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A bright-yellow roadster is broken down on a desert highway. A curvaceous blond in an evening gown stands next to it, hiking her dress up to reveal thigh-high stockings. A similarly clad redhead sits on the car’s trunk, with the words “Bad Girls in Heat” emblazoned beneath her. It’s not the cover of a dime-store novel or a poster from a vintage stag film. It’s a hot sauce label. Bad Girls in Heat is one of six politically incorrect hot sauces produced by Van Nuys-based PepperTown USA, a company started two years ago by Bill and Debbie Sussex. The line of hot sauces, all of which feature ’40s-style pin-up girls on their labels, have such eyebrow-raising names as Kitten’s Big Banana, Fifi’s Nasty Little Secret and Sultan’s Main Squeeze. “Hot sauce is a very visual product, and there are so many options,” said Bill Sussex, whose title at the fledgling company is Grand Taster. “We decided to go with something very visually striking.” In March 1996, when the Sussexes started marketing their product, hot sauce was just starting to become a designer condiment. Stores selling nothing but hot sauce were opening, and mom-and-pop hot sauce companies were popping up across the country. The Sussexes decided to set their hot sauce apart by avoiding such marketing clich & #233;s as “hotter than hell” and “ass-kicking,” which many of the newly introduced hot sauces were touting. “We wanted to get away from the whole Beelzebub type of thing,” Bill said. “We thought our opportunities would be greater if we did something different.” Aside from the unusual labels, PepperTown’s sauces are not as spicy as the hottest of hot sauces, and are made with ingredients not generally associated with hot sauce: pineapples, mangos, bananas, lime juice, raisins, papayas, pumpkins, apples and cucumbers. The recipes were developed by the Sussexes, who describe themselves as long-time “pepperheads” connoisseurs of hot sauce. The sauces are manufactured for PepperTown at a food-processing plant in Riverside. The two-person company is staffed full-time by Debbie Sussex, whose past experience was in marketing and product development for a window-coverings company. Her husband Bill does PepperTown work during his off-hours. His full-time day job is doing post-production work on promotional spots aired to tout Fox Broadcasting Co. shows. His connections in the entertainment industry helped the couple and their hot sauces land a scene in an upcoming Eddie Murphy film, “The Holy Man,” which Walt Disney Co. plans to release later this year. In the scene, the Sussexes are seen hawking their hot sauces on a home shopping channel. Being a relatively new company, Peppertown has yet to turn a profit. In 1996, the company generated $83,000 in revenues, but due to the cost of equipment purchases and other start-up costs, the company lost about $51,000, said Jack Kaplan, PepperTown’s accountant. Last year, the company did a bit better, bringing in $99,000 in revenues, but still lost between $10,000 and $15,000. “Hopefully in 1998 we’re going to see a turnaround,” he said. “I know (Bill Sussex) would be thrilled to death if in less than three years it could turn a profit.” Kaplan said the Sussexes have invested close to $100,000 in the company so far. While PepperTown’s racy labels seem to be developing a following, the Sussexes have experienced some resistance to them, particularly from upscale, gourmet stores and mainstream grocery stores. Rather than shun these potential customers, PepperTown has started manufacturing its sauces with a less provocative label. It features an elephant playing a harmonica and monkeys hanging off the back of a pineapple truck, images loosely based on encounters the couple had while on a trip to Thailand. The same image is featured on the labels of the politically correct versions of all six sauces. And the saucy names have been toned down. For example, the politically correct version of Fifi’s Nasty Little Secret is sold as Hawaiian Hot Sauce. North Hills-based De Vries Imports & Distributors, which recently began distributing both versions of PepperTown’s hot sauces, is trying to get the tamer version of the company’s sauces into Gelson’s Markets and other mainstream stores. Colleen Cox, marketing researcher at De Vries, said the distributor chose to carry PepperTown sauces both for their taste and the striking labels on the politically incorrect versions of the sauces. “It’s made with different kinds of ingredients than your traditional hot sauces, and the labeling is really cool,” she said.

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