SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. – How do two software engineers celebrate a shared love of jiu-jitsu, their Asian heritage and good food while surviving pandemic isolation?
If those engineers are Jae Lee and Jason Rom, they make hot sauce and chili oil.
Lee and Rom are the creative forces behind Tapped, an enterprise they operate from their home kitchens in Melbourne and Satellite Beach that’s heating up dishes across the country.
The friends work in web and app design at Accent Technologies in Eau Gallie. They work out at Off the Grid gym in Cocoa Beach. One night after jiu-jitsu, Lee gave Rom a bottle of curry hot sauce he’d made. Rom thought it was great. Good enough to sell.
Rom came up with the chili oil recipe when he needed the Asian condiment to make the Chinese dish mapo tofu for a dinner party. He started to buy some at a local market, but it was the height of the pandemic. He was spending more time in the kitchen. He decided to experiment with his own version.
It came out so flavorful, the friends knew they were onto something. Tapped started to take shape.
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The name is a nod to jiu-jitsu. The martial art is based on submission holds, and participants tap out when they’ve had enough and want to be released.
The brand combines Rom and Lee’s Asian cultures — Rom grew up in the Philippines, Lee’s family moved to South Florida from Korea when he was a boy.
Once they’d settled on a name and a concept, the two put their engineering minds to work, testing recipes and developing a website.
“We approached it in more of a technical way,” Lee said.
“I bought a book to find out what spices pair well with others,” Rom said.
Not like hot sauce: Chili oil is more specialized — and time-consuming
They tried different formulas and did blind tastings, deciding too much spice here, turn down the sugar there.
They studied umami, a savory flavor associated with meat broths and pickled foods.
Rom wanted to experiment with black garlic, garlic that darkens after being stored at low heat for several weeks, developing a rich, creamy taste, so he learned to make it.
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Lee discovered using sous vide to cook hot sauces didn’t fill his home with hot pepper fumes.
They studied texture, smearing various formulations on a tray, looking for a product that wasn’t too watery or too pulpy, and determining what size mesh strainer resulted in the perfect consistency.
They developed recipes using all-natural ingredients such as sunflower oil, Sichuan chili flakes, shallots, garlic, brown sugar, monk fruit sugar, Thai bird’s eye chili peppers and mushroom powder. Emphasis was placed on flavor, not just heat.
They created slick, fast-paced how-to videos for Instagram showing people how to use their products.
Their portfolio now includes two sauces (Arm Bar and Bow & Arrow) and two oils (Kimura and D’arce), all named for jiu-jitsu submission holds.
They started bottling and selling sauces at pop-up events in the fall of 2021, and launched an online storefront in February 2022. Tapped products also are available in Rain Tree Mercantile, 826 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne; Sweet Heartist Gourmet Cookie Co., 1609 N. Wickham Road, Unit C, Melbourne; and Village General Store, 204 Brevard Ave., Cocoa Village.
They laugh when recalling the excitement of getting their first orders from customers who weren’t family or friends.
Now they’re in a holding pattern. They’ve maxed out their capacity as a cottage industry.
They don’t have the inventory to stock more retail outlets. Working primarily from Lee’s kitchen in Satellite Beach, it’s all they can do to keep up with online orders.
Lee and Rom considered renting space in a commissary kitchen so they can increase their volume, but they already have full-time jobs.
They’d love to spend more time on research and development and the business side of things.
They’re looking at co-packers, companies that will take their recipes and mass-batch Tapped products, though they’re concerned about quality control.
Lots of places are equipped to make hot sauces, Lee said. Chili oil is more specialized, and more time-consuming.
The plan for the next couple of years is to concentrate on farmers markets, pop-up events and online sales. Rom and Lee want to save money and find a co-packer, then expand into other products such as beef jerky, spices, oils and aged soy sauces, Rom said.
“We want to be an Asian food brand that focuses on good ingredients, umami and the jiu-jitsu community,” Lee said. “We want to go fulltime.”