The hot sauce founder sat in a Mexican restaurant and eyed the competing varieties offered on the table.
"You know we have no more Mago Hot Sauce," a waitress says, brushing past customers who were asking for the popular product.
Sold out, she informed them.
And with that, Clark Olson had further confirmation that he has a business problem, albeit a good one — too much demand.
Olson, 29, is the mastermind behind the 3-year-old company, whose hot sauces, made at a facility in Irvine, can be paired with meats, cheeses, vegetables, rice — or anything, he likes to say.
The recipes take extra time, but the result is worth the wait, he says, explaining that Mago, "magician" in Spanish, is that perfected spicy blend of roasted peppers with just the right amount of vinegar.
"We're about that balance of heat and flavor," Olson says. "And we're sticking to it."
Olson spent years getting the formula right, putting in hours on trial-and-error experimentation.
He made the hot sauce at his home in Laguna Beach, packaged it in recycled Pellegrino bottles and shared it with co-workers during lunch at his job at Avila's El Ranchito. The sauce became such a hit that his co-workers and friends encouraged him to sell it commercially.
Soon, the Pellegrino reusables were replaced with glass bottles depicting an elephant pulling a pepper from its trunk, and the company was officially launched.
Mago Red, the flagship hot sauce, now a top seller, is a blend of roasted habanero and Fresno chili peppers, garlic, onion, vinegar and salt. While spicy, the heat doesn't overpower the flavor of foods, Olson says, and the combination is a mix of tropical sweetness with a subtle smoky flavor.
It retails for $6.99.
In addition to the Red, Olson sells a $7.99 Green Thai, a combination of habaneros, jalapenos and Thai peppers for a fruitier blend. The three peppers are roasted together in the oven and enhanced with ginger.
"We try to blend different chilies to make versatile sauces for an interesting combination," Olson said. "It's a fusion."
But long before he found success, Olson had backpacked through South America teaching English while becoming exposed to the hot peppers primarily found on the continent.
This served as his spark. After moving back to his hometown, Olson, a self-described spicy-food enthusiast who enjoys cooking, couldn't ignore the thought that he wanted to create a sauce inspired by his experiences in foreign lands.
He has no desire to compete with Tabasco, Frank's Red-Hot Sauce, Sriracha or any other big-name brand.
Mago Hot Sauce is about "passion over profit," Olson said, noting that he prefers to create small batches of the finest quality.
Olson, who creates batches every couple weeks — churning out 40 gallons of hot sauce for about 1,100 bottles — sells bottles online, in specialty stores and at farmers markets. Currently in Laguna Beach, Hotel Laguna, Avila's and Pearl St. General store carry the line, as does Growers Ranch Market in Costa Mesa.
Desiree Gomez, owner of Coyote Grill, a Mexican restaurant in Laguna Beach, said she prefers to support local brands and appreciates Olson's passion and hard work.
"It's hard to keep it in stock," Gomez said about Mago Hot Sauce, adding that she purchases two cases a week. "There's a huge demand for it, and people get upset if we run out."
People have even resorted to stealing the bottles, said Gomez, so she and her staff now serve portions in ramekins.
Of course, the popularity of hot sauce in general is growing as Americans have become adventuresome eaters who crave zip.
Hot sauce production has been rated one of the 10 fastest-growing industries in the U.S., according to IBISWorld, an industry market research organization.
The growth spurt is attributed to demographic changes, immigration and the developing taste for spicier ethnic food in the U.S., Canada and Japan. By 2017, hot sauce production in the U.S. is expected to be a $1.3-billion industry.
Olson says he would like to give consumers more options, so he is working on a chipotle sauce recipe.
Just as culture, food and art from his overseas travels have inspired him to develop a well-received condiment, he says, friends in the community have helped him accomplish his dream of creating something new.
Laguna College of Art + Design graduate Travis Parr designed the brand's logo, childhood friend Erica Wright made the label for the bottles and friend Rudy Andrews is helping Olson with the future of the brand.
"In food or life, it's a melting pot of culture," Olson says. "I'm happy to give tribute to different parts of the world in a hot sauce."
For more information, visit magohotsauce.com