Tabasco: A Familiar Spice of Life in Tempe -- and Taipei

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Yo Quiero Tabasco?

It's not uncommon to see Tabasco bottles on diner tables across the United States, but you're just as likely to find a bottle on a street cart in Taipei or in a Parisian brasserie. Or as Simmons found it, in a lodge outside of Cordoba, Argentina. There on a hunting trip, Simmons was seated next to another guest, a man from Mexico. "When he sat down, there was some Tabasco on the table," Simmons says. "And the man goes, 'Oh this is wonderful that they have Tabasco!' "

When the lodge owner told the Tabasco fan who Simmons was, the man left the table, promising to be back momentarily. When he returned, "he had a little bubble-wrapped thing in his hand," Simmons remembers. "He popped the wrap off and it was a two-ounce bottle of Tabasco! He said, 'I never go anywhere without Tabasco. It's my favorite product in the world.' "

Indeed, the spicy sauce has found a global fan base, and is sold in 186 countries. But for a brand with an iconic worldwide status, the McIlhenny Co. is tiny compared to other American companies with global appeal, such as Coca-Cola (KO) and Levi's.

While those brands have global advertising and operations, Simmons attributes Tabasco's success to word of mouth. In the company's vaults is a letter sent by a British soldier serving in India during the 1880s to his mother back home. In the note, the soldier tells his mother of an amazing sauce he's encountered and asks that she search for it to send to him. At that time, Tabasco wasn't being exported out of the United States, but Simmons says customers had started sending the sauce around the country and the world.

Simmons also believes its appeal comes from Tabasco's ability to mesh with any culture's food. "One of the nice things about the sauce is that it tends to enliven the flavor of the food, not change it," he says. Unlike other condiments like ketchup or mustard, which overwhelm or mask food flavors, Tabasco adds to it. "It works with everybody's food," he says. "That's why it's been so well-received around the world."

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