Meet the Maker: Chris & Allyson Virden, Olde Virden's
, by Emily Havener
, by Emily Havener
There are probably more hot sauce varieties than it’s possible to count, so why aren’t there more options when it comes to other types of spicy toppings? That was the question that popped into Chris Virden’s head while he and Allyson, his wife, were managing LeConte Lodge, the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States located on top of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He noticed that although his staff’s preferences for hot sauce varied widely, when it came to pizza, everyone was sprinkling on the same plain old red pepper flakes.
Thus began a life change for the Virdens. They left a successful career in hospitality, in which they were able to travel four months of the year, to become full-time small business owners seeking a way to make life more flavorful. The result is not only their Red Hot Sprinkle with a blend of five different chiles but also Spicy Verde and Tennessee Jerk flavors, plus a Sweet Sting dehydrated hot honey.
But it’s not just flavor that sets Olde Virden’s Tennessee Pepper Company products apart. All their seasonings are small batch, dehydrated the same day the peppers were picked, and shipped within a week of being bottled. They use no preservatives or additives, and their peppers are locally grown in Grainger County, Tennessee. Although the area is known for its tomatoes, Allyson Virden wants to bring attention to the area’s overall agricultural richness.
“We love that we work with local farmers to grow our peppers,” she says. “This means we have our own spin on Anaheim peppers. We know our climate, and we work with peppers that will grow during our growing season. East Tennessee has a beautiful and rich agricultural history. We hope to one day be included in that history.”
In addition to supporting local agriculture, the Virdens are committed to creating solutions to the problem of food deserts in their county by donating to Second Harvest Food Bank of Tennessee. “Making sure the children in our communities have food on their tables is a big deal for us,” says Allyson.
Although Olde Virden’s spice blends were originally conceived of as pizza toppings, they are extremely versatile. The Tennessee Jerk pairs perfectly with shrimp and grits or a smoked tenderloin, while the fine grind version of the Spicy Verde blend adds a delicious kick to fresh pineapple and even smoothies. And the Sweet Sting turns cream cheese into a perfect spread.
The Virdens credit their success to grit and determination, plus a willingness to ask questions of other small business owners and do plenty of googling along their 10-year journey to bring a one-of-a-kind product to spice lovers across the country. “We jumped headfirst into a business we knew nothing about,” Allyson says. “The journey has been a long and windy road, but our hard work is starting to pay off. We would love to see Olde Virden’s on the table in every pizza restaurant across America.”