Taking Hot Sauce from GI to the World
Chillies have always been a huge part of Chris Cullen’s life.
His mum was born in Fiji and lived there for 20 years, meaning curries and other hot dishes were often on the menu, which grew his love of intense flavours. “I was a chef for 15 years here and in Melbourne. I’ve always created my own hot sauce. It was just for my own love of spice.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Culley’s founder has built a successful Glen Innes-based business on the back of his childhood experiences, exporting hot sauces and a range of other condiments to the world.
The business has developed very quickly, since Chris started selling sauces at local markets in 2012.
“I’m staggered at how quickly we’ve grown. I never really planned it to be what it is now.”
The turning point was when a friend Mark who worked in the advertising industry dared him to give the business a real go.
“He came up with the original Culley’s logo and had some labels made up. He said, ‘here you go, do it now, you’ve got the stickers and branding’.”
Chris started small, with a stall at the Clevedon Farmer’s Market, followed by the Howick and Coatesville markets. That’s where he met the company’s general manager Louis Cottle, who started off helping Chris serve customers at those markets. “Most of our team have been with us for a long time, some from the beginning.”
The company had a growth spurt when Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) organised a spot for Culley’s at the Foodshow’s ‘Auckland on the Menu’ section in 2012.
“Thursday was the trade day, with buyers from all the big players and boutique stores around New Zealand. We had 10 enquiries, with six placing orders.” That’s when Culley’s started using the FoodBowl – an Auckland facility where emerging companies can do research and development trials, along with pilot and commercial runs of new products. It gave Chris the capacity to get his products on all New Zealand’s major supermarket shelves and start exporting to Australia. “I was in New York at a Hot Sauce Expo and I had a very excited Australian, Darren Gersh, calling me from up in the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales. “He’d tried our sauces while on a visit to New Zealand and absolutely loved them so much, he had to call me excited to get them into the Australian market. That was our first export order.”
Now the company exports to all parts of the world including the United States, Canada, Asia, Denmark, Russia and the United Kingdom. “There aren’t many places we’re not. We work through distributors in those markets. “It’s about having an awesome product, along with support from customers and distributors. We’ve just started air-freighting our products to Denmark and no sooner has it landed than it’s sold out. It’s really nice doing something at a global level.”
Outsourcing 80 per cent of its manufacturing and distribution allows Culley’s to focus on growing the brand. “Originally we were in Panmure at a storage facility. We started with one and ended up with five units in less than two years.
“Then we moved to a warehouse in GI and thought, how are we going to jigsaw everything in? Whatever we needed was always at the back.” At its current Morrin Rd site, where the company has just signed a lease extension for another three years, Culley’s still undertakes some manufacturing and distribution for certain clients.
Thanks to Culley’s success, Chris has been able to pay it forward by mentoring people starting out in the food business. “We’re there to help them connect the dots when they can’t see the wood for the trees.”
GI A GREAT PLACE TO LIVE
Chris Cullen doesn’t just think Glen Innes is a great place to do business. He lives in one of Creating Communities Limited’s developments in Glen Innes, alongside Tāmaki Housing’s state tenants, private renters and a buyer who purchased an aff ordable home. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The neighbours are awesome. One of them puts everyone’s rubbish bins out every week - it’s her thing. If I come back with some fish after being out on the boat, I make sure she gets some.”
Having a mix of state and private tenants living alongside private owners makes for a great little community in his street, Chris says. “People keep an eye out for each other. If you’ve left your garage door open, they’ll flick you a text. It works really well. If I shift again, I’d love to live in a similar development.”
Chris also makes sure to support Glen Innes businesses by shopping locally. “I regularly shop at Avon’s butchery and the Asian supermarkets in GI. People are quite complimentary about Culley’s when they approach me. “I love living and working in the area where I grew up and being able to play a small part in developing the community.”