Nick has watched his company grow from a cottage industry to an internationally recognised brand
Crane Brothers has dressed Nick Brown for nearly a decade now. As the brains behind Huffman’s Sauces, Nick has watched his company grow from a cottage industry to an internationally recognised and distributed brand. Ben St George sat down with Nick to talk about his experiences growing a business in the Australasian market, his next venture, the ambitious Cook & Nelson project at Auckland’s City Works Depot, and condiments of all kinds.
BSG: Tell me who you are and what you do
NB: I’m Nick Brown and I’m in food in its broadest sense, so I manufacture and produce a range of sauces and condiments under the label Huffman’s, but we’re also about to launch a curated food space under the label Cook and Nelson, where we bring together products like Huffman’s and a range of imported goods that all share a similar value set of being authentic, crafted, generally about the product before profit and not readily available on the market.
BSG: What initially inspired you to create the sauce in the first place?
NB: Well actually it was already around. When I got involved with Huffman’s it had been on the market for a couple of years and I was using it increasingly. It lived in my fridge, but I would go through a bottle a week and more and more and more. I actually thought it was an American product. I was looking for something food to get into and I was at a party and by chance I was chatting to a guy about another idea entirely and got introduced to Huffman’s as a Wellington-based product.
He introduced me to Nicholas Huffman, who I very quickly learnt is probably one of New Zealand’s greatest, if not least known, chefs. He’s worked with just about everybody I meet in hospitality. He’s held in enormously high regard as an incredible chef. After meeting with Nicholas I got involved with the company and things went from there.
BSG: What’s your involvement in the company now?
NB: I went full time [with Huffman’s] at the end of last year. I jumped into this business just as we were relocating to Auckland and just as we had our second child *laughs* so I took the totally irresponsible step.
I have two business mentors as guides. They were involved in growing their own company from the bottom up. It is now one of the largest franchises in New Zealand producing their own range of sauces, and has gone through the process of growing from a one-off outlet to over 60 outlets nationwide, so in terms of business partners they were the best people to have along for the ride. But essentially day-to-day it all rests with me. Nicholas is involved in developing the recipes; he is really the creative genius behind the business. My role is to help realise his vision in a way that is commercially viable in a market like New Zealand.
Interview: Ben St George
“It is now one of the largest franchises in New Zealand producing their own range of sauces, and has gone through the process of growing from a one-off outlet to over 60 outlets nationwide”
BSG: The brand started around 2010, and in that time you’ve just done that single product. What is the strategy behind that?
NB: There are a couple of reasons we haven’t done new products until now. One of them is, quite frankly, that it was a stunningly good product, with a very average company. It was a company built on a handshake and a word. Products were being stored in warehouses in exchange for sauce. We were manufacturing in about four or five different kitchens, but only when we were being allowed into them. The sauce was being strained by hand through muslin cloths. It was incredibly labour intensive, so initially when I got involved it was about strengthening the company, making it commercially viable so we could supply the market with confidence and that took a wee bit of time. Once we had geared the company up, we got into looking at where there were opportunities to add value. I didn’t see any reason to go to market with a product that was already available.
There’s no sense in doing yet another tomato ketchup or yet another mustard or yet another this or that. The hot sauce itself is really quite unique in that it isn’t just a hot sauce, it’s really more of a seasoning sauce, so it will work on, and with, everything. This sets the benchmark pretty high, and it’s made developing new products quite a challenge, but we have now got two new products that we are going to bring to market. One is a bloody mary ketchup. and the other is a sweet chilli.
“it’s really more of a seasoning sauce, so it will work on, and with, everything. This sets the benchmark pretty high”
BSG: You’ve got a lot of distribution in Australia, how are you finding the market over there?
