Joe Arditi grows a peck of fiery pickles to sell the seeds to those who like their foods hot


August 04, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Norristown, Pa. -- The letters come from hot heads all over the world -- Bulgaria, England, Canada, South Africa -- and from every corner of the United States -- North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, Virginia -- bearing colorful stamps and airmail markings and personal notes.

"Dear Pepper Joe," says a typical missive. "Thanks for being there for the little guy, Pepper Joe. I have ordered lots of catalogs this year in search of new and different peppers. Yours is my favorite because of the personal touch you gave it."

Joe "Pepper Joe" Arditi, the chairman, CEO and secretary of the tiny mail-order seed company that bears his name, gathers another batch of envelopes from the big cardboard box on his lap. "Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, Connecticut . . . I've got mail from all over the world. All over the world, really. Everybody is interested in hot peppers."

His unusual business, based in the former dining room of his Norristown, Pa., home, is just 2 years old, and no one is more surprised than Mr. Arditi that he's in it at all. A tall, robust-looking man with a shock of silver hair and a hearty laugh, Joe Arditi is 72 years old, and he's already retired from a couple of careers. But it all began, you might say, in a sense of outrage.

"Someone came to the house one day," Mr. Arditi says. "He knows I garden a lot -- and he said, 'There's a man I know that grows hot peppers, and he sells the seeds for a dollar a seed.' I said, 'My God, what kind of peppers are they, that are worth a dollar a seed?' He said, 'He calls them habaneros.' I said, well, I have a habanero pepper out there. I call it a Jamaican pepper, because mine grow a little larger than habaneros. But a dollar a seed? I could make a fortune . . ."

Not, he notes, that he needs to be out in the sun every day raising peppers to sell the seeds. "Really," he says, "I'm retired. I did not want to do any kind of work. My boss, who I sold cars for for 23 years, wanted me back so badly he said, work a day, work two days, work whenever you want. I said, Jim, if I have to do that, I'm not retired anymore, because I feel like I'm obligated, that I must come in. So I never wanted to do anything like this. But when I heard a dollar a seed, which I thought was ridiculous -- I mean, I could never sell one for a dollar, you know, in fact I give 'em extra seeds, free seeds when they order, you know."

Mr. Arditi's current catalog, a small, bright-orange brochure, lists four hot peppers: pueblo ("so beautiful they could be used to make a flower arrangement"), 15 seeds for $2.99; Barney ("They can be strung up and dried"), 20 seeds for $2.99; Jamaican ("This is the hottest pepper in the world"), 20 seeds for $3.99; and jelly bean ("Don't let the name fool you, these peppers are HOT, HOT, HOT"), 10 seeds for $2.99; and one tomato, the pear tomato ("This tomato has to be seen to be believed"), 15 seeds for $2.99.

Gardening is good for the soul

That's it, just five items. There are also some growing tips, and drying and freezing tips, and a little testimonial: "In my opinion, gardening is one of the best things for mind and body . . ."

At first, the business was as tiny as its product. "I decided two years ago, to sell, I think it was 12 [Jamaican pepper] seeds, for something like $3.99," Mr. Arditi recalls. "And I had about 25 customers." But it grew like one of Mr. Arditi's plants. "Last year I added three more peppers and a tomato, and I got such a response that it's unbelievable. I'm up to almost 600 people who have written to me. And in between I've filled out hundreds and hundreds of orders."

And now, like his garden, it's going to expand. "Next year I'm going to add four or five more, to make nine or 10 at least. You'd be surprised, how many people give me an order, and then they write back to me and they say, How about sending a catalog to my brother, my uncle -- whoever it may be -- from another town or state, wherever."

Twice as hot

The interest may not be so surprising, when you consider that between 1980 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans' per-capita consumption of fresh chili peppers nearly doubled -- to 6.5 pounds, from 3.5 pounds.

And Dave DeWitt, editor of Chile Pepper magazine, published six times a year in Albuquerque, N. Mex., says that greater interest in such hot stuff can be seen from the rising number of mainstream seed catalogs that carry pepper seeds. "Forty or 50 carry two to three varieties," Mr. DeWitt says, "and some carry as many as 20." Still, the more unusual varieties aren't that readily available; Mr. DeWitt says while there are plenty of "hobby" pepper growers, only a scattered few devote their garden space to peppers for seed sale.

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