Cape Gazette
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The Business of Eating

The diversity of Rehoboth: lamb kabobs, ice cream and fiery sauces

By Bob Yesbek | Jul 20, 2011
Photo by: Bob Yesbek photo Certified heat seeker Chip Hearn is surrounded by sauce at Peppers.

Much of Rehoboth’s history is chronicled by the succession of restaurants that come and go - and it’s about to happen again. Next week, the long-vacant Camel’s Hump on Baltimore Avenue will come to life as JAM Bistro.

Owners Jeff McCracken and Mark Hunker will pay tribute to former proprietors Richie Shihadeh and his late wife, Marcia, by preserving essentials like the silhouette fence and the old canopy sign. JAM’s new menu will also include an Ode to the Hump, featuring Middle Eastern goodies such as baba ghanouj and lamb kabobs. What’s old is new again.

Speaking of history, aside from the Atlantic Ocean and “10 Minutes for 25 Cents,” there are few things more fundamentally Rehoboth than entrepreneur and all-around likeable character Chip Hearn. Bigger than life in most every way, this guy will sell you hundreds of bottles of hot sauce (all different), dish up ice cream with names like “Booger,” “Motor Oil,” and “Looks Like Viagra,” and feed you award-winning barbecue - certified in nationwide competition after nationwide competition.

A Delaware boy through and through, young Chip spent every free moment at his grandfather’s house (built in the ‘20s) on the ocean block of Olive Avenue. He worked at the family business in Wilmington, which in the early ‘30s covered a city block and included a baker, a candy store, a butcher and an ice cream parlor. When Chip’s father and grandfather consolidated all the stores into a single building, the word “supermarket” wasn’t yet a household word.

As a high schooler, Chip set out to find his fortune where Olive Avenue intersects the ocean. His first venture was a no-frills affair: a table on the Boardwalk from which he sold Italian water ice. These were the days when 17-year-old Dominick Pulieri himself was tossing pizzas at Grotto’s, and Tim and Tony Gouvas weren’t much taller than the counter at George’s Lunch (the current Louie’s Pizza).

Chip’s first Rehoboth storefront was a Dairy Queen located near the Boardwalk on the south side of Rehoboth Avenue. In the mid-‘70s, a larger space just a few doors to the east became The Ice Cream Store that he still operates today. The Hearn ice cream empire eventually grew to seven stores in Delaware, including the landmark Dairy Queen on Lewes Beach and several Tastee Freez franchises.

In the late ‘70s, Chip took over the Country Squire restaurant located in the space now occupied by Seaside Thai. Diners flocked to the Bloody Mary Smorgasbord and its famed collection of hot sauces. (A foreshadowing of things to come.)

In the mid-‘80s, Chip moved his operation to The Starboard in Dewey Beach, continuing the tradition of the do-it-yourself Bloody Mary. Loyal customers donated their favorite pepper sauces to the ever-increasing collection. They accumulated so quickly that Hearn started selling them out of a utility building in The Starboard’s parking lot.

When the first Peppers store opened, Chip was already a celebrity in the world of hot heads. His collection-gone-wild became the definitive source for everything spicy and pleasingly painful. He sold The Starboard in 1999, and since then Peppers.com and the current storefront across from Midway outlets have become mandatory destinations for chiliheads the world over.

Hearn’s pepper prowess extends to national barbecue competitions. He has appeared on “Good Morning America” and numerous Food Network specials, including Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown” and “Unwrapped,” and it’s no secret that Chip will do just about anything to charm a TV camera. Though the stakes are in the multi-thousands of dollars at national barbecue competitions, he can always be found smoking octopus, fruit and even ice cream to keep the cameras pointing at Peppers.

One of his funniest moments was his on-air explanation of the effects of the pain-producing pepper extract, capsaicin. He calmly described to the interviewer how the chemical activates pain sensors that alert the brain to send protective endorphins throughout the body. When they get to the mouth and discover there’s no injury, they apparently exclaim (at this point Hearn begins to wave his arms and speak like an endorphin), “Oh well, we’re already here, so let’s just have some fun!”

Pepper heads everywhere (including myself) are delighted to join in on the fun - and the pain.

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