Wilmette mail carrier delivers the heat with his side hustle, Shady Dan’s Hot Sauce
It has been around for 50 years, but few have heard of it and fewer have tasted it.
Some say the recipe was left behind by a weary vagabond — the sauce’s namesake — who visited the family farm looking for a respite.
What’s true and what isn’t is all part of Shady Dan’s story, and the mystery is now history.
As of June 1, Shady Dan’s Hot Sauce has been accessible to all thanks to Adam Jakush, an Evanston native and Wilmette mail carrier who pushed the 50-year-old recipe into distribution this year.
“We’re growing slow and steady. We have it in about eight stores,” Jakush said. “That’s really on two days of sales calls. We’re in no rush. … We just want to have fun with it.”
What is known for sure is that the Shady Dan’s recipe was developed in the 1970s by Jakush’s father, Edward — an MIT graduate, chemical engineer and food-science expert — on a farm he bought in Waterford, Wisconsin.
At the farm, Edward grew a variety of peppers and the other produce — garlic, tomatoes, onions, etc. — for the sauce’s foundation, but the real work was done in the kitchen.
Over the years, Edward “refined his techniques” to create a hot sauce beloved by friends and family.
“It was like an organic, living thing,” said Adam, who spent many summers tending to the farm and observing the kitchen. “It was never written down. What (produce) was there, he worked with but he refined his techniques and his ways over the course of time and came to make this family heirloom.”
Time marched on. Adam went to high school in Evanston and college in New York. Then, he spent time in Scotland to figure out his next move.
When he returned in 2008, he knew what it was.
“I said, ‘Hey dad, I need something to do. Can I use your land and can you teach me how to make that awesome hot sauce?’” Adam recalled. “ … So I spent the summer in his kitchen reducing and refining and creating Shady Dan’s.”
By the end of the summer, Adam was picking the Thai chili, red finger and habanero peppers used to make versions of the hot sauce.
He then worked in the kitchen to turn the harvest into a food-science masterpiece before bottling it and handing it out to friends and family — just as Edward did.
Adam also met his wife-to-be around the same time, and despite “a couple hundred people” requesting it, Shady Dan’s went to the backburner as the two spent the next few years building a family and life back in the North Shore, where Adam became a mail carrier in Wilmette.
In 2015, Edward died, and in his final days, Adam told him about his dream to open a business for the family hot sauce.
Adam got an assist when during the pandemic a high school friend moved back to town and kickstarted Shady Dan’s.
“He said, ‘Let’s do your hot sauce business,’” Adam said. “And it reminded me of it. The real reason I couldn’t get it going is I didn’t have the logistical know-how. … Once (the friend) came back, he was able to take care of that stuff while we got all of our certification.”
Adam said Shady Dan’s received its final necessary approval on June 1 and was ready for the masses.
Shady Dan’s three flavors — Chili’s Last Stand (original), Hab Country (hotter, habanero peppers), Little Shady’s (starter sauce, green finger peppers) — are available at eight Chicagoland stores, including the Chuck Wagon in Wilmette, D&D Finer Foods in Evanston and the Rogers Park Food Market.
Adam said he hopes the company can develop more flavors in the coming months.
Bottles are also sold directly on the company’s website and can be found at the Evanston and Winnetka farmers markets.
Adam is enjoying the launch right now but hopes the future is red hot for Shady Dan’s — both for himself and his father.
“I love this sauce so much that I want other people to get to enjoy it,” he said. “I just want to share it — spread the love of the Shady’s. That’s where my motivation lies.
“It’s been a fun, beautiful growth experience for us. Things are looking good. Now it’s just about getting it out there, telling people what we are about. What we’re about is the taste, the food science, stemming from the creator — my father.”
Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319