NB: Australia was a deliberate thing. We were invited to go over to Australia, and I guess the surprising thing is that I found that to be a lot easier than New Zealand. Australia is a less congested market, funnily enough, and it has the volume, so the challenges over there are dealing with multiple distributors and the separation between major supermarkets and the independents. You’re kind of with one or the other. We’re dealing with the independents, and that means that you’re dealing with a lot of one-off operators, and there can be challenges around that, but we were very fortunate that when we went into the market we had a passionate foodie as a distributor - someone who specialised extensively in North American products, but had loved what we were doing and felt we were a good compliment to his suite of products. He was fantastic at driving the Huffman’s brand in market and we really built upon that. He’s got us into Singapore now, so we’ve got a toehold in the Asian market through him.
BSG: What do you think are some of the benefits launching a product with international aspirations in a market like New Zealand?
NB: I think it’s a great incubator market, because if you can survive in a place as small as New Zealand, then it’s a great place to build a business with international designs. For one thing you can’t afford to pay a whole load of people to do things for you, so you have to become an expert in everything yourself. I think that’s critical. To give you an example, I knew nothing about food manufacturing, especially commercial food manufacturing. My experience before I got involved with Huffman’s was what I like to eat and what I like to put with food and that’s it, but because I couldn’t rely on someone to do all that for me, I now know what tolerances are for our product as we look to evolve and develop. I understand the market because I am out there selling it myself to people. I meet all of our customers, I meet with all our distributors and all of our suppliers. I think from that point of view New Zealand is fantastic. It gives you all the grounding, and a 360 view on your company, that I don’t know that you would necessarily have if you started with a wider market and money flowed in straight away and you were able to pay people to do other things. I think it is great in that respect. The biggest challenge obviously is down to the volume thing. On the one hand it’s great because you can do everything and you are everything and you have absolute understanding of the market and your business.
BSG: Could you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with Cook and Nelson?
NB: With Cook and Nelson, we saw the opportunity to bring together a range of products that shared a similar value sense. We’ve got some world class products right here and we’re celebrating them all under that one roof. Through our journey of producing food we’ve met a lot of great producers, and we’ve developed a lot of relationships with businesses that we share a similar value-set with, for example Fix and Fogg peanut butter from Wellington, Joseph Slater of Six Barrel Soda, Andrea and Gabe of the Wellington Chocolate Company and Morgan of Bonnie Goods. These are people we’ve met in our journey, and talking with them we realised that there was an opportunity to bring together what we regard as the best in class. In order to generate some revenue we needed to diversify, so while Huffman’s was developing their own products, we saw opportunities for products that were doing very well in Australia, and which came out in America. McClure's Pickles in Detroit, Lillie's Q barbecue sauces which are influenced by the Southern States, and maple syrup out of Quebec, from some of the oldest maple plantations in Canada. They all share a similar value set and in bringing them over here under the label Cook and Nelson, we’re opening up opportunities in showing how they can be done.
Then there is the other side to Cook and Nelson and that’s the curation side. We have limited hours we’re open to the public, and it is by appointment only. We generally operate online, but I still think that touch and feel is kind of key, so we do have an aspect to that. Food doesn’t exist in isolation, it exists in a community, in a household. You share it, you talk about it. You only have to look at Facebook and the number of pictures people take of their own meals to see that there is this sort of ‘share’ thing. We’ve brought in a bunch of curators to select from our products what they love and to show us how they use them, but also to share something of their life and what they’re interested in. When you tap into this curator space you get a sense of who they are and what they are about and you connect with them through food.
I love the journey of getting out there and foraging the four corners of the globe to find interesting and exciting products. That’s where this all started from with Huffman’s. We started with a product that you don’t use in its traditional sense. It surprises you and it continues to surprise me with its applications and I think that’s what food should be about. I like the idea that a jam can bring together earl grey and damson plum or something; that it throws you from left to right.
BSG: You have plans to open up a retail side to that in the future?
NB: We’re already starting that project. It will have limited hours, through our site which is on the corner of Cook and Nelson Streets in the City Works Depot. We’re the green warehouse building. Look for the roller door and inside you’ll find coffee and the shop for our food. That’s opening soon, and you can go anytime by appointment. We’re not a shop for a shop’s sake, we’re about food discovery and having a passion for food.
Visit Cook and Nelson to find the full range of artisan products including Huffman’s Crafty Sauces.