Scott Zalkind’s Lucky Dog brand got a big boost during the pandemic when comedian Trevor Noah praised it on the YouTube series “Hot Ones.” 
Scott Zalkind’s Lucky Dog brand got a big boost during the pandemic when comedian Trevor Noah praised it on the YouTube series “Hot Ones.” 

He found his forever home in the dog-eat-dog world of hot sauce

Scott Zalkind’s childhood could easily be seen as a harbinger of what was to come, as evident in the first of several fun facts about the East Bay hot sauce connoisseur:

1. When he was a kid, Zalkind and his brother would dare each other to see how many firecracker cayenne chilies they could eat in a Chinese restaurant. (He says he would “get cracked out” on hot sauce, no matter which cuisine it accompanied.)

2. He credits late-night host Trevor Noah with greatly helping his business during the pandemic.

3. An avowed pacifist, he regularly sends bottles of his hot sauce to APO boxes to support U.S. troops; in 2011 he was given an American flag that had flown on a U.S. base in Diyala, Iraq, and a citation calling him a “great American” that he keeps on the wall.

4. He considers the latke a perfect vehicle for hot sauce.

Zalkind, 51, is the creator of Lucky Dog Hot Sauce, an artisanal product made in Hayward, where he lives. With over 10 different varieties in the line, a few deals with companies on exclusive blends, too many awards to mention including a Good Food Award, and appearances of his brand on the YouTube show “Hot Ones,” one could say he’s made it in the cultish world of hot sauce.

Zalkind is the first to admit that the field is crowded. “Nearly every cuisine has a spicy sauce,” he said. “If you’re afraid of competition, this is a terrible business to get into.”

Scott Zalkind, owner of Lucky Dog Hot Sauce. (Photo/Kendra Chao)
Scott Zalkind, owner of Lucky Dog, at a farmers market selling his hot goods. (Photo/Kendra Chao)

Many new arrivals try to copy the tried-and-true formulas that people know and love: Tapatio, Tabasco, Crystal or Sriracha. “That’s the inside-the-box or safe route, as there’s a huge market for those sauces,” he said. “My obsession is to make the best hot sauce I possibly can make, and hope others like it, too.”

Compared with the commercial brands of hot sauce, Lucky Dog is more complex and has way more ingredients, most locally grown  — anywhere from seven to 20 in a blend, such as pineapple, pear, mandarin orange and dates, and more unusual ingredients, such as beer.

“I work with ingredients I wanted to taste,” he said.

Zalkind grew up in a culinarily curious Jewish home in San Mateo where they were always trying different cuisines. His family attended Peninsula Temple Beth El, but Zalkind says his favorite childhood Jewish memories are the seders where his aunt made haroset from a different country every year and they tried to guess which country.

Today Zalkind speaks about hot sauce the way a sommelier speaks about wine. Getting the balance of ingredients just right is a science, he said. A major pet peeve of his is a hot sauce where heat is the only sensation that comes through on the palate.

My obsession is to make the best hot sauce I possibly can make, and hope others like it, too.

His recent blend made with Drake’s beer is a good example of how he thinks about process and product. He doesn’t want the food to taste like someone just poured beer on it; his goal is for the beer flavor to hit the back palate as an aftertaste.

Zalkind traces the idea of making his own hot sauce back 17 years, to 2005, when he threw away half his dinner because a hot sauce he put on his food had no other taste but hot.

He charred some chilies on his grill, roasted some garlic in his oven and was off. While he didn’t get a product he was satisfied with on his first try, he kept tinkering, taking out ingredients, adding others, until he came up with something he liked. Others liked it, too. Friends said he should make more and sell it. That started him off as a hobbyist hot-sauce maker, though now that original recipe is the basis for his red label sauce, his best seller.

It didn’t become his full-time gig until a trip to Hawaii in 2012, when he decided to cash out his 401k from Kaiser Permanente, where he had been a project manager, and start his company. He named it after his shelter rescue, Lucky, whose face appears inside a horseshoe on the label with the tagline “food’s best friend.” (Lucky is no longer with us.) Many local artists have been hired to draw different varieties of Lucky for his labels.

Zalkind began by selling in nine farmers markets (he’s now down to just two: in San Rafael and the Grand Lake one in Oakland), building up a mostly local following, but the inclusion of his sauce on “Hot Ones” took him to the next level.

The show features host Sean Evans interviewing celebrities while they eat a series of chicken wings with 10 different varieties of hot sauce, which get hotter as they go. Trevor Noah said Lucky Dog’s #4 danced across his tongue like Fred Astaire, and on another episode, the Jonas brothers “lost their minds over it,” said Zalkind.

Even though the Noah episode aired 2½ years ago, it comes up high enough in searches that new people keep seeing it (and ordering from his website). “During the pandemic, I lost half my accounts, they just disappeared from the specialty stores. If they can’t do sampling, they go out of business. But my views on ‘Hot Ones’ replaced all those stores, numbers-wise.”

Although Zalkind’s company is large enough that he doesn’t have to work the two farmers markets himself, he still does, thriving on that interaction with customers.

“When watching people eating something you made brings you great joy, that’s what happens for me when I sample my sauce at farmers markets,” he said. “It’s very Jewish, isn’t it?”

A version of this story first appeared on Berkeleyside Nosh. It is reprinted with permission.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."