In 1994,when the husband and wife team Kian and Doris McRae made the first chilli on the balcony of a flat in the bohemian inner-city suburb of Yeoville, Johannesburg, they had no idea that it would become a global business.
Using a recipe for chakalaka, a traditional Zulu chilli sauce, and two big pots borrowed from their neighbours, they began to create what has become an award-winning product.
Working as a waiter in a Mexican restaurant to supplement his teacher’s salary, Kian started to take home empty tequila bottles in which they could sell their hot sauce.
“Flea markets are a great testing ground for new products,” he says. “We sold our products at the Rosebank flea market, as well as the Petticoat Lane flea market in Fourways.”
Soon the weekend flea-market sales exceeded his salary, and Kian abandoned teaching to go into the chilli business full time.
Operating from Kew in the north of Johannesburg, the Bandito’s crew have now also launched the Mama Africa’s range of chilli products, which are also widely available where Bandito’s sauces are sold.
A special recipe
The distinctive flavour of Bandito’s sauces come from their unique ingredients. Both the Bandito’s and Mama Africa’s range are made of 100% natural ingredients. All the products are preservative-free, have no contains no artificial colourings or flavouring and all the chillis used are home grown in South Africa.
The range includes three chilli-vegetable relishes, six hot sauces, two varieties of Jabula cooking sauce, pickled jalapeno peppers and mild salsa, and continues to grow.
The company has grown its chilli brand, experimenting over the years with different ingredients. “We use a combination of a variety of chillis, herbs and spices,” says Kian. “We are as natural as possible in the ingredients we use. People have the perceptions that chilli is just chilli, but really it’s not.”
In a bid to create more interesting chilli sauces, the Bandito’s Chilli Co have started blending unusual ingredients such as kiwi fruit, apricots, mint and rosemary into their sauces.
Because the buying public have a diverse tolerance for chilli, the products vary from mild to fiery hot, with an emphasis on flavour and quality.
Setting the world on fire
The Bandito’s range has received international recognition, already winning a number of significant awards including those for best range overall and best new product at the 1999 Sydney Fiery Food show. Also in 1999, the company won the best new product and best habanero sauce awards in Brisbane.
The range has done equally well in South Africa, winning the 2002 best product range overall, best product and hottest sauce categories at the South Africa Fiery Food Challenge.
Overseas, Bandito’s is sold under the Mama Africa brand name. “There are so many chilli sauce products on the overseas market that we just felt it would give us an edge to market an African product,” says Doris, who runs the export side of the business. “For this reason we created the Mama Africa brand.”
The Bandito’s duo have travelled the world, taking their products to global food festivals. Doris attributes much of their international success to their strong relationship with South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
“The DTI has been fantastic. If you have all your ducks in a row and your company is registered, you have all your paperwork in place and you have a good product, they definitely do give you the assistance to market your product overseas.”
Doris says the government’s role in taking their product to the world has been invaluable. “We have them to thank for where have come so far,” she says. “A small company like ours could have never afforded to have gone to hall those places.”
Over the years, the Bandito’s chilli products have been featured at the Sial International Food Show in Paris, the Anuga Food Show in Cologne, the Fancy Food Show in New York and the Food and Hotel Show in Singapore.
As a result of this exposure, they have built up strong business relationships in a number of countries.
Their exports started with a small venture into Australia in 1998, which has grown nicely. But their biggest international success is in Russia, where Moscow-based PBK Importers distribute their products across the vast country.
In Holland, the sauces are handled by importers Oil and Vinegar. On a smaller scale, Mama Africa’s chilli sauce is available in New Zealand, Canada, the US, Japan, Malaysia, Poland, Sweden, the UK, France, Germany and Austria.
Kian notes that the chilli sauce culture is also growing in South Africa. He says most consumers don’t really know how use chilli, so Bandito’s have posted creative recipes on their website for consumers to use. South Africans, he says, are starting to experiment more with their cooking, with the increasing influence of other cultures around the world, making the country’s cooking tastes more varied and creative.
This has been good news for Bandito’s products, as they can be used in several different ways – as a cook-in sauce or as a simple accompaniment to a meal. Kian says the company might even consider one day opening up a Bandito’s restaurant, if the right franchise partner came along. It would be a fusion-type eatery with a Mexican theme infused with a South African influence. Hmm, yummy …
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