In 2014, pepper purveyor Troy “Primo” Primeaux taught some Popeyes and Tabasco executives how to garden. Primeaux and his wife and business partner, Kara, met the group, chased by a film crew, at The Marsh House on Avery Island and brought along their products, made with his signature Primo Pepper, for tasting.
“I didn't hear anything for four years,” says Primeaux. Then, he got an email from food marketing and distribution company Diversified Foods out of Metairie. It said that Popeyes wanted to make a Primo pepper seasoning and asked if he could send them a couple pounds of his pepper powder.
The encounter paid off. Soon, Primo’s pepper seasoning will torch up tenders around Nashville, the home of hot chicken, with a Popeyes’ biscuit on the side. How’s that for planting a seed?
Known around Lafayette as the former guitarist for rock band Santeria, Primeaux developed his 7 Pot Primo pepper while in nursing school at UL Lafayette. He figured out quickly that nursing wasn't the right profession for him, and returning to the world of rock music wasn't a good fit for a married man. He took a job with the Renewable Resources Department at UL when he met retired biology professor Dr. Dennis Wollard and instructor and licensed arborist Jim Foret. Primeaux was already collecting seeds at his house in Bendel Gardens, an interest he picked up gardening with his grandfather as a kid.
“What's rock 'n' roll that you can do in your backyard?” he asked himself. “Grow peppers.”
But not just any peppers. Primeaux wanted to know how to make a pepper hotter. His interest was piqued by an online forum, and he paid $40 for 10 Naga Morich seeds — the precursor to the now popular ghost pepper. Around the same time, Dr. Wollard brought him some seeds from a market in Trinidad. It turned out to be the 7 Pot Seed, so-called for a legend that it was used around the island to heat seven pots of stew at a time. In 2005, Primeaux crossed the Naga Morich pepper with the 7 Pot. What he ended up with was a small, bumpy red pepper with a skinny stinger of a tail. The 7 Pot Primo, now just called the Primo Pepper, was unearthed.
At the time, Primeaux thought he had bred the world's hottest pepper. The 7 Pot Primo was 300 times hotter than a jalapeno and registered 1.5 million SHUs or Scoville Heat Units. For reference, Tabasco sauce registers 2,500–5,000 on the Scoville scale, and the ghost pepper scores a million SHUs.
He put his seeds up for sale online, and his creation went out into the world. “It didn't even occur to me to get a trademark on it,” he says. “I was a student with no money. I thought it should be shared.” Now, he wishes he'd been a little more protective.
In 2011, a guy in North Carolina named Ed Currie came along and developed the Carolina Reaper, which looks strikingly similar to the Primo Pepper. It now has the No. 1 spot on the Hottest Peppers in the World list, according to pepper arms race authority pepperhead.com, and also the Guinness World Record. The Primo Pepper currently holds down No. 4.
“It's not a level playing field,” says Primeaux, who admits it's easy to get wrapped up in the race for the hottest pepper. “It's uncharted territory, these ultra hots,” he explains. “Chasing the world's hottest pepper, I've just gotten jaded with it. We can come out with products and control our destiny, but every week there's a new hottest pepper.”
As it turns out, Primeaux didn't need to hold the Guinness World Record to attract the attention of Popeyes. His line of products includes two hot sauces, three pepper jellies under the name “The Farmer's Daughter” and his official seeds. It's these products — that promise mind-bending swamp heat — and their Louisiana label that caused the New Orleans-style fried chicken company to take notice.
Sometime after the gardening lesson, Primo learned, Popeyes served some chicken tenders made with his powder at a franchisee conference in Las Vegas, and they were a huge hit. The fried chicken chain approached him with the idea of going national with $5 Primo Pepper Tenders. Primeaux's business was already experiencing some growing pains, and he couldn't possibly come up with enough powder on such short notice.
The Primo Pepper is generally a 120-day crop from germination to fruit. Seedlings are normally planted in mid-March after the last frost and ready by early June. Since Popeyes is committed to using a product grown in Louisiana, they have decided to limit the launch of Primo Pepper Tenders to the Nashville market for now, a city that claims “hot chicken” as a local delicacy — it makes sense.
Meanwhile, Primeaux has planned for a possible ramp-up on production. He hired Seth Descant at Descant Professional Services in Franklinton to grow a larger quantity of peppers, and Louisiana State University is on board as a partner for dehydrating them to make the powder.
“Popeyes had enough faith in the product to shoot a commercial,” says Primeaux, who is hopeful that his Primo Pepper Tenders will eventually reach Louisiana. In the commercial, which is set in New Orleans, the company's regular actress Deidrie Henry hands a box of chicken to a couple at what appears to be a market and tells them the $5 Primo Pepper Tenders are made with “a pinch of Louisiana's hottest pepper.” A red-colored seasoning is then shaken onto the battered tenders and they're boxed up with a biscuit and a side.
Even without the Popeyes deal, Primeaux would be looking at growing his business and building his own facility north of I-10. Last year was a pivotal one for Primo's Peppers, with some 20,000 units of hot sauce produced. Primeaux would ideally like some land for growing and to be able to process his own products without going back and forth to Baton Rouge.
Local restaurants like Blue Dog Cafe, Social, Central Pizza and Cafe Vermilionville are featuring either a sauce or jelly on their menus, and Rouses, Champagne's and Whole Foods all carry the products. Primeaux self-distributes right now, a task that presents challenges for a niche product. “Distribution is the next big hurdle. We don't want to be the 60 cent hot sauce, but the boutique, seasonal, small batch sauce.” His latest product, a verde-style sauce called Primonition, sells for $7.99.
While Primeaux's pepper journey began with a quest for more heat, he plans to keep things close to home with his next crop. “I want to bring the cayenne pepper back,” he says. “At one time, it was a cash crop for St. Martin Parish, and it's been a longtime goal of mine.”
He's understandably tight-lipped about his plans for now, but admits he's playing around with some original cayenne pepper seed stock at home. “These peppers are my baby and hopefully they live on,” he says. “I'm just happy I'm in the conversation with Popeyes chicken and a lot of other people.”