Ronnie Lottz attributes his success to the firmly held belief that "everyone's got one friend, uncle, or relative who likes hot shit." The 31-year-old Lottz operates Cigars and Stripes in Berwyn, a funky little wood-paneled storefront that serves as a combination clubhouse, cigar shop, and hot sauce dealership, with a small motorcycle museum thrown in for good measure. Bottles of hot sauce and giardiniera line the walls, labeled with dark monikers like Sudden Death. But Lottz keeps his real prizes in "the Saucerator," a refrigerator painted with huge flames, and he challenges customers to prove their machismo by sampling his wares. "I've got hot sauce that'll make Mexicans cry!" he says, unleashing a full-throated laugh. "I got one called After Death. The sales pitch is, 'If Satan's dog took a shit on your lawn and had razor blades in it, it would taste like this.' But people line up to try it and see for themselves."
Lottz's personal brand is called Lottza Hottz. Its ghastly variations are mass-produced from his own recipes in a North Shore factory. Though he stocks 80 varieties of cigars in a special room, he says his sauces bring the highest profits.
The store's eclectic character grows naturally out of Lottz's lifestyle. He's managed a Czechoslovakian wrestling duo, designed posters for local metal bands, and produced two feature-length movies with filmmaker Vito Brancato--all the while etching skulls, pot leaves, and other designs into the chrome bumpers of bikes and roadsters from all over the area. "Life is too short not to do anything you're wanting to do," he says. "Life's worst enemy is the guy who gets up and does the same thing every day and eats lunch out of a bag. I say do it all. You might like doing something better, and why do something you don't like?"
Lottz's grandfather emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and first earned his living in America as a wrestler. After high school Ronnie managed a local band called Mental Cruelty but found himself following in his grandfather's footsteps when the group's members couldn't stop fighting among themselves. "These were three guys who weighed a total of 750 pounds who were always beating on each other," Lottz recalls. "I said, 'Let's just nix the hopes of getting anywhere with recording and take our act on TV as wrestlers.' We got on TV a lot, but they didn't want to keep up with the training they needed, so they split up and I kept finding other wrestlers to manage."
Soon Lottz was crisscrossing the south with a bizarre assortment of wrestling teams. The most prominent was a pair of Czechoslovakian brothers called the Dream Warriors, who abandoned their tour after their southern opponents started inflicting real damage on them. Next, Lottz says, he traveled the Japanese circuit with a group called the Untouchables; they quit after one member was smacked in the head with a chair and another fell in love and decided to take his sweetheart to the U.S. But while Lottz's teams were getting killed in the ring, he was making a killing outside in the lobby.
"If you're a good-guy wrestler, you get to sell your merchandise like T-shirts after shows," he explains. "I was a bad guy's manager, so I just sold giardiniera. In the old southern circuit, they're churchgoing people, and if you're bad, you're bad. So they bought my peppers just 'cause they hated me. I came back every Monday to Memphis, Tuesday in Louisville, and so on through Mississippi and Arkansas towns, because while good guys could sell an autographed photo once, people could always use more giardiniera."
Lottz's real dream is to produce and perform in feature films. He hooked up with Brancato when the filmmaker was producing a local wrestling show on cable called On Edge With the Razor. Brancato saw that Lottz had a knack for publicity and asked him to help publicize a film version of the show. The project never found a distributor, but Lottz and Brancato tried again; in the mob film The Deal, Lottz played strip-club owner Artie Gold, a part that called for him to yell and throw shoes at strippers. This time Lottz and Brancato managed to win foreign distribution, paving the way for their current project. "We've got $2 million lined up for our third film, called Before Dallas, where we imagine a failed assassination attempt on Kennedy in Chicago," says Lottz. "This time around we're talking with people like Harvey Keitel, 'cause who can turn down $200,000 for a week's work?"
Cigars and Stripes has become a networking center for an odd array of people: filmmakers, rockers, and motorcycle enthusiasts come to inspect Lottz's "big-ass smoking cigar," a bizarre contraption assembled from building insulation, a fog machine, and the exhaust pipe of a Camaro. At Halloween Lottz displays an eight-foot mummy, and on summer nights he rolls out his collection of 50s motorcycles for the dragsters who still dream of American Graffiti nights. As sunset falls and the lights come up on Ogden Avenue you might think you're in another era. Ronnie will sit out front until midnight, waiting for people to challenge him to another round of macho madness.
"I'm a little guy," says Lottz, "five-three, and one day a huge guy came in and said, 'Gimme the hottest sauce you got.' I said, 'We don't do that because we don't want to hurt you,' and he said, 'Fuck you,' so I gave him a bottle of Mad Dog's Inferno Sauce, which is so hot we keep it behind the counter. He takes a swig and says, 'Aww, that's fuckin' hot!' Blood starts running out of his nose, starts dripping down to the floor, and he runs to the bathroom. He then jumped in his car, but he brought back a 12-pack of beer, holding his nose and saying, 'Let's have a beer, guy. That's fuckin' hot.' That's how you make the friends, man."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.