Free Enterprise Staff  | September 2, 2016

How This Smokin’ Hot Small Business Went from Homemade to Global Trade

For Tim Bader, variety is the spice of life.

Maybe that’s because his life is all about the variety of spice.

The Nebraska chili pepper grower has turned a salsa-making hobby into one of the state’s most unique specialty food businesses. His company, Volcanic Peppers, which he started back in 2009, currently grows about 6,000 plants with 15 varieties of peppers – including the infamous ghost pepper.

Bader didn’t always expect to be a business owner. He started his career doing IT consulting for hospitals, and he gardened as a hobby. At the time, the obscure pepper varieties he grew were relatively unknown. He also grew other plants, like tomatoes and strawberries, all of which he and his youngest daughter sold at a local farmer’s market.

The entrepreneurial spark struck when several nationally televised cooking programs started featuring specialty pepper varieties, including the so called ghost pepper, which helped bring them into the public eye. Since then, the hot sauce industry has exploded, with sales eclipsing the growth of all other popular condiment sauces. Soon, growers started cross-breeding peppers, each vying to create the world’s next hottest pepper. Though Bader hasn’t submitted his own pepper hybrid yet, he’s proven his peppery passion by once eating a whole Trinidad Scorpion—which is more than 100 times hotter than a jalapeño.

One day at the farmer’s market, fueled by the rise in popularity of hot pepper, Bader turned around to find roughly 40 people lined up to buy one of his ghost peppers. It became clear that his small farmer’s market operation had the potential to become something more.


Founder Tim Bader (second from left) and his team.

From there, Volcanic Peppers started growing slowly and organically. The brand’s first (and still most popular product) was Volcano Dust, a spicy, powdered blend of several dried and smoked peppers. In 2012, Bader started adding hot sauces to the company’s arsenal of products. One year later, Bader transitioned to become a full-time entrepreneur and business owner, and today, he runs Volcanic Peppers with the help of four full-time staff members.

“It’s great being able to employ other people,” Bader said. “We’re certainly not rolling around in money, but we’re employed and happy, and being able to be creative feels good.” Though the company remains small today, Bader believes Volcanic Peppers has endless growth potential – and not just here in the United States.

It’s no secret that today’s economy is increasingly global, and in order to reach the 95 percent of consumers that live beyond America’s borders, businesses must expand beyond the domestic market. That includes small businesses like Volcanic Peppers – and Bader has wasted no time looking abroad.

His company is already exporting small batches of products to customers in Australia and Canada, and it’s currently working with a company in Mexico to start expanding over our southern border. Bader notes that having global trade partners has helped Volcanic expand the business’s growth and is already helping fuel job creation back home.

“We’re a small company that has grown organically, and there was really no way to try and sell directly to people in some of these other countries,” he said. Shipping expenses, he added, “make it difficult to send small amounts, so having international trade partners that are taking a pallet or two back to Australia or Canada or Mexico – it’s allowing us to reach markets that we wouldn’t be able to reach.”

As the company looks to expand its reach both domestically and internationally, Volcanic Peppers has used resources from its local chamber of commerce – the Greater Omaha Chamber – and has attended numerous trade shows. Bader says the company will continue to seek educational programming and export experts to help Volcanic Peppers’ team learn how to navigate regulatory hurdles and negotiate export deals.

“I’m proud to be able to take something that is just a personal passion and share that with our customers,” Bader said. “We’ll just keep making our products, and as long as people like them and keep buying them, we’ll keep doing it.”