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Harry Singh’s slow burn: The Godfather of Spice reveals his formula for success

Harry Singh checks to see not *if* but *how much* you're sweating

Harry Singh checks to see not *if* but *how much* you're sweating

Harry Singh has spent the better part of four decades setting Minnesota mouths ablaze. As the one-man proprietor of the Original Caribbean Restaurant that bears his name, he’s become the closest thing we have to a spice lord, simply by sticking to his pepper-guns.

“I started off in ’83 with spicy food,” says Singh, who’s now 74. His first customers must have thought something was wrong, or that they were being punished.

“In those early years when I offered jerk people would say: ‘Oh, you trying to kill us!’” Singh is seated in a booth after serving a busy lunch, where today jerk is the most popular dish by a landslide. “Times changed, the taste buds maybe. It started to develop in a way that everybody wants to be inquisitive… like, ‘How hot is that?’”

It can’t be overstated how little Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean Restaurant has changed in 35 years, from food to ambiance. After her first visit to the establishment, the Star Tribune’s Karin Winegar wrote of Singh’s, “Seashells, plastic flowers, oilcloth-covered table tops… all that’s needed are lazy flies, a cat or a dog dozing under a pot of flowers under a porch and curried goat on the menu to duplicate many little cafes in the islands from the Bahamas to the Antilles.” Her piece is dated 1985, but she could have written that yesterday.

Singh started out on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis before bopping to 32nd and Cedar in South, then briefly holding court in the heart of Uptown, only to land at his current spot on Nicollet 18 years ago. The original aesthetic remains intact, from a cloud-painted drop ceiling and a brilliant, dangling wood macaw, to the giant hand-lettered sign above the kitchen window that Singh commissioned decades ago, which has outlasted many a lease. It reads as long as this article, but concludes, simply, “Tell a friend.”

“I never give up, I just continue. They follow you,” Singh says, with the sort of patience one imagines he honed early, possibly while cooking for seven younger siblings in a kitchen he calls “semi-primitive.”

But how Singh has managed to distill the heat of the sun itself into regrettably widemouth bottles for all these years remains a mystery. “I have a unique pattern, a method of how to procure and produce this thing.” It turns out his secret is a longstanding, committed relationship with FedEx.

“Before the Trinidad Scorpion became popular, I used to be using that from day one,” he begins. The once rare, unheard-of pepper that’s since become a hot-head favorite allowed him to give business back to his home, capitalize on Trinidad’s year-round growing season, and sidestep Minnesota’s less hot, more inconsistent local pepper selection. “So I have this cultivated land—anywhere you can do that, but ours, right?—I have the guys as we speak… send a fresh [batch] every two to three weeks,” he explains, thumping his wedding ring on the table for emphasis. “I make [two or three cases] every two to three days.”

Only later will Singh reveal that at some point he’d begun bottling a second, even hotter sauce after regulars pleaded with him. The variations between the two are unmarked. “Look for the darker ones,” he says. “It just goes [snaps fingers] like that.”

Singh bottles and sells his signature hot sauces for $10-$15—a price that depends, he says, on whether 1) you’re a regular, 2) you’re buying in bulk, and 3) he thinks you’re going to slap a new label over his in the futile hope of reselling it. The sauce is everything when it comes to understanding the unmistakable flavor of his food, its signature burn, and the restaurant’s inspiring longevity. One bottle costs as much as three orders of his covetable, fiery, occasionally available Doubles.

For Singh, this is an ingredient, not a topping. It happens to come in a bottle. “Don’t put the raw-raw thing. That is what people makes a lot of mistakes.”

As a generation of diners who grew up believing “Harry Singh” to be synonymous with “spice” enter kitchens of their own, the man himself plays it pretty cool about his influence. He stopped collecting clippings for his wall or the State Fair stand long ago. “I know what I do behind that stove with the pepper, with this, with that, whatever,” he says, then immediately adds: “You always find that with this business, people try to impose on you, number one, and imitate you, number three. But they fail to realize this is the original, this is the creator.”

He might not need clippings anymore, but Harry Singh knows that as tastes change, he might soon feel the heat from his rivals. For now, the Godfather of Spice just isn’t impressed with what’s out there. Find him keeping his head down and doing the work, as always.

Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean Restaurant is open at 2653 Nicollet Avenue South in Minneapolis six days a week for lunch and dinner, closed in between and also at random other times like when a trip to the market calls, and during that spell after the State Fair when he recovers in the islands from the hum of voices. Look for Singh taking orders, cooking your food, and refilling your water with a gleam in his eye until a condo properly threatens his lease—which, for now, it hasn’t.

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