The first time Erica Diehl heard 1960s Jamaican music, her whole world rearranged to make room for it. The current hot sauce maker and former DJ had moved from Buffalo to New York City in 1994, looking to become a painter, when she was hit by the reggae blindside.
“I started collecting everything I could find,” she says of her crate-digging early days, before crafting locally-made hot sauces consumed her every waking moment. “This led to discoveries about other eras and artists and started turning into a real specialized collection.” It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when she took a job at a graphic design agency, that someone suggested she make something of this obsession by DJing her expanding collection.
She began performing under the name Queen Majesty, an homage to the beloved Jamaican song “Minstrel & Queen,” and was soon DJ-ing several nights a week and hosting her own radio shows on East Village Radio and Lot Radio, both called Jamaica Rock. “Thinking back, I must have DJ-ed thousands of times. I never said no to a gig,” she says. “The venues varied from a Jamaican house party in London to a posh rooftop in Manhattan and everything in between.”
In the midst of designing by day and DJing by night, the same coworkers who’d nudged Diehl into spinning her records encouraged her to compete in the office’s yearly hot sauce contest.
“I’d always liked Frank’s hot sauce, which is a Buffalo staple, but after moving to NYC I was exposed to spices from around the globe. I still really like Tapatio, because it reminds me of my old neighborhood.” Diehl lived near Sunset Park for many years, where she was surrounded by Mexican food and her local deli only sold Tapatio. “They had it in a couple sizes, and I would buy the biggest one they had,” she added.
When Diehl realized how much she liked making sauce, she began to daydream about doing it for a living. When she was laid off from her design job, it provided the perfect opportunity to try selling her concoctions.
“I did this with much naivete, which was a blessing in disguise because if I had any idea of the amount of work and dedication this would take, I may have reconsidered my decision,” says Diehl. She read books on running a small company, reached out to the FDA and USDA for guidance, and secured herself a kitchen space. Her first big break came in the form of acceptance at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, a triumph that put her in touch with the market’s built-in support group of like-minded small food companies.
When Diehl officially launched the company in 2013, she called it Queen Majesty Hot Sauce. “It’s really an ode to the many influences that Jamaican culture has had on my life,” she says. “I like that the name Queen Majesty is unmistakably female.” Working in the male-dominated fields of DJing and cooking, Diehl is acutely aware of the extra work it often takes for women to prove themselves, but refuses to let that hold her back.
Queen Majesty Hot Sauce began with a Scotch Bonnet & Ginger sauce, quickly added a Jalapeño, Tequila & Lime, and just last year incorporated a Red Habañero & Black Coffee offer into the mix. (You can find Diehl’s sauces all over town, at specialty grocers and as table sauce at Lovers Rock, Building on Bond, Spoon, and Dirty Precious.) Diehl does all of the graphic design for the line, and though she originally took on freelance design work to supplement the business, the hot sauce now takes up all of her time.
“I have had to cut back, and even give up a monthly radio show because GMHS demands so much of my attention,” says Diehl. “It’s been ok though, because that’s not really the lifestyle that I want right now. I prefer waking up at 7 a.m. instead of getting home at that time.”