Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

Heat of the Moment

Story by Megan Moseley. Photos by Josh McCullough.

It’s a typical sunny day in Hāwī on Hawai‘i Island, and sitting outside the Kohala Coffee Mill café, barefoot and bright-eyed, is Christopher Bornstein, cofounder of Hawai‘i’s newest hot-sauce company, Spicy Ninja Sauce.

It took some time for Bornstein, a former millionaire and Navy guy who spent three years biking across the Mainland, to reach hot-sauce perfection. “The first batch we made was terrible,” he says, and things didn’t get any better with time. “Each batch was literally worse than the one before,” says Bornstein. “The colors ranged from gray to a muddy brown. The taste wasn’t any better.” Bornstein was losing hope when he had a stroke of luck. “I just put all these ingredients into a blender and hit the button. Just like that this beautiful orange color blossomed. When I tasted it, I was like, ‘Hallelujah! This is it.’”

But, says his business partner and girlfriend, Lauren McKinley, “we had no idea how we made it.” The couple experimented for months hoping to re-create what happened that day until finally the first recipe manifested. They named it “Three Wrongs Make a Right!”

The company has come a long way since then, and Bornstein and McKinley have invented more than thirty flavors. Each has a similarly playful name, such as the very hot “Advanced Tactical Weaponized Starfruit Death Star O.G.” with starfruit juice and ghost chili, or the “God Fearing Monkeys in the Temple of the Sweet Chili Bang Bangs” with local and organic lemongrass, ginger, ghost and Hawaiian chili peppers and bananas. Sourcing locally is a company mission: Even as they expand into restaurants and stores throughout the state and on the Mainland, Bornstein and McKinley are committed to featuring Hawai‘i produce.

As any Island businessperson will tell you, that’s not always easy. Bornstein and McKinley have overcome some challenges, but while it’s been a learning experience, the two are determined never to forget where they started. “We want Spicy Ninja Sauce to support local farmers and local agriculture. We want the world to see all that Hawai‘i has to offer,” McKinley says.