FlameBoy: When the Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Michael Miscoe has been called many things in his 37 years - builder, engineer, environmental industrialist. Call him Flame Boy now.

Miscoe is hot on the trail of the perfect lip-searing salsa, which he produces and promotes under his five-year-old Flame Boy Smoky Salsa label. His Portland, Ore., company, Oregon Harvest, produces a variety of the thick and fiery condiment whose secret ingredient is smoke, and not just any smoke, but the aromatic infusion from filbert-shell-based briquettes of his own making, over which he grills his vegetables.

The seven Flame Boy salsa varieties are found at over 80 upscale markets and wineries throughout Oregon, Washington, and California, and as far away as Colorado and Washington, D.C. Many also carry his Oregon Harvest Hazelnut Briquets.

It's a career that's literally up in flames, thanks to a serendipitous series of events. During his incarnation as an environmental entrepreneur, he and his company, Ecotopia Group Limited, were pursuing a variety of environmentally conscious products, from making paper pulp out of rye grass to deriving activated charcoal from coconut shells. Most were busts.

The offshoot, however, was a winner. In the process of rendering the coconut shells, he hit on the idea of making fuel logs out of nutshells, specifically filberts, a resource that generally goes to waste in Northwest orchards.

"There's so little fuel in the world," the Oregon native says. "Trees are being stripped so fast, that I thought 'We have ways to make something here.'"

The husks burn hot, and make great fuel, he says, "So we spent four months in the lab figuring out how to make logs out of them."

Miscoe endured a failed attempt at marketing the basically handmade logs to Norm Thompson's, before he discovered a delicious secret that would change his life. A big fan of barbecuing, he figured out that this nutty smoke imparts a delicious flavor to grilled food. He further refined the process, chunking up the raw material into briquettes, and cooked up a plan.

"I knew nothing about the retail business," he says. "I just sort of kicked the door, walked in and said, "Here's the product, let's have the shelf space." Miscoe marketed the briquettes to places like Sheridan Fruits and Nature's in Portland, and the idea caught fire.

The salsa came as an afterthought. "One night for a dinner party, some friends came over, and I threw some peppers and onions on the grill to make salsa out of it, just for fun," Miscoe says. "The guests said 'This is so good, you should put this on the market.' I said no way, I'm not going into the salsa business. There are a million salsas out there."

But the idea had merit as a marketing tool. "I thought, maybe I'll use it to show the retailers how good the briquettes are," he says. He handmade 50 cases using a recipe he made up on the spot and took it around to his briquette customers. Before long, they were more interested in ordering the salsa.

Miscoe, who's completely self-financed, cooked up 110 cases that he made by himself using 45-gallon steam-jacketed kettles and hustled local markets by doing in-store tastings. The local salsa world was on fire.

Flame Boy is now made in Forest Grove at Jay Lieb Foods, in 500-gallon steam-jacketed kettles, and at 1,500 cases at a time. He still slow-roasts his own peppers and onions on 50- and 100-gallon barbecues, using largely organic and locally grown produce. With the exception of the Seattle area, he handles his own distribution.

The brand includes pineapple-based Tropical Vacation, Wild Ride, Smoky and the blistering habanero-based Mango. Most are available in various levels of heat.

"Who knows what's going to happen in the future," he says. "The reason why I made the briquettes in the first place was to further a mission I was on. My goal was to make money improving the environment. That was my big plan. I was young. That's why we were doing the pulp project, and all those other projects that failed. But this is the first project that's made any money for me."

Oregon Harvest
P.O. Box 4444
Portland, OR 97208
(503) 538-2720