Welcome to Cooking Up Change, a series in which BuzzFeed food writers sit down with some of our favorite cooks to talk about how they are using food to ignite change.
The first time I met Shaquanda, the drag persona of Andre Springer, was during Queer Soup Night, a party highlighting LGBTQ+ chefs while raising money for community organizations. She was hosting a queer chili cook off, sauntering through the crowd providing cheeky commentary while encouraging attendees to make donations, and of course, sample the chili. She greeted me with the warmest embrace, pressing my face into her colorful hair wrap and dangling gold earrings. After chatting with her for several months via Instagram, it was a delight to feel her radiant energy in real life.
Shaquanda's Hot Pepper Sauce was launched in 2014 when Springer debuted his hot sauce at Bushwig, a drag and music festival hosted in Brooklyn, New York. Springer wanted to add another dimension to his drag, and introducing hot sauce would take his performances from eyes to mouth. Springer enlisted the help of his friend (and current business partner) Dominic Mondavi to create custom bottle labels adorned with Shaquanda's face and cheeky, queer-centric catchphrases. He filled each one up with his signature hot sauce blend and attended the event in full Shaquanda drag, complete with a colorful bandana and linen apron — a look inspired by his Barbadian grandmother and the many characters he grew up with in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. His signature sauce, made with fresh chiles and a slew of aromatics, filled audience members' mouths with flavor as lively as Shaquanda herself. The performance was a success, and from that initial debut, Shaquanda's Hot Pepper Sauce took off.
Springer now stocks his sauce in several grocery stores and produces over 300 bottles every week in his shared commissary kitchen in Harlem. His sauce has been featured in publications like Bon Appétit and Vice, and his drag persona became a known avant-garde queen in the club scene — providing both flavor and heat.
Upon first look, combining drag with hot sauce might seem like a hook, but Springer's approach is strategic. Every bottle he produces helps bring queer representation to grocery stores, a space that is often void of it. "It is our dream to bring empathy to grocery store shelves and explore how we can be positively introduced to people across the nation," says Springer. "We are accomplishing this by showing up in markets, being visible in the food product sphere, and letting other people know you can be openly queer and own a food business." Springer's thoughtful use of marketing has the power to show consumers that queer people succeed in all facets of business — including the hot sauce industry.
BuzzFeed caught up with Springer to talk about his growing business, his drag persona, and his goal of bringing queer representation to grocery store shelves.
When did you first realize your love of food?
Andre Springer: You know, there really wasn't a moment when I didn't love food. As a 5-year-old I got in trouble for sneaking bacon out of the fridge and eating it raw. I would hide in my sister's room and chew on it, trying to savor every bite, thinking about the next time I would sneak another piece.
And when did you first start doing drag?
AS: Well, I started doing drag as a kid by wearing clothes that were predestined for me based on my gender expectations. I loved some of those outfits, and hated others — so I'd say it has been a mixed experience since I could remember.
As for when I started being a drag queen? My love of drag started with legendary drag queen Linda Simpson, who became my drag mother. I asked her if I could be a contestant at Gay Jeopardy (which was a weekly event at the Slide, a now-closed bar in New York City) and she said yes. From that moment on it has been dragstory! Also, I realized I loved drag even more when I discovered wedges.
Tell us a bit more about Shaquanda and what inspired her persona.
AS: Shaquanda is the embodiment of feminine and masculine energies from Bed-Stuy and other neighborhoods, like Harlem. There is inspiration from my sisters, cousins, grandmother, and femme queens I grew up with. The humor, strength, wisdom, realness, nurturing, protective, and loving characteristics come from my childhood. I chose to draw inspiration from the people I was surrounded by. Drag became a way for me to make people happy and laugh.
And what was the inspiration behind your hot sauce recipe? Did you draw from any of the same inspirations you pulled from when creating Shaquanda?
AS: It started out as, How do I create a portrait of myself through flavor and spice? Barbadian hot pepper sauce is so closely tied into our food culture, and I found similar abstractions in my drag. Performance exists for only a period of time, just like experiencing my hot sauce. They're both flirtatious, fruity, and have a touch of sweetness. The combination of turmeric, mustard, onion, and chile peppers is very Barbadian — and the nuances came from my experiences living in Bed-Stuy. My neighbors are Southern and from other Caribbean islands, so I managed to incorporate some of those influences into my hot sauce recipe.
You talk a lot about the power of advertising. Can you tell us about the thought that went into your label design and how it relates to your overall mission of increasing queer representation?
AS: When we first started this project, we didn't think we would be taking on this issue. I am unapologetically queer and black. While I was doing research on the market, I realized there was a gap that we just happened to fall into. It made me think more about the psychology of the many types of customers and families that don't see themselves represented on grocery store shelves.
The illustration on the bottle is a picture of me from 11 years ago getting ready in drag. We chose this photo because it resonated with us the most. I think there is something to be said about reclaiming an image. My grandmother, the fish-frying ladies of Barbados, and people that are cooking in the kitchen — they all put their hair up so it doesn't get into the food, and we wanted to capture that.
We have future products in development that will feature an array of characters on the label to further increase representation (and show off some new hairstyles for Shaquanda).
Have you found that food has helped you bridge a gap in a way? Not everyone is familiar or comfortable with the LGBTQ+ community, but everyone eats.
AS: I think so, and as the company grows and we release more products, more visible storylines will appear. I feel sad knowing that there is hate — yet I feel hopeful in the undying flame of love within humanity. I want to spread this love into the universe. My focuses are on promoting joy, love, laughter, and things that taste great. I wish I could hug everyone and tell them that it will be OK, and explain that beyond how we feel at the moment, if we just open our hearts and embrace the love that the universe (whatever that means to you) sends, we will find happiness, because there wouldn't be hate to deter the light.
How is the company expanding?
AS: We are taking business workshops at the Harlem Local Vendor Program. It's preparing us as candidates for an accelerated business program in partnership with the New York Small Business Development Center, Columbia University, Whole Foods, and Hot Bread Kitchen. After the first incubator kitchen we worked out of suddenly shut down, we took our business up to Hot Bread Kitchen. They are everything you could want in a food community, with a talented team that is helping us grow as a business. Every business is unique, so due diligence and my own research and development is very important. Also, as a new member of the New York LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the community has been very helpful.
What are your dreams for the company?
AS: To grow and provide jobs for those who are less likely to find work in an industry that would shun them away because they look or act differently. I also want to create micro-economies for communities that are interested in sustainable farming, reduce waste, and be better about packaging and its impact on our earth. I already use glass bottles and metal caps, but I want to continually get better.
Once we reach our dream size, I would love for Shaquanda Will Feed You to launch a nonprofit that makes free healthy and nutritious food for children without access. If we are going to dream, why not dream bigger and better?
And of course, where can we buy your hot sauce?
AS: We ship online via our website. We are in a few restaurants including the Fat Radish, Hudson and Charles Dinette, Belle Reve, Lella Alimentari, Crabby Shack, and several others. You can also find our sauce in several grocery stores including Campbell Cheese and Grocery, Bed-Stuy Provisions, Court Street Grocers, Heatonist, and Otherwild.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can follow Shaquanda's Hot Pepper Sauce on Instagram, Facebook, or the company website: Shaquanda Will Feed You. And check out more Cooking Up Change interviews to learn about other inspiring cooks using food to ignite change.