sauce that they carry of mine comes off my website. All my other stores that sell it, are not allowed to go sell it on Amazon, you know, or anything else,” he said. “So they have the exclusivity to it but at the same time, they’re buying 3000 cases. That’s 36,000 bottles.”

Despite the exclusivity Hot Ones receives for those particular sauces, it has proved to be a boon for sales for all the other products Ferri offers. He recalled that Hot Ones announced the season 15 lineup at 11 a.m. on May 20.

“By 11:30 (a.m.) man, my webstore was just like, bing, bing, bing, bing, and people knew they couldn’t get that sauce but they were buying everything else — they were trying all the other sauces.”

Ferri is branching out his business. He also offers a salsa, ketchup and a dry rub, but his craft hot sauces remain his primary focus with 12 different varieties to offer customers.

“I don’t think it’s a fad, like a fidget spinner where it comes and goes. I do think it’s something that will be around,” he said. “I love to share the burn.”

About the Author:

Thomas Mates is a digital storyteller for News 6 and ClickOrlando.com. He also produces the podcast Florida Foodie. Thomas is originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania and worked in Portland, Oregon before moving to Central Florida in August 2018. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Journalism in 2010.