Chasing the burn

Clint Meyer
Clint Meyer

When Clint Meyer created New Zealand’s hottest chilli sauce company Fire Dragon Chillies five-and-a-half years ago it was an extension of a hobby. Now it’s a full time role just to keep up with demand.

Meyer had developed an addiction to tongue-searing chillies while travelling through South East Asia, and upon returning to New Zealand simply couldn’t find anything local that scratched the itch.

He resolved to rectify this, registering the name Fire Dragon Chillies and importing the seeds of some of the world’s hottest chilli cultivars.

Soon he was producing bottles of staggeringly powerful sauce and making waves in the small but growing community of New Zealand “chilli heads”.

“It wasn’t a big start or anything like that, it was just a passion for growing chillies and I decided to take it to the next level and make sauce for more people than family and friends,” he says.

Meyer and his family handle every step of production, from planting the seeds on their property at Waimamaku, near Northland’s Hokianga Harbour, to picking and freezing chilli peppers, then cooking and bottling the sauce.

“A lot of companies don’t, they buy their chillies in.”

Starting with just 30 chilli plants five years ago, his business has grown to roughly 1000 plants this season, double the number it had in 2012.

He expects to produce half a tonne of chilli peppers this year. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s all a matter of potency.

“It should give me a fair whack of those chillies considering they’re extremely, extremely hot, not to be messed with really.”

A chilli pepper’s heat is measured on the Scoville scale, which tells you how much of the pain-inducing chemical capsaicin they contain.

A jalapeno chilli, which most people would find pleasantly hot, comes in at about 5,000 Scoville heat units (SHU).

The strongest chilli Meyer grows is the world’s hottest, the Carolina Reaper. It clocks in at a scorching 2.2 million SHU, 400 times the strength of the average jalapeno.

So a little bit goes a long way, or it would if Meyer was making regular strength chilli sauce.

Instead, his chillies are cooked into the strongest sauces made in New Zealand, varying in potency from the merely hot to the truly eye-watering and appropriately named “Dragon’s Fury”.

If this sounds like something with limited appeal you’d be right. Yet despite continually increasing the
size of his operation Meyer sells out each season.

Part of the reason for that solid growth has been that the New Zealand community of super-hot chilli lovers has also increased steadily, a trend that Meyer has worked hard to foster by helping to run the New Zealand Chilli Forums website and the annual NZ Chilli Eating Champs, making him a fixture on the scene.

“I think more and more people are getting into it, and more and more people are being exposed to it, and once you start eating spicy food it’s hard to go back to the bland stuff.

“Chilli is addictive in a way as well - the more you have the more you need, and the more you eat it the more you can handle.”

Meyer was the first to import Bhut Jolokia seeds, which were the hottest known cultivar at the time, and the first in New Zealand to make a sauce with Trinidad Scorpions.

While it hasn’t been hard to import seeds into the country so far, he suspects the government is planning to tighten the rules.

“They’ve already done it for tomatoes, so chillies are probably not far behind.”

He’s not overly concerned, however, as he already has the cultivars here and can continue to grow them from the seeds they produce.

Currently he doesn’t export any of his sauces, as the rules around the kinds of kitchens which can be used for preparing foodstuffs are stricter for exported goods than local ones.

Still, he hasn’t ruled it out, and he keeps a close eye on the world chilli scene for ways of improving his own product.

New, hotter cultivars are frequently discovered, and growing techniques continue to be refined.

“You can make them hotter by stressing them out a bit, giving them the right nutrients and keeping them at the right temperature. They reckon the ones grown indoors are hotter than the ones grown outdoors.”

He also takes pride in experimenting with flavours in an industry that generally isn’t known for taste.

By making sauces year-round he doesn’t need to use vinegar to preserve them, meaning they retain their original flavours and allow for more variety.

Fire Dragon has been recognised internationally, with its Xtra Hot voted second best hot sauce at the recent Australasian Mr Chilli awards and its new Smoky Dragon Chipolte taking third place in the savoury category.

One of Meyer’s experiments during the Rugby World Cup also turned into a customer favourite.

He had intended to create a black product using soy sauce and dark chillies to tie in with the World Cup.

The resulting creation, called Bhuty Black Taniwha, outlived the cup and became a favourite, regularly selling out.

When it comes to the future, he says he prefers to continue producing a gourmet product available
online and from specialty stores than to ramp up production and try to compete on cost in the supermarket scene.

He estimates he sells half his product through his website and half through specialty stores such as Farro Fresh in Auckland, the spice shop Aji in Christchurch, and Moore Wilson’s in Wellington.

“I’m not trying to push it too hard, [I’m] just growing and progressively selling more each year.”

Will it fly? By Ken Erskine

Clint Meyer’s great advantage in growing his own chillies is that it provides continuity of quality and supply so that his product really is unique and exclusive to Fire Dragon Chillies.

The down side is of course the time and effort he must put into farming the plants - time he’s not spending developing new recipes and championing the brand.

Many entrepreneurs significantly underestimate the opportunity cost of their time and resources.

There is also potentially the opportunity cost for the land use, and the risk to the business of the crop being lost due to disease or other environmental factors.

On the whole, and without knowing too much about the rigours of growing fiery hot chillies, I would say it make sense for Meyer to grow his own key ingredients provided the time and effort overheads add up.

Fire Dragon could certainly have an addressable market overseas. Chillies and chilli sauce are a key ingredient in many international cuisines including Mexican, Vietnamese, Caribbean, and southern US “soul food” to name but a few.

The UK hot chilli sauce market was recently calculated to be worth over NZ$40 million a year.  There appears to be an element of addiction among fans of insanely hot chilli sauce and as a result it is a growth market.

However it’s important to understand which markets would be best to target.

Many entrepreneurs look to English-speaking countries as their first ports of call because they understand them.

This may result in either entering already crowded markets or missing better suited targets.

A thorough analysis and understanding of potential markets should be undertaken including insights into legal / safety/ manufacturing requirements, tax and duty implications in the market and back home, competitive activity and profiles, sector growth rates, distribution channels, and an understanding of the addressable market size.

If Meyer wants to attract investors it will be important to align values and expectations.

He will want people who bring both funds and expertise of some sort to enable to company to grow.

The first step would be to qualify if and why an investor is needed, what expertise or connections they have, and what the money would be used for.

Prospective investors will be looking to understand who Fire Dragon’s customers are and what the opportunities are to expand and grow the business.

They will also want to know what makes Fire Dragon and its team special. More experienced investors will ask about their “exit strategy” – how and when will they realise a positive return on their investment.

Ken Erskine leads the startup team at the Icehouse and is responsible for the Ice Angels.