Sauce Talk

The Origin Story of KariKari, Seattle's Ultimate Chili Crisp

Chunks of garlic. Peanuts aplenty. This is the origin story of a legendary sauce, narrated by the spoonful.

By Ann Karneus June 23, 2022

Ruby Sparks and Rob Griset knew they had landed on something big when they started eating KariKari, their chili crisp creation, straight out of the jar. “Can you think of any condiment you've ever had that you just eat with a spoon?” Griset asks. “You don’t take spoonfuls of mayonnaise and wolf it down.”

In one tiny jar, a curated combination of chilis and a touch of sweetness, KariKari presents a complex sequence of flavors and textures: umami notes from tamari and mushroom powder, a slight numbing effect from Sichuan peppercorns, crispy garlickiness from conspicuous fried slivers the shape of sliced almonds, and irresistible crunch from shallots and chopped peanuts.

Sparks and Griset, who were both raised in Seattle, first fell down the chili crisp rabbit hole after trying the iconic Chinese brand Lao Gan Ma. In early 2019, they decided to create their own version. (Sparks is a business consultant and Griset is a restaurant industry vet.) Following over two years of recipe development and meticulous label designing, KariKari debuted in late 2020. 

The name "KariKari" means "crisp" or "crunch" in Japanese, and was inspired by Sparks’s love of the language’s onomatopoeias and her grandmother Yaeko (an avid fan of the chili crisp).

Unsure of how exactly to spread the word to the masses during peak pandemic, they went the old-school route. They started giving jars away to their friends for free. Eventually, Griset brought a jar into SugarPill on Capitol Hill with no plan, no spoon, and offered some to owner Karyn Schwartz.

“She was like, 'That’s fucking delicious.' And I was like, Great—what do we do?” Griset says. He ran back to their nearby apartment-slash-headquarters and returned with a case. The next day, Schwartz emailed them asking for another. Another day passed, and she needed two more.

KariKari’s well-tailored Instagram page—flashing pics of noodles, chicken, and watermelon drizzled (or doused) with the stuff—has been around since the outset, but it initially proliferated in the vein of SugarPill's spoon-to-mouth, word-of-mouth fashion.  

That's when J. Kenji López-Alt got his hands on a jar earlier this year. The canonical cookbook author and unintentional influencer boosted KariKari to his nearly half a million Instagram followers. Twice. Alongside an image of a jar scraped clean, L​​ópez-Alt’s caption says: “My daughter literally eats it with a spoon at every meal.”

After both posts, Sparks and Griset were slammed with orders. Over two dozen Seattle shops, restaurants, and markets now carry KariKari, with many more scattered across the country.

Sparks and Griset are still getting accustomed to their local success (they’ve built up enough clout that hand deliveries aren’t necessary anymore), and are eager to keep growing KariKari’s presence nationwide. They also plan to offer bigger jar options in order to meet fans' and retailers' clamoring demands.

But for now, big-picture stuff ranks second. Because tomorrow, their most pressing concern is waking up and frying those heavenly garlic slices for 10 hours straight. 

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