Packed pallets of pound after pound of prosciutto and provolone provide the proper pepper package for poppers and perfectly pickled peppers.
Wrap your tongue around that! And by that, I mean, the delicious popular appetizer, NOT the twister.
Welcome to Vega Peppers, a family run operation, where live hands stuff more than a quarter of a ton of cherry peppers daily – between 11,000 to 13,000 per day – to satiate the pepper-popping population.
You may have purchased them at a food service deli or in liquor stores. If you are a Rhode Islander, chances are you have even tried to can them yourself.
But have you ever taken a moment to step back from the taste and wonder just how these things are made?
“Everyone who comes here is amazed that we stuff so many peppers a day with our hands and very little machinery,” said Matt Christofaro, one third of the Christofaro clan who bought Vega Peppers five years ago.
Vega Peppers first popped open in 1989. It is still a small business, with 10 to 13 employees at any one time. Matt’s uncle Steven and his father Dennis were in other flailing careers in 2005 when they saw an opportunity to be their own boss, instead of working for The Man.
“The previous owner wanted to get out and my father and uncle said, ‘We can make it or break it. It’s in our hands,’ ” said Christofaro. “There would be no fear of being laid off.”
The Christofaros will tell you that pickling peppers is tedious and messy. The oil is impossible to clean, the vinegar burns, and the peppers often crack.
It is hard to believe that this small family business, which sells to major retail chains, still manufactures all of its products by hand.
All this, despite their hours of operation being limited to just 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; no evenings or weekends to meet up with the ever-greater demand. This is because every day a USDA inspector is on the premises making sure that all standards of cleanliness and freshness are maintained, regarding the prosciutto ham and the provolone.
The Italian combination of hot green cherry peppers, ham and cheese are pressed into a marvelous whole known to thousands of Americans as Hot Stuffed Cherry Peppers and they’re becoming an antipasto favorite all over the country, as well as a beer and wine counterpart and a lazy-Sunday-football-watching snack.
“We’re so busy, we can’t keep up,” said Matt.
Nothing to it, right? You’d be surprised. Rhode Islanders know what good food tastes like. They can spot the difference between an ordinary hot stuffed cherry pepper and a Vega Pepper from a mile away. This isn’t accomplished by chance.
First, 175 pounds of peppers come in from various other states, filling each 500-lb. barrel. Alongside them, are pallets of prosciutto and provolone. After they are pressed together, they are preserved in oil, dispensed from a 2,000-lb. dispenser (5 percent of which is olive oil).
The previous owner tried to patent the formula and Pepper Popper product name, but couldn’t. But don’t be fooled by imitators.
As an Italian food manufacturing company owned and operated by two Italian brothers in the state with the highest Italian American population in the country, there’s zero room for anything less than perfection.
So how does Vega maintain superior quality, all while stuffing 65,000 cherry peppers per week (more than 3 million per year)? By sticking to the basics: Made-to-order production using the finest ingredients, and letting hands replace the robots.
“When you’re making food, cutting costs by reducing product quality just isn’t an option, no matter what position the economy’s in. People are eating this stuff. They can taste the difference,” said Dennis Christofaro, vice president and co-owner of Vega Food Industries. “If you want to cut costs, you’ve got to do it in ways that won’t be passed down to consumers. Use cheaper packing peanuts; buy an automatic pallet-wrapper, so you’re not paying someone to walk around in circles multiple times a day holding shrink wrap.”
Spoken like a true Popper, um, Papa.
For more information, or to order, go to www.-vegapeppers.com .