Fire in the belly

EditorNews Make a Comment

To mark the end of summer each year a festival is held in the Far North fishing port of Mangonui. Local producers display and sell their wares, business houses arrange water sport contests and the last of the summer tourists marvel at the range of produce. Well-known local hot sauce maker Garry Sommerville has attended three times now with his famous chili sauce Kaitaia Fire and associated products.

“Garry, has always fancied himself as a marketer and ad man,” says writer Bryan Staff, another Far North local (and long-time friend). Sommerville works without an ad agency, or any professional marketing assistance.

“He is the wit behind the global warming gag on his banner,” Staff says. “Half of these chili products go to the major supermarkets and better boutique stores around NZ and half to stores offshore.”

Kataia Fire is No 2 in the NZ market (behind a sweet chili sauce loaded with chemicals that is imported from Thailand) and a significant seller globally. Its main competitor, however, is and has always been Tabasco from the USA.

Kaitaia Fire was established in 1989 on Sommerville’s organic two-hectare farm at Lake Ohia at the base of the Karikari Peninsula, 20 km north of Mangonui.

This Kiwi’s enterprise is some achievement – personally creating and cooking up a new chili sauce formula in his home kitchen, and developing it into a globally successful 100% NZ business.

We expected a “bugger off” – but Sommerville (who signs his emails ‘Warmest Regards’) readily agreed to answer our questions …

Did you build the brand primarily by consolidating support in your home district – the Far North?
We did have a lot of support initially from the North, but the kind of support they offered was not as useful as the financial prop we got from retailers in the big smoke.

Do you personally handle all marketing?
Yes. We have tried taking on various marketing people over the years, but their commissions and charges never equalled the increase in sales they promised. I guess that’s the danger with professionals, they talk such a good talk, but promises don’t pay the rent.

Do you still buy from local growers?
The majority of our growers are in the Far North, mainly on Karikari Peninsular, where we offer a viable and legal alternative to the growing of marijuana.

Do you still grow yourself?
Unfortunately I am too busy/tall/old/sensible to grow my own.

Where do you make Kaitaia Fire?
The chilies are processed into barrels at Lake Ohia and shipped to our registered kitchen in Glenfield, Auckland, where they are bottled, labelled and packed into cartons.

We have one part timer in the north mincing peppers into barrels and five workers doing the Auckland thing

Where do you get your bottles?
The bottles are made in Surrey in the UK and they come from a bottle wholesaler in the UK. We tried other countries, notably Italy who had beautiful stuff at hugely inflated prices. For a while we were also sourcing them out of India, but I couldn’t figure out how come their bottles, the same volume as the English ones, were about 10mm shorter. Then the claims started coming in for breakages. They were simply thinner walled and not as robust.

Sales in NZ and offshore? A 50/50 spread?
We send sauce around the world from our website sales, and have sent sauce to places as diverse as the North Pole and Antarctica. Most of the web sales predictably go to USA where they know a fine hot sauce when they taste it.

Our biggest offshore export markets are the USA and China (where they put our Waha Wera kiwifruit habanero sauce on ice cream!) and we also send pallets of the sauce to the UK, Holland, Japan, Canada and Awestruckandfailure.

Total sales have improved every year since we began and now exceed $1,000,000 a year.

Where does KF rank in the NZ hot-sauce market?
When we began Tabasco was the only other hot sauce available and they remain our biggest competitor. Over the years we have seen a number of local sauce manufacturers start up, but eventually they fall over when they realise that there is no easy road to hot sauce riches and we have been around for so long that there is no fat in our business at all and our costs are trimmed to the bone.

We actually welcome these startups as they do tend to get people into trying hot sauce, who otherwise might not, but we are confident that our taste is superior to anything else out there.

And when you get right down to it, taste is king.

Has the recipe changed from the one you developed many years ago in your kitchen up north?
The only change to the original recipe has been an increase in the percentage of habanero peppers we use in our brew – to reflect the desire for a hotter sauce as the general public becomes more cosmopolitan and willing to push the antelope of taste.


Share this Post