BanditoÔÇÖs Chile Co.

A hot prospect

From an experiment in its founder’s apartment to a global brand that looks set to grow still further, the success of Bandito’s Chile Co. is testament to the quality and flavour of its products, as Andrew Pelis finds out.

It is the subtle blending of ingredients that has propelled Bandito’s Chile Co. to become one of South Africa’s leading Mexican food suppliers, renowned for offering consumers an eclectic combination of flavours, mixing Mexican chillies with local African ingredients such as garlic and lemon.

As Africa and the rest of the world join together to celebrate next year’s World Cup in South Africa, Bandito’s hopes to maximise the opportunities that such an event presents. “Through our Mama Africa brands, we are certainly hoping to develop overseas relationships and the football World Cup offers us a tremendous platform to showcase our product range,” explains Kian MacRae, founder and managing director of Bandito’s.

The business was the brainchild of MacRae, who in 1994 was teaching English and PE lessons at a high school in Johannesburg. In the evenings he worked in a Mexican restaurant to supplement his income and it was here that he first developed his affinity for hot sauces. “I started to try out flavours in tequila bottles and began producing at first from my apartment in Johannesburg on a small scale to the home industry markets in the area,” he explains. “Operations grew slowly, from informal into the retail and food services sectors while we developed a range of mild, medium and hot sauces.”

Today MacRae’s company produces chilli-vegetable relishes, sauces, jalapeño peppers, salsas and nachos under the local Bandito’s banner, plus a range of Jabula cooking sauces under the wider-reaching Mama Africa brand. All products are preservative-free and contain no artificial flavourings or ingredients, the majority being fresh and sourced from small local farms.

“We offer roughly 15 different flavours and three types of tortilla corn chips,” MacRae explains. “The other side of the business is our home brands market. We produce four types of Peri-Peri for Pick n Pay as well as a salsa and pickle for the Woolworths brand in South Africa.”

Exports account for around 40 per cent of the company’s turnover, though this figure does fluctuate. “We began by taking our sauces over to Germany in 2001 and the Mama Africa name has grown since then, particularly in Germany,” says MacRae. “The key is to find good partners overseas and to establish a model that works well and can then be adapted to other countries.”

MacRae says that South Africa is already enjoying the benefits from the forthcoming FIFA World Cup, with demand for the country’s products on the up, particularly in Europe. “The momentum of the World Cup is good news for our Mama Africa range and we are aiming to create sustainable markets around the world as a result of this.”

With so much activity in the marketing sphere, MacRae is somewhat relieved that he no longer manages production on a day-to-day basis. Last year, 80 per cent of his business was purchased by Peppadew International, with the result that the manufacturing and labelling operations were moved to Peppadew’s factory in Tzaneen, in the Limpopo Province.

“My role has evolved from ‘jack of all trades’ to driving the business from a sales and marketing perspective,” he affirms. “I am effectively the only Bandito’s employee; however, I am a part of Peppadew and their set-up has around 130 full-time employees. They also have a spin-off in the local agriculture sector, which employs up to 3,000 workers during the busy season.”

Chillies are a seasonal crop; but some parts of the country are frost-free, permitting growth all year round. MacRae insists that using fresh ingredients is one of the key components of his recipes’ success. “Traceability is essential for our business and is a requirement for our European export market. In this day and age, food safety is very dependent on being able to trace the source of the vegetable but also on food quality. The Tzaneen site is already HACCP accredited and moving towards ISO.”

Peppadew has formed partnerships with around 80 local farmers and provides training on all aspects of commercial farming as well as ongoing technical support.

With Bandito’s being in the fortunate position of supplying to major retailers, the factory does carry inventory for its bigger customers but MacRae says this is the exception and operations are generally run on a just-in-time basis. Efficiency is one of the areas in which the business is striving to improve—with greater automation towards the top of MacRae’s wish list.

However, he has no doubt what constitutes the biggest challenge. “We now reach so many markets that we have to be very careful with language differences and the different legislation in each area. You have to be very sharp to ensure mistakes are not made.”

MacRae feels that combining traditional Mexican flavours with local ingredients to create an appetising array of gourmet flavours has set his company apart from its local contemporaries. However, he is always keeping an eye open for new opportunities and has just returned from the world-acclaimed Anuga trade fair in Cologne, Germany.

“We can manufacture anything: wet, savoury and vegetable-based, and we will look at any new sauce, pickle or salsa. We have plenty of ideas in the bottom drawer and take market research very seriously, never forgetting that our range is more of a luxury than a necessity.”

That last statement tellingly acknowledges the challenge of today’s global economic situation and the impact this has had on the business. “We have seen certain markets like our exports to Russia dry up,” MacRae says, “but we have weathered the storm and have strong brands both at home and with the Mama Africa label.”

International currency exchange rates provide further cause for concern but the onset of 2010 and the influx of visitors to South Africa for the World Cup brings potential new customers right to MacRae’s doorstep. “We have seen great interest already from Europe and aim to build on this by becoming the leading Mexican food brand in South Africa through Bandito’s.”

It is a vision that does not seem improbable—Bandito’s has indeed already come a long way since that first creation in MacRae’s apartment.