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.

But as the popularity of the capsules rose, so did scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency objected to the health claims Quinn was making about his products in the company's advertisements, and in 1991 banned the sale of Night Caps and Gas Caps. (Under current federal law governing dietary supplements, manufacturers are forbidden from making claims that their product can "cure" anything.) With his company and his vision under attack, Quinn sought to press his cayenne proselytizing to another level. And since the FDA held that he couldn't legally preach about the medical benefits of cayenne while selling the capsules, the solution seemed clear to Quinn: Leave Heart Foods and write a book about his pepper-powered victory over death.

On March 8, 1992, Quinn convened a meeting of the entire board of directors of Heart Foods: Dick Quinn. A memo outlines his resignation from the company, a $5,000 severance payment, and the guarantee that "He will receive free Caps for his own personal consumption as long as is needed." It also granted Heart Foods exclusive rights to the use of formulas he'd concocted for a host of products: Cayenne Blend, Power Caps, Heart Food Caps, Night Time Caps, Tick Attack, Skeeter Skatter, and others. Finally, Quinn granted the company ownership of the names of the products.

Quinn simultaneously transferred 51 percent ownership of Heart Foods to his then-wife Paula, and 19 percent each to Watson and to Quinn's son Foley, both of whom were working for Heart Foods at the time. The remaining 11 percent was divided among his other four children. While the division wasn't exactly equitable, it reflected Quinn's bedrock beliefs in the idea of keeping business primarily in the family. Still, the logic by which he divvied up the company set the stage for defections from Heart Foods and the subsequent legal squabbling about just who had the right to use Quinn's story to promote their products.

According to Watson, Quinn had told him once that he would be turning the company over to him and Foley Quinn. "He hadn't discussed the stock, but he had told us that we would be running the company," says Watson, who claims that Paula Quinn hadn't been involved much in the day-to-day operation of the company prior to March 1992. Foley, who'd been overseeing production for Heart Foods, confirms Watson's version of events, and further says there was some confusion about whether his eventual share was actually 19 or 23 percent. For her part, Paula Quinn says she had a major hand in running the company prior to Quinn transferring it to her. Whatever the case, Watson and Foley Quinn would both ultimately exit Heart Foods to start their own pepper mills.

After severing his ties to the company (except for the lifetime supply of cayenne), Quinn entered the next chapter of his life as a health guru--self-published author of Left for Dead, president of the R.F. Quinn Publishing Company, and avatar of high-heat cayenne.

 

Left for Dead reads like nothing so much as a letter to a friend. Perhaps that's why it would later win so many converts; family and friends say Quinn had a natural gift for letter-writing. "Whenever he had a problem, he would try to solve it usually by writing a letter," recalls his former partner Langley. "The most amusing one was one to someone who was stealing his newspapers. He taped the letter outside his door, and it said, 'If you don't mind, could you please return it by 8:00 a.m., as that is the usual time I am ready to read it?'" Quinn went on with a list of which sections he most wanted to read, which ones the thief could keep for himself, and which coupons the ink-stained crook should leave alone. "The newspaper theft stopped immediately after that," says Langley, who adds that Quinn and the newspaper smuggler eventually became cordial. "He made a friend of the person who was essentially ripping him off."

Left for Dead also reflected the family nature of Quinn's business; daughter Shannon contributed the section on herbs, while son Colin wrote the medical section. The book was not immediately a success, but through sheer hustle, infectious charm, and relentless marketing, Dick Quinn willed it into one. In the 18 months after it hit the market, Quinn appeared on more than 150 radio talk shows, talking up the life-saving virtues of cayenne. In 1994 his so-called Left for Dead Tour included over 50 cities in the U.S. and Canada. "He'd travel on the cheap. In the airport he'd be lugging his garment bag and two big boxes of books around," recalls Colin, who believes the regimen took its toll on his father's health.

But Quinn had a knack for staving off exhaustion. Every morning he'd pin a carnation to his jacket, because, his old business partner recalls, that made every day a special occasion. "Dick Quinn was the kind of guy," Langley figures, "who would go through hell and come out wearing a fresh carnation on his lapel."

In the wake of Left for Dead's success, Quinn began to envision the work as the first volume of a trilogy. He planned to call the second installment Not Dead Yet, and the third, Still Not Dead. The original book was often promoted as having sold more than 250,000 copies, though that figure has become a subject of contention in the Quinn Publishing lawsuit.

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