Sherry Stoppelbein and her spicy datil peppers are well known in the St. Augustine food scene, and have a long history in the city. Both lay claim to a heritage from the Minorcans.
Transported in 1788 from the island of Minorca off the coast of Spain to northeast Florida as indentured servants to Scottish speculator Andrew Turnbull, the Minorcans eventually rebelled against the harsh conditions, disease and suffering. They settled in St. Augustine, becoming the core of the population. Stoppelbein and her husband were born in St. Augustine and proudly assert that they are part of the roughly 26,000 Minorcan descendants that live in the county.
The Datil Pepper
While the introduction of the datil pepper is somewhat in dispute, Stoppelbein asserts that the Minorcans brought the peppers with them, reputedly from a stop for supplies in Cuba.
An assortment of Stoppelbein’s datil jams and sauces are for sale
Stoppelbein has been working with the datils her whole life. “When I got out of culinary school, the first thing I did was develop my own hot sauce,” she said. “Now I’ve got around twelve different items using the pepper, including several jams, and four levels of heat in the datil sauces.”
The datil is an extremely hot pepper, similar to a habanero. While the peppers are grown in various places in the United States, the vast majority are grown in St. Augustine. “They seem to like the climate and soil here,” said Stoppelbein. “It’s our little claim to fame, and they are an important part of our lives.”
Hot Shot Bakery
Stoppelbein began cooking as a second career. When her daughter went off to college, so did Stoppelbein. She graduated from the culinary program at First Coast Technical College in St. Augustine. Instead of starting a catering business as she had planned, she instead opened a coffee shop in a strip mall off U.S.1 in 1990. Her sandwiches were a big hit. She closed down the sandwich shop and opened the Hot Shot Bakery, but people were clamoring for her sandwiches, so she added them to the menu.
Stunning view of Flagler College from windows of Hot Shot Bakery
When the shop location in downtown St. Augustine became available, Stoppelbein didn’t hesitate. Directly facing a stunning park square and part of Flagler College, customers can sit and consume their delicious fare while gazing at one of the most beautiful historical downtowns in the country. As an added bonus, in addition to tourists, the location brings in students, teachers and staff from the college.
Interior of Hot Shot Bakery
Upon moving into the building, Stoppelbein decorated the shop to match her own personality – bright, quirky, and friendly. She turned drab, brown walls into a welcoming, retro-inspired décor, employing unique visuals like the “Outside seating. Inside plumbing” stencil.
Quirky wall stenciling
The Hot Shot Bakery has counters and cases colorfully displaying pastries and ice cream, and the walls are brightly painted in trompe l’oeil style, generating the image of a French café.
Creating the image of a French café
The Wall of Flame
The most provocative portion of the interior of the Hot Shot Bakery is their “Wall of Flame.” The entire premise for the wall came about as an accident. Stoppelbein dipped some of the datils in chocolate as a garnish for a birthday cake for someone she knew. The next day, party attendees came to the bakery looking to buy the unorthodox treats.
“I told them they weren’t for sale,” she said, “but offered to make some for them if they wanted to come back the next day.”
Hot Shot Bakery’s infamous chocolate-covered datil peppers
If you make them, they will come? Why, yes, that’s what happened! Someone suggested that she take photos of people who ate the peppers in the shop, so they started with photos of ten people. But word got out, and little by little people wanted to get their faces on the board.
“Now we easily have 2,000,” laughed Stoppelbein. “People come through my door and ask ‘Is this the home of the hot pepper?’ and I say yes, it is – if you eat a pepper, I’ll make you famous!”
The Wall of Flame
Once a year Stoppelbein hosts a “Datil Eating Contest” to see who can eat the most peppers. This year, the winner ate 52 peppers in five minutes. “He didn’t even show it,” said Stoppelbein. “He came into the bakery after the winning the contest and ate lunch. It was hysterical.”
A Unique Menu
The menu includes a lot of mouth-watering paninis, wraps and soups. But the most interesting part of the menu is the Signature Creations which are items created by the shop’s patrons. We sampled the “Hubba Panini” which was a delicious combination of turkey, cream cheese, provolone, sliced apples and spicy datil pepper jelly, and the “Leon Panini” which included honey glazed ham, Swiss and cranberry mustard.
The winner? It was a split decision and argument ensued. That’s how incredible they were.
The Leon Panini (front) and Hubba Panini (back)
Giving Back to the Community
Stoppelbein is also knows as a good samaritan around town. If you see someone on the corner holding a big, bright sign in the shape of a cup of coffee that says “Hot Shot Bakery, Datil Sauce and Ice Cream,” you’ll likely see an employee that she found at the St. Francis House – a homeless shelter across the street from the bakery. They hold a sign and interact with tourists and locals, enticing them to visit the Hot Shot Bakery.
“I’ve used them forever,” Stoppelbein said. “I just ask that they’re sober and clean. They can do the job and I want to help.”
Stoppelbein’s unique blend of spunk, sauces and sandwiches has not gone unnoticed. She’s been featured in the St. Augustine Record and Women’s World magazine and has done dozens of cooking demonstrations, including a recent one on the Weather Channel.
As for future plans, Stoppelbein’s eyes sparkled as she talked about opening a food truck.
“I love what I do. I love feeding people and I love creating new items for the menu. Some people eat their way through the menu and others get stuck on a specialty item and keep ordering that.” said Stoppelbein.
“It’s been a long time getting where I’m at, but it’s all good.”
ARTICLE CONTRIBUTED by Patti Morow and PHOTOS by Mart Harrod