Talking to…. Johnny Hexburg

Bree Rek made contact with our first South African contributors, the guys behind Johnny Hexburg.

What is your real name?

We are a husband and wife team. Derek & Marihett

So that we can identify your products, can you describe your logo to us, is there a story behind it – how did it come about?

Our logo is a sugar skull. When we started working on our branding, we decided to go with a Mexican theme, because Mexico is known to have introduced hot and spicy food to the world. The same as us introducing hot and spicy sauces to South Africa. We started with the mild and medium sauce and a sugar skull [with a hat], when we started with the super hots, we changed the sugar skull to a more serious looking one.

How did we get to the name Johnny Hexburg: When our son was 3 he was into fishing and the outdoors. Give him a stick, a brick and a piece of rope and he could play for hours. He was [and still is] a Bear Grylls fanatic. So, whenever he was playing outside, pretending to be Bear Grylls or in the army, he always had his counter-part Johnny Hexburg with him. His army men was named Johnny Hexburg. His rock band was named Johnny Hexburg, everything was Johnny Hexburg.
When we asked him where he got the name from, he answered “I made it up”
This is how Johnny Hexburg became a household name to us and this was the inspiration of
the Johnny Hexburg hot sauce range. This is why we have a small photo of him on each bottle of hot sauce.

Tell us, what were the biggest challenges you faced to get your products/brand where they are today?

Not giving up. In the beginning, we were working markets and sales were not good.  Introducing a new concept of hot sauce to the community was challenging. The chilli-heads were far and few in between. The longer we persevered, the better it became.

When did you become involved in chilli life, were you born into it, or what did you do before? Where did your passion for chilli growing stem from?

Way back in the beginning we had a deli style stall at a prominent market. Selling all kinds of different deli related items, including a small range of hot sauce from a local supplier. His sauce did well. That prompt us to look at creating our own sauce. I mean you don’t for ever want to make money for someone else, right?

The passion for growing chilli started when we started doing research on the different types of peppers. When we discovered the world of peppers, a light bulb came on! We can make sauce.

Since that day, what major changes have taken place in the business and were they strategic, commercial or enforced for reasons geological, cultural, ethical, ecological, political for example?

There was such a huge gap in the market for unique and seriously hot sauces, we could not look past the opportunity to fill that gap. Our strategic move was to name each of our hot sauces according to the peppers we used to make the sauce. The variety of peppers / sauces expanded over time.

Do you know how many units you sell?

We have 14 varieties and we recently added 2 new varieties. We have not been keeping track of the volume of peppers produced, but the volume of sauce we make is astronomical.

During our winter months sales are always a bit slower. We produce and sell on average between 1200 to 1300 bottles per month.

Our seasonal months are very busy, we produce and sell anything between 2500 – 3500 bottles.

What is the most popular product you have?

Sauce – Mild range: Creamy Garlic and Caramelized Onion

Sauce – Medium range: Mozambican Peri-Peri and Chakalaka

Sauce – Hot range: All of them! We are one of very few people making super hots here in South Africa, but the only one with such a large variety. Our most popular super hot sauce are Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah, Garlic Ghost Pepper, Big Mustard Mama and of course Carolina Reaper.

Sweet – Vulcan [dark chocolate] and Ghost Pepper Fudge

Do you enjoy chilli yourself? Which is your favourite a) to eat and b) to grow?

Yes, I do.

  1. Chocolate Habanero
  2. Chocolate Habanero

Who are the people behind the company, tell us a bit about your team, who they are and what they do.

We are only two people in the Johnny Hexburg team.

Derek: Source business and taste every single batch of sauce made, to ensure the quality is perfect. To make sure the sauce has the same taste, flavour, heat and viscosity as the previous batch. [We make small batches almost weekly] Taste all the new raw peppers to understand the heat level and flavour, to represent that in the sauce we would be making with it.

Marihett: Creating recipes to compliment the flavour and heat of the peppers as it was determined when tasted by Derek. Chopping up the ingredients and physically making each sauce.

Both: Bottle the sauces, put the labels on and seal each bottle by hand.

All of this is happening in our home kitchen. One thing we pride ourselves in, is that we are not a commercial company. Our sauces’ colours may vary from time to time because of the fresh ingredients we us, but the flavour and taste will always be the same.

