I t’s hard to believe in a city now nationally renowned for its hot chicken, but when Ric Ousley and his sister moved to Nashville from Mississippi 20 years ago, they couldn’t find any salsa they considered hot enough. So they decided to make their own.
“We went to the store and started looking at ingredients, and thought, ‘Hey, we can make this,’ ” Ric recalls. They had grown up barbecuing and playing around with recipes, so he figured it wouldn’t be too hard to create the spicy salsa he was seeking. That wasn’t the case.
“We couldn’t eat the first batch,” he says, laughing. “We like hot, but it was way, way too hot.”
After some trial and error, they created a more palatable salsa. “Herbs and spices are the secret ingredient,” he says. “There’s a balance to getting that heat level and flavor.”
Ric and his wife, Haseena, kept tweaking the salsa recipe for years, gifting it to friends and family. “Everyone always encouraged us to sell it,” Haseena says.
Eventually, they reached out to Barry Burnette of the Produce Place, a natural grocery store in Sylvan Park. Ric is quick to credit Burnette with getting the business off the ground. “Barry helped us with our labels and gave me numbers of people to talk to,” he says. “He’s kind of like my mentor.”
After getting certification to cook acidified foods and working with UT’s food science department on process control and FDA regulations, Ousley Ouch was officially on the market. They launched in 2011 with two varieties: hot and mild. “I always said I would never make mild,” Ric says. But mild is more marketable, though he notes most consider its heat level at medium. “Everybody’s palate is different,” Ric says. “We’re not selling heat, we’re selling flavor.”
That flavor comes from natural sugars in tomatoes and red onions, organic peppers grown by Green Door Gourmet and that secret mix of herbs and spices—but not a ton of salt. “I don’t think you can find any salsa with lower sodium,” Haseena says.
The result is an all-natural salsa with a rich flavor that cuts through the heat, perfect for topping tacos, adding a kick to chili or on its own with tortilla chips.
That’s how Ric serves it at farmers’ markets and grocery stores, where you can find him doling out samples. He started out at the Richland Creek Farmers’ Market near his West Nashville home, and from there began networking with folks like Alan Powell, who invited him to sell at the Barefoot Farmer’s weekly CSA drop-off. It opened up connections to more farmers’ markets and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Publix, and also led to the couple discovering the Cumberland Culinary Kitchen in Lebanon, which gave them the ability to cook much larger batches of salsa. Their all-day cooking sessions now take place every two weeks.
“The day before, we’re taking the tomatoes and jars, cutting onions, setting up for the cook,” Ric says. “Then we cook from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., almost nonstop. You have breaks between batches, but once it comes up to the level that it has to be jarred, you can’t stop.”
Thanks to the culinary center and a couple of helpers on cook days, they can now make 10 times as much salsa as when they started out, building up enough of a supply to take a break by mid-summer. But despite that growth, it’s primarily just the two of them running the business, from accounting to distribution. “We do everything ourselves—we don’t even let anyone else chop our onions,” Haseena says with a laugh.
But they do turn to the public for help in coming up with new salsa flavors. “All the new ones we sample at the farmers’ markets and get feedback so we can figure out where everyone’s palates are sitting,” Ric explains. They’ve launched a new flavor every year they’ve been in business, though he is tight-lipped about what’s ahead. “You’ll have to come to a farmers’ market and see,” he says with a grin. “There might be a surprise.”
The market research helps them formulate the recipes. The black bean and corn flavor, a chunkier salsa with medium heat, is now the top seller. Other flavors include habanero peach mango, following demand for a sweet salsa, and ghost pepper. “It’s real smoky,” Ric says of his ghost salsa. “The heat is on the back of your palate. The hot salsa is a little sweeter, with the heat on the front of the palate.”
This summer, available only at the Produce Place and Batch Nashville, Ousley Ouch will introduce a sixth variety called Ridiculously Hot, made with Carolina Reaper peppers grown by Randy Aydelotte and Trinidad scorpion peppers grown by Chris Spiegl. Even if you’re a heat seeker, it will make you sweat.
But that’s how the Ousleys like it. Before hot chicken became mainstream, Ric would order the hottest on the menu at Prince’s, so spicy he had to wear gloves to eat it. Haseena grew up sprinkling cayenne on all her food. They grow cayennes in their backyard, and dried chile pepper ristras hang in their kitchen, where they come up with the test batches for the new flavors.
“We cook like we’re making it for ourselves and our family,” Haseena says. “We wouldn’t sell anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”