Originally, Paul Smith had a musical career in mind, but he’s singing a different tune thanks to the success of Monkey Spit sauces and seasonings.
“I was going to be the next great singer/songwriter,” so Smith moved to Los Angeles from the Tepusquet area of Santa Maria where his family has lived since the early 1900s. Part of his plan was a record label named after a monkey, and he even went so far as to commission some original artwork for it. However, the music career didn’t pan out, so he returned home.
Little did he know that a batch of peppers would eventually set him swinging on an entirely new career. One day, after cooking up those peppers, Smith ended up with something akin to a hot sauce, so he broke out the chips and starting eating what would eventually become the Original flavor of Monkey Spit.
As he sought to move his recipe toward a viable commercial product, Smith had to figure out various details, including coming up with a name. That old record label artwork came to mind, and after bouncing around combinations of Monkey this and Monkey that, “Monkey Spit” took top banana.
After founding the hot sauce company in 2008, Smith then found a willing business partner in Rudy Stowell, a friend he’d known since the third grade. Smith is quick to admit that “without (Stowell), this all would have just been a fond memory.” (Stowell’s son, Alex Stowell, has recently joined the business as vice president.)
Other Monkey Spit sauces now include the Gorilla (an unstrained version of the Original), Red Jal (made with sweet, red, ripe jalapeños), and Atomic Monk, a hot concoction of serrano and habanero peppers. However, even though the Atomic is indeed spicy, it won’t leave your mouth ablaze.
“It doesn’t do me any good to ruin your palate,” Smith said. “If I do, my sauce will just sit unused on your shelf and you won’t buy that or any other product from me.”
Monkey Spit has also branched out into a sweet/hot jalapeño/serrano jelly, as well as a barbecue sauce dubbed Monkey Mop. The latter came about after Smith tinkered with a personal recipe of Stowell’s, and the resulting barbecue sauce proved to be such a winner that it brought home competitive awards from such venerable barbecue cities as Kansas City and Mobile, Ala.
For the latest addition to the Monkey Spit product line (all of which feature different whimsical monkey characters on the labels), Smith turned to a barbecue tradition in his own backyard … literally. Using his family’s longtime recipe for Santa Maria-style seasoning, he developed a slightly different twist on the dry rub, calling it a “Nipomo-style” seasoning named Wimpy Chimp.
With the exception of the jelly, which has a bit of food coloring to make it visually appealing, all the Monkey Spit products are made with simple, straightforward ingredients — salt, vinegar, etc. “and no MSG,” Smith said. “I also try to buy my peppers from this area when possible.”
That commitment to quality brought a new wrinkle to Monkey Spit in the fall of 2013. When the company discovered that its co-packer was using inferior product, “we decided to just starting making everything ourselves,” Smith said. Currently, the Monkey Spit line is made in a rented commercial kitchen in San Luis Obispo, but the long-term goal is for the company to have its own facility.
“I had no idea how all this would go,” said Smith, thinking back upon that first batch of peppers. “It’s really fun coming to work, and our customers are great — San Luis Obispo County especially has really gotten behind us.”
Monkey Spit hot sauces come in various heat levels, and the expanding product line also includes a pepper jelly, a barbecue sauce and a barbecue dry rub seasoning. Products are available online and at several Central Coast businesses; check the website for locations.