As a small home based business we are proud of our achievements thus far. We are in the Men’s Health Magazine, Khulula airline inflight magazine. We were selected to be on the judging panel for the Global Hot Sauce awards. Our Cannabis Sativa & CBD infused sauces where featured on a variety of media platforms as the first ever produced in South Africa. We introduced the first ever Hot Wing Challenge this year and this was also featured on a lot of media platforms. We were interviewed in a short segment on CGTN Africa.

Have you got any exciting plans for 2020, new campaigns, investment

Our plans for 2020 is to extend our plant volume to over 5000 units alongside our farmer, who by the way is doing an incredible job growing all our plants. We use to grow all our plants at home, and buy peppers from home growers, but in the past 3 years we have been expanding at such a rate that we could not keep up with demand.

We are busy working on a new hot sauce, let’s call it a novelty or collectors sauce. This will blow the socks off everyone by how it would look and taste. Something very gastronomic.

We just started a seed exchange group [on Facebook] to put South Africans in touch with each other and with overseas growers to exchange seed and to increase the growing and variety in South Africa. At the moment we are a small hot pepper community, but it is growing by the day.

Other than chilli, what’s your favourite ingredient to work with?

There is too many to mention! Fruit, spices, mustard, chocolate, fudge, sweets.

Have you got any funny chilli stories?

Our best laughs are at the markets. We have everything we make on display for people to taste. More often than not people would walk past and take a piece of chocolate, fudge, peanut brittle or nuts [the hot sweets we make], not taking note that it is right next to a big red “HOT” sign. The surprise on their faces is priceless when they realise they are on fire.

What was the last thing you ate that blew your head off?

FUBAR. I promised myself I would not taste it, because I know how hot it is! FUBAR is our extract sauce, and NO it does not taste like shit, no bad aftertaste. With only 15-20% extract in it, I messed some on my hands, not thinking twice I licked my finger. That was the end of that, I was on fire for about 40 minutes. The first 10 or so minutes I could not even talk.

There’s loads of amazing artisan chilli sauces out there (and some real mass-produced crap), which ones do you like and why?

We have ordered a few sauces from the US before, thinking they are artisanal, but in the end, they are all commercially produced. None the less, the taste and flavour of Thomas Toth’s Bacon sauce is our ultimate favourite. In all honestly we are yet to find a real artisanal sauce with no preservatives, no flavourings, no msg to blow our heads out the water. A lot of the sauce we have tasted often just burn and lack complete flavour. It seems some people think a chilli sauce should be just about the heat.

Have you fulfilled your chilli dream or are there more things you want from your products?

Isn’t there always something more a driving and devoted person wants? We do want to get our sauces into the international market. We are always looking at new products, new ideas to keep up with the times.

Do you have other flavours or ideas in the pipeline?

 Of course yes.

Briefly, where can we find your product?

www.johnnyhexburghotsauce.co.za

Do you visit any chilli festivals? Which chilli event is your favourite?

Unfortunately we are not blessed in South Africa with real big chilli festivals. But we always follow events on Social Media.

What advice could you offer someone wanting to make their own sauces?

Be original, believe in your product. Doesn’t matter how hard it gets, don’t stop what you are doing, just push through.

Has anyone famous ever tried your products, where did it happen and what did they think?

*The ambassador of Mauritius and his wife

*Sandra Prinsloo (local actor)

*Mark Lottering (local comedian)

*Grim House (local DJ)

*Neil Anthony (local TV chef)

*Barry Hilton (local comedian)

*Been in scene of a local romantic comedy, where they stopped and tasted our sauce

*Gareth Cliff (local celeb)

They all loved it.

Quick-fire questions:

Drink of choice?

D: Coffee

M: Sugar Free Red Bull

Fav meal?

D: Smoked Pork Ribs

M: Avo and cheese

BBQ sauce or Ketchup?

D: BBQ

M: BBQ

Fav Band?

D: Linkin Park

M: Queen

Fav Chilli?

D: Chocolate Habanero

M: Chocolate Habanero

Bottle or Jar?

D: Bottle

M: Jar

Korma or Vindaloo?

D: Vindaloo

M: Vindaloo

Romantic meal for 2 or big family feast?

D: Family Feast

M: Family Feast

Food festival or music festival?

D: Food festival

M: Food festival

Finally, if you could cook for anyone who would it be and what would you make for them?

Heston Blumenthal

M: Smoked Pork Ribs basted with a honey mustard, potato salad [baby potatoes, mayonnaise, condensed milk and sliced banana] homemade bread filled with onion, cheese and biltong

D: I don’t know what I would cook for a man of this standard