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Spicing things up: Spicy Ninja Sauce among semifinalists in HIplan competition

Updated: 
October 16, 2017 - 1:15am

HAWI — Similar to the reality show “Shark Tank,” 15 budding entrepreneurs on Hawaii Island will pitch their products to judges at Hawaii Island Business Plan Competition’s semifinals Saturday at Hale Iako in Kona.

Christopher Bornstein, a Hawi farmer and co-founder of Spicy Ninja Sauce, was selected from 39 hopeful entrepreneurs earlier this month to advance to round two.

“There’s not a whole lot of competition for a hot sauce company in Hawaii and we had some good ideas,” he said. “That was the impetus for us starting the company originally.”

Other semifinalists are Ahualoa Farms; Ai Pono Mushrooms, LLC; Alaka’i Academy; Big Island Tiny Homes; Bokoa Farms; Cocoa Outlet &The Chocolate Guy Hawaii; Empi Empi Foods; Hawaii Farmers Exchange; Kona Coco Farms; Lava Zone Lifestyle, LLC; Namaka Algae; Renewable Ocean Energy, Inc.; Sunshine Pediatric Clinic, LLC; and The Water Machine.

Also known as HIplan, the competition is run by Hawaii Technology Development Corporation (HTDC), co-hosted by UH-Hilo and NELHA, and administered by the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce (HICC).

“I started the competition last year as an entrepreneur myself,” HICC’s event co-chair Jim Wyban said. “I wanted to encourage this to other entrepreneurs on the island. We have a beautiful diversity of products this year, and a lot more aloha in our competition than ‘Shark Tank.’ It takes a lot of courage to put their business plan out in the public and under the spotlight of the judges.”

Spicy Ninja’s Bornstein grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and at age 18 joined the Navy.

“I got into analytical straight warfare, which has really helped in this business to direct the flow of how we make decisions,” he said.

From there he became a top sales person, then a nightclub promoter in Las Vegas and South Beach, Miami and came to Hawaii Island in 2005, where he began studying Chinese medicine.

Bornstein and his co-founder, Lauren McKinley, started Spicy Ninja Sauce just two years ago and grow most of their ingredients on less than an acre in Hawi.

“Every one of the things I’ve done — from leaving high school until now — has actually come together to make this hot sauce possible,” he said. “The name for our sauces came from my nickname, Kung Fu Chris, when I was studying Chinese medicine that somehow turned into Ninja Chris.”

A hot sauce fan since age 9, Bornstein grows organic ghost, datil, Hawaii chili, habañero, chocolate habañero and jalapeño peppers for his sauces. Other ingredients are organic tomatillos, carrots, bananas, poi, soursop, raw cacao, coconut rum, coconuts, mangoes, squash, purple sweet potatoes, coffee, beets and pineapples, among others. Spices include turmeric, kava, nettle leaf, jasmine, sarsaparilla, cardamom, vanilla, burdock and frankincense and myrrh.

“We like to play around with different flavors,” McKinley said. “We grow all of the ingredients except for vinegar, garlic and a couple of random spices.”

Flavors and the degree of heat vary from sauce to sauce.

“The chocolate habañero we love because it has a richer flavor than the traditional habañero,” Bornstein added. “We use the datil because it’s super citrusy, not so hot. It really rounds out some of the flavor profiles.”

Of the 25 to 30 sauces they produce at Kohala Village Hub, Spicy Ninja has sold 10,000 bottles to date — 7,000 this year alone. Three of the flavors are sold at Foodland and six at Island Naturals. Numerous coffee shops, restaurants and resorts around the island stock the products on their shelves, as well as a store on Oahu.

“I wasn’t prepared for the success this quickly,” Bornstein said, who crafts 1,500 bottles a month on average.

Customers use the sauces on chips, in stir fry dishes, to marinate meats and seafood, in soups, salads, dips and basting for barbecues.

Spicy Ninja’s biggest client is Kona Brewing Co.

“We’ve modified one of our sauces for them that they use as the dipping sauce for their buffalo wings,” Bornstein said.

The latest trend is using spicy sauces in cocktails.

“It’s being used on island in Bloody Marys, and the Copper Bar at Mauna Kea Resort for one of their signature drinks,” he said. “Joey, the main mixologist for Johnson Brothers of Hawaii, loves our sauces.”

In the next few years, Bornstein and McKinley plan to expand their business nationwide.

“We want to make a difference in the world. Real change comes from the companies who make a concerted effort to build their companies in ways that benefit the planet,” he said. “Change comes from the inside out. Our plan is to focus on local farmers in sections of the U.S. and limit our distribution.”

At Saturday’s semifinals, Bornstein and the other contenders will present 15-minute oral presentations. Eight or so will advance to the finals Nov. 4. Both events are open to the public.

At the finals, teams will be judged on a combined score of their revised 7-page business plan, 15-minute presentation and a two-minute “elevator pitch” of the plan. The team with the highest combined total will win.

Judges for the finals are professionals with expertise in evaluating business plans, such as venture capitalists, according to HIplan’s website. Like on “Shark Tank,” they are people who could invest in business plans if deemed feasible.

HIplan’s purpose is to stimulate development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and encourage viable new businesses on Hawaii Island. A grand prize of $25,000 in seed money will be awarded to the winning plan at the Nov. 4 finals.

HIplan info: Call Jim Wyban at 938-2840

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