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June 26, 2014

MAY: Trinidad Scorpions and other hot ideas

— Do you remember the old television game show “Pyramid?” Depending on how far back your memory takes you, it might be remembered as the $10,000, $20,000, $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000 version.

Contestants were paired with celebrities and given a series of words. The object was to guess the category to which the words belonged. The show debuted in 1973 and was on nonstop until 1988. The latest incarnation ran for one season in 2012.

Ready to play? Here are the clues: Trinidad Scorpions, an oven, Carolina Reapers, fire, 7 Pot Brain Strains and ideas. Did you guess “things that are hot?”

The three strange names are the three hottest peppers on the Scoville scale. The hot idea was the great sales idea that Jim Bonaminio had in 1971. Let me tell you about it.

James O. Bonaminio was born in 1949 in Lorain, Ohio, a small city in northeastern Ohio. It is located on Lake Erie, about 30 miles west of Cleveland.

Jim came by sales ideas naturally. His father, Clem, was a steelworker and his mother, Marie, took up selling Fuller brushes door to door to help make ends meet. She found that pushing Jim in a baby-buggy was a great ice-breaker and that many would buy just to help feed her family.

By the time Jim was 6, he was earning money for himself, looking for odd jobs and reselling anything he could get his hands on. At age 13, he was hunting lost golf balls from a nearby course, scrubbing them and peddling them to avid golfers at the corner of the course parking lot.

Throughout high school, he sold everything from pillows to carpet remnants to purses. When he graduated, he bought an old milk truck for $50 and started selling produce. He dealt directly with the farmers and sold what was in season from the truck.

In 1971, he set up his first semi-permanent location at a vacant lot on the corner of Erie and High Streets in Hamilton, Ohio, a few miles from Cincinnati. A farmer had called him with an offer for 45,000 pounds of potatoes that had been rejected by a chip factory. Jim worked 21 hour days, slept in the backroom and showered from a hose behind the building.

In 1975, Jim purchased land on Route 4 in Fairfield, Ohio, and Jungle Jim’s International Market was founded. At 4,200 square feet, the small store was but a shadow of the 6 1/2 acres of floor space that the store has today. More than 300,000 square feet holds some 180,000 items for sale. Jungle Jim’s attracts 82,000 shoppers weekly, many driving from other cities to purchase items only found there.

The grocery store looks more like Kings Island than Kroger. Lined outside the doors are red seats from the outfield at Riverfront Stadium, former home of the Reds and Bengals. Outside are giraffes, tigers and a waterfall. Inside are animatronic displays that predate Chuck E. Cheese. A lion sings Elvis Presley songs, accompanied by a rock band of General Mills cereal mascots. Subtle and not-so-subtle humor is sprinkled throughout the store, including the entrance to restrooms disguised as Rumpke Porta-potties.

I go to Jungle Jim’s for the Trinidad Scorpions and Carolina Reapers, ingredients in one of the area’s largest hot sauce collections. Lest one forget where the hot sauce aisles are found, one simply needs to look for the life-size fire truck from nearby Hueston Woods that sits upon the display.

The first weekend of October, Jungle Jim’s hosts its annual “Weekend of Fire” where more than 50 vendors share their hot sauces, rubs and spices. They compete for trophies for “Best of” that are shaped like fire hydrants. Visitors can participate in contests to consume some of the hottest foods known to man.

I experienced my first Trinidad Scorpion pepper there a couple of years ago. One of the vendors was allowing people to taste a sample of the pepper. The man handed me a sliver of the pepper on a toothpick that was no bigger than the nail on my little finger.

Popping it into my mouth, the entire left side of my mouth was numb — dentist’s office numb. My son suggested we get something to drink, but I could only see the liquid gurgling over my lower lip. It took more than 30 minutes to regain the feeling and I remember thinking, “What a hot idea!”

Jim’s entire store was his hot idea years ago. He pursued his dream with passion and a plan — a hot lesson of life that we should all learn.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com

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