picanxa sauce toronto

Toronto bartender laid off twice during lockdowns has a cool new hot sauce company

A twice-laid-off Toronto bartender has launched a new line of hot sauces, and he's using his mixological expertise to balance and mix them like cocktails.

Jason Griffin managed the bar at French restaurant Bacchanal on Sudbury from 2017 until it closed down in 2019. From there he quickly transitioned to heading up the bar at high-end Mediterranean restaurant Byblos downtown.

Then came March 2020.

"Remember that 'precautionary' two-week shutdown?" Griffin tells blogTO.

"I had never lost a job before, not to mention needing employment insurance to get by," he says. "But to be honest, for myself and many colleagues, it was a welcome change. A 'short' break to recharge and focus on some much-needed self healing. Hospitality's focus on taking care of others comes at a price."

Griffin was initially temporarily laid off on Mar. 18, 2020, but knew his job was waiting for him, and was rehired and returned to work around the end of July 2020 when indoor dining resumed. Laid off again Oct. 14, 2020 with no end in sight (as Byblos does not have a patio), he notified them that he would not be able to return in March 2021.

"It was after I was laid off a second time last fall that I decided I couldn't continue to watch as my livelihood, my savings, and my mental and physical health get whittled away," says Griffin.

"I doubled down and decided it was the right time to try."

During the pandemic, while everyone was getting deep into an obsession with baking and sourdough, Griffin was developing a love affair with fermentation and hot sauce. 

"In the before times, my fridge would be loaded with hot sauces ... we always joked that a bartender's fridge is only stocked with condiments and vermouth ... but suddenly I couldn't justify maintaining that inventory," says Griffin.

"Balancing a cocktail and balancing hot sauce are remarkably similar," he says. "Both the chili pepper and the spirit will burn, and they both require a balance of acidity, sweetness, and mouthfeel to be best enjoyed."

He started out giving away the sauce to friends and family before working up the confidence to sell it, but since launching his hot sauce brand Picanxa he's been "hustling to keep up with demand."

The name is "a medley of spellings of the word piquant" and there are currently two flavours with more in the works. Labour-intensive, time-consuming techniques and French influences pay homage to Griffin's restaurant and bartending background.

A Scotch bonnet and mirepoix sauce goes for $10.95 for 250mL. Based off the fundamental French flavour base mirepoix made from carrot, celery and onion, along with Scotch bonnet peppers, it's "lacto-fermented for 40 days to boost tanginess and allow deep flavours to develop," Griffin says.

His other sauce is a Scotch bonnet and Dijon that's $6.49 for 120mL, again with a French influence but a little more focused application, intended for "anything served on bread or that calls for a good mustard."

"This sauce is fresh, i.e. not fermented, to preserve the bright fruitiness of the yellow and orange Scotch bonnet chilies."

Griffin is working on more varieties, including a potential wing sauce, and you can order the sauces via Instagram DM or via his website, soon to be up and running.

"Paying rent is still a challenge but I am incredibly grateful for all my customers and the support I have received," says Griffin.

"It's what gets me out of bed each day."

Lead photo by

Picanxa Sauce

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