Red Hot Heartbreak

Twin Cities entrepreneur Dick Quinn believed in the healing power of cayenne pepper. But in the four years since his death, the wrangling over rights to his five-alarm cure has been anything but therapeutic.

Heart Foods, now headed by Quinn's second ex-wife Paula, sued Quinn Naturals Inc., run by Quinn's son Foley, and the Cayenne Trading Company, owned by Quinn's old friend Al Watson, for three-quarters of a million dollars plus damages, hoping to stop her competitors from using Quinn's name to help sell their products. And Quinn's daughter Shannon, now president of the R.F. Quinn Publishing Company, sued Watson in 1997, charging that he had looted nearly $1 million from her father's book company to bankroll his own pepper operation; that suit has dragged the late Quinn's family and friends through 20 months in federal court and has yet to be settled, in part because Quinn's style of bookkeeping was, without question, chaotic.

Though of one mind about little else, all the warring parties (except Shannon) agree that were he alive today, Quinn would be heartbroken over the costly legal imbroglios that have flared up in the wake of his passing. His son Colin says, "I think he probably would want everyone to be successful and happy, and if they could do that using him but not cheapening him, he would be okay with that. He was very much a live-and-let-live person." Son Foley says, simply, that the King of Cayenne would be sick with disgust.

 

Rick Sealock

The wind-blasted prairie of northwestern Minnesota doesn't immediately seem a hotbed of cayenne-fueled herbalism, but it's home to Sebeka, Al Watson's hometown. After Dick Quinn's death, Watson moved his Cayenne Trading Company here, some 170 miles from the Twin Cities, to a sunny little storefront on Minnesota Avenue between Ma's Country Cafe and the offices of the Review Messenger newspaper.

There are signs of Quinn everywhere in this former drugstore: A display of herbal and health books includes both Left for Dead and its posthumous sequel, Death by Deception; a slew of articles and photos featuring Quinn plaster the walls. Pill bottles line the shelves behind the counter, including the red-labeled "very hot" concoction called Cayenne King.

There's also Quinn's Blend All-in-One--the only Cayenne Trading product to carry the Quinn name--a mix of cayenne, garlic, and hawthorn. Those capsules, like the company's other products, come straight from the back room, where two workers dressed in white lab coats and surgical masks are siphoning rust-red powder from plastic drums into tiny capsules.

Watson says this is how Dick Quinn would have wanted it. "The purpose of Cayenne Trading was to sell cayenne to people who bought the book," he says, referring to Left for Dead. In fact, Watson says the 1993 genesis of his company was Quinn's brainchild: "It was his idea to start Cayenne Trading, not mine." Quinn himself sold the company's first order.

The 49-year-old Watson, with his glasses, curly brown hair, and mustache, looks like a well-groomed ex-hippie, clad in a green oxford shirt. He periodically launches himself from his chair in the front window to grab a nearby copy of Left for Dead, flipping through it to find a passage that underscores a point. "It's all he talked about: cayenne," Watson says of his late friend and mentor.

Dick Quinn hatched the idea of selling cayenne to the public in 1988, after a decade of self-prescribed pill-popping. At the same time, he found that he'd built up a tolerance to the stuff, and was driven to seek more potent daily doses: "I kept looking for stronger and stronger Cayenne. It was keeping me alive, and I wanted all the energy I could get," he would write. That search lead him to the African Birdseye pepper, reputedly the hottest member of the cayenne family. Quinn ultimately devised a recipe that mixed the African Birdseye with cayenne from India, as well as ginger and lecithin, which he believed eased the impact of the peppers on the stomach. Left for Dead features a photo of Quinn in his kitchen, white surgical mask over his face, hovering over a garbage bag-covered kettle, cooking up his original, high-fuel "Power Caps."

With that, Quinn founded the Heart Foods Company and set up his first production line in the living room of his Minneapolis apartment; his then-girlfriend Paula would grind the herbs while he and his buddy Watson would fill the capsules by hand. He had his eye on a capsule-filling machine, but couldn't afford it--nor could he afford advertising for his product line, which soon included the cayenne-spiked Power Caps (which Quinn dubbed "my mean old junkyard dog"), Thinking Caps (a mental stimulant containing gotu kola and gingko biloba), Happy Caps (with valerian, catnip, and cayenne), and Night Caps (with valerian and passionflower).

The product names were pure Quinn: pithy, catchy. At one point, he marketed Gas Caps for nausea. Other product ideas never came to fruition; his daughter Kelly Quinn recalls with laughter, "He wanted to do Knee Caps for arthritis."

Initial sales of the products hardly suggested that Quinn was building an empire. According to Left for Dead, in November and December of 1989, the company's receipts amounted to about $150 a month. That began to change after he ran an ad in the Swanson Health Catalog in January 1990; the ad immediately generated $7,700 in orders. Soon after company headquarters moved to South Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood, sales began to climb. By the following January, Quinn was peddling $30,000 worth of herbal remedies every month. His sense of timing, it seemed, was perfect: The founding of Heart Foods coincided with a burgeoning national interest in herbs, minerals, and vitamins--from ginseng to ginkgo biloba to St. John's wort. The Bellevue, Wash.-based Hartman Group, an industry market-research firm, estimates last year's sales for dietary supplements in the U.S. at $10 billion and growing, as many mainstream pharmaceutical companies follow their alternative-medicine cousins into the market. According to Hartman's figures, cayenne-related products now account for 0.3 percent of supplement sales.

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