The aroma in the Wild Country factory today is... mmm… roasting tomato, says owner Stephen Wilkinson with a smile.
“First thing this morning there were 140kg of fresh tomatoes being hand diced and roasted off with a little oil and seasoning in the oven and processed for chutney. I haven’t been in there myself today, but we’re all hands on deck when we’re needed. Chopping board on the bench and go for it.”
Wild Country started in 1995 by Stephen and Angelique van Camp. The couple met while working in marketing in Auckland and ended up working on the same project. One thing led to another, including a move to an 11ha lifestyle block in Waikato and a growing niche business.
Ruralco started selling their sauces through the Gift & Homeware department at the end of last year. One of the couple’s point of difference is not supplying supermarkets.
“We like supplying to places like Ruralco – they love taking our sauces because they’re different. Everything is handmade and as natural as we can get it and they’re perfect for popping into gift baskets.”
Angelique and Stephen make about 60 different small-batch products across their two brands, Wild Country and 362 Grillhouse. They supply more than 200 outlets including big names such as Moore Wilson's in Wellington and Farro Fresh in Auckland. Top-selling onion balsamic marmalata is exported to a food group in Singapore, a special brew of habanero mustard is made for Auckland chef Al Brown's restaurants and their gutsy 362 Grillhouse bacon jam has many loyal followers. It's brilliant with a burger, Angelique says.
"When you add a condiment to a steak or a sandwich, you give it another dimension. A ham sandwich needs mustard, cheese needs chutney and burgers need a sauce."
The business is based around food stores and gifting, supplying department stores such as Ballantynes, H&J Smiths and Auckland’s Smith & Caughey's.
“They often have pantry areas with chocolate from overseas, specialty lollies and quite English-orientated gifts before Christmas. People will fill a hamper or a basket with goodies with a gift,” Stephen says.
“We also supply hamper companies, for example, XYZ Promotions will tell us they want 100 of this or that to supply. The food stores range from specialty stores to butchers and wet fish shops such as Egmont Seafoods in New Plymouth or Deli-Ca-Sea in Palmerston North. These places are back in vogue and reinventing themselves. People care about where their meat comes from and ask for certain cuts. They want nice meat and something nice to go with it.”
The ideas for new sauces and chutneys comes mainly from personal experience.
“We travel and try to get our ideas from overseas. The New Zealand market is so small and we don’t want to copy. We try to take an ingredient and make it our own. Like last year we had chipotle products – two in each brand. Our bacon mayonnaise morphed into bacon ketchup and mustard.
“We take a new ingredient and see what’s happening internationally. We’re reviewing products all the time and sometimes repackaging or renaming existing products. A lot of time is also spent on labelling and food safety – literally everything you need to know is on the back of that label.”
Stephen says they love embracing new products, especially local fresh fruit. The business celebrated its 21st birthday last year by giving away trial bottles of black garlic sauce to its wholesale customers. It went down so well they’ve just released a new black garlic and truffle steak sauce.
From a dairy farming background, Stephen now works in sales, warehousing and shipping, while
Angelique handles production. Angelique has Dutch and Lebanese heritage and grew up in a family of food lovers and commercial chocolate-makers.
The beginnings of Wild Country was Angelique working with another woman producing infused oils and vinegars as a side line gift business.
“They were popular on people’s kitchen benches in those days,” Stephen says.
“Angelique had a contract to make those type of products and the business was growing to the stage where we would both finish work at our jobs and work at the business at nights and every weekend. I’m originally from Waikato and we were both keen to relocate out to the country so when the business grew to the point where it needed to relocate we jumped at the change for a total change of lifestyle.”
Five years later they gambled on going fulltime into condiment manufacture.
“We still had little bit of work in Auckland but the business very quickly became full time jobs for both of us.”
They found a lifestyle block with a massive shed that could be used as a warehouse, which saved them rental in Auckland.
“We relocated the warehouse and dispatched product from its new home straight away. We just carried on, but then the contractor making our product said we were growing too quickly for them so we built a commercial kitchen in the warehouse.”
It was a huge learning curve.
“We went from marketing and advertising backgrounds to being manufacturers and buying equipment and sourcing everything we needed really quickly. We went to auctions to buy stoves and pots and things and we were up and running. Obviously we’ve since become more sophisticated in terms of equipment and worked closely with the Waikato District Council and FoodSafe.
“We also come under the Food Safety Authority now, which is a lot more stringent. We are audited every year to make sure we’re good for export markets. It’s not a work-out-of-the-home-kitchen scenario. Our brand has evolved from that raffia-tied gift with wax seals to being a specialty food line. We encourage people to take the tops off and use them on their meals rather than sit them on your kitchen bench looking pretty.”
In early winter, the Wild Country crew can be found harvesting quinces from local trees and they’re also handy to a myriad of fresh ingredients including berries, tomatoes and figs.
Wild Country searches widely for flavour inspiration. Some recipes have been developed from family favourites and others have been inspired by research trips throughout the US.
Angelique jokes Stephen will sometimes have a hare-brained idea and she'll then do the painstaking methodology and microbiology.
"You can't just stick things in a jar."
“We work on new projects together but it’s definitely a case of me having the ideas and Angelique making it happen.”
Stephen says it has been a great business move for them. As he looks out the window over their lifestyle block, the view includes some quince trees, previously raided for the business, and a couple of young Hereford cattle.
“We finish some beefies but don’t eat our own beef. We’re fully stocked with everything from duck to venison to lamb… of every cut… we love food. We enjoy experimenting and cooking and entertaining and enjoying the good things in life. Of course it helps that we also have a condiment business on the side,” he says with a laugh.