During lockdown at the beginning of this year, most orders reaching Chimac restaurant on Aungier Street were through Deliveroo.
“You knew exactly what was going to happen every day,” says Garret Fitzgerald, a co-owner and chef. “It’s pretty monotonous.”
For variety, Fitzgerald began to sell the trio of sauces that he and his colleagues use in the restaurant’s Korean-style fried-chicken dishes.
In some ways, it was the perfect time to launch their sauces, he says, which include a Korean Hot Sauce, which has a gentle kick of spice, courtesy of its main ingredient, a red-pepper paste called gochujang.
The other sauces are a Sriracha Caramel and Korean BBQ sauce.
Due to Brexit, supply chains stuttered and Irish retailers were casting around to fill shelves, Fitzgerald says.
“Suddenly, you couldn’t get all these things, you had to get new things,” says Fitzgerald. There was a new focus on shopping locally as well, he says.
Fitzgerald isn’t the only person in the city to have sniffed an opportunity in the hot-sauce market. In recent years, at least four other small producers have stepped in to offer alternatives to Big Hot Sauce.
Says Fitzgerald: “I think that people want hot sauce, but also, people want to buy more artisanal products.”
In St Anne’s Park
Like the Chimac sauces, Ellie’s Kitchen hot sauces launched earlier this year.
Back in 2018, the Scarlet for Yer Ma range entered the market.
Meltdown Hot Stuff was born in September 2019. That same year, Sitto Z was also launched by Caoimhe McCarthy-Saïd and Ahmed Saïd.
Sitto Z, a range of hot sauces, was born out of necessity, said McCarthy-Saïd, at a recent Saturday food market in St Anne’s Park.
McCarthy-Saïd has been up since around 6am, packing the car from her home in Glasnevin with the day’s supplies.
Before she leaves for St Anne’s, she drops her daughter Ayeshah to Honest2Goodness Farmer’s Market nearby, where she’ll staff the Sitto Z stall for the day.
By 9:30am, Caoimhe and Ahmed are in position in St Anne’s. Lebanese and Senegalese flags hang from the red-topped marquee, and assorted Sitto Z sauces dominate the stall’s display. Mocked-up chillies, made of clay, are scattered around the table-top.
After 25 years working as a chef – in Ireland, Spain and England – Ahmed Saïd was forced out of work when he sustained serious injuries in a biking accident in 2016.
Launching the hot sauce business was a means of supporting themselves, says McCarthy-Saïd.
The sauces are influenced by the cooking of Saïd’s grandmother, Zainab Saïd. “Sitto” is an Arabic slang word for grandmother.
Zainab’s family emigrated from Lebanon to Senegal in the early 20th century, fleeing unrest. Saïd remembers enjoying her cooking on visits to her home in Dakar, he says.
“She was known within the area for her food, and for her ability to fuse Lebanese and African cultures,” McCarthy-Saïd says.
Sitto Z’s 12 sauces are inspired by Saïd’s grandmother’s recipes, with a twist of Ahmed’s own flair, she says. “It’s an outlet for Ahmed to put his talents into bottles.”
Sitto Z’s Venom sauce is hot and made with cayenne chillies and has a sharp vinegary taste.
Liquid Lava, Sitto Z’s most popular sauce, is based on a traditional Senegalese recipe, and is made with habanero and scotch-bonnet chillies.
It’s name comes from the sauce’s lava-like texture.“Liquid Lava is pure, blended chilli,” McCarthy-Saïd says.
And they made Dakar Peri-Peri to offer an alternative to trending supermarket peri-peri sauces, ditching preservatives for a more natural product.
They’ve lucked out on timing, McCarthy-Saïd says, they didn’t really twig that hot sauces were trending. “I’m lucky, I just hit the wave.”
Like McCarthy-Saïd, Ellie Kisombye, the founder of Ellie’s Kitchen Home Edition, also cites her family as a source of inspiration for her hot sauces.
In particular, their chilli cultivation in Malawi, she says.
Her most popular sauce is Smokey Lemon Hot Sauce, made with cayenne peppers and smoked rosemary. “You feel the fire,” she says. “It’s got this fiery taste.”
Ireland’s condiment market is dominated by five big players. According to figures from Bord Bia, Kraft Heinz, Unilever, Valeo Food Group, McIlhenny Company and Reggae slurp up much of the market.
Kisombye says that her sauces can stand up to the big players, like Tabasco – which is owned by McIlhenny Company – and the likes.
“These are big brands, but my sauces are a little small,” she says. “But they can compete – on the taste, they can compete.”
Kisombye says she thinks the hot sauce boom in Ireland follows the popularity of spicy condiments in the United States.
“Hot sauce is a trending thing among the younger generation,” she says.
As well as stocking her sauces in independent retailers around the city, Kisombye is working with a distributor to bring her product to more places in the UK and Ireland, she says, over the phone.
McCarthy-Saïd feels confident about the prospects for their business, despite the competition around, she says. “What [Ahmed]’s doing is completely unique, his talents are unique.”
The blend of Lebanese and Sengalese influences sets their sauces apart, she says.
Fitzgerald has faith in the market too. He has plans to move their sauce production operation out of the Chimac kitchen on Aungier Street to a dedicated space.
At the market stalls, McCarthy-Saïd often speaks to people asking for alternatives to mass-produced sauces, she says.
“If Frank’s RedHot Sauce is the dominant sauce in Ireland, [people] want something Irish-made that is similar to that,” she says.
Sitto Z is stocked in four shops in the city: Small Changes in Drumcondra and Inchicore, Bowls Healthy Eating in Raheny, and the Rialto Bridge Café.
But the core of their business revolves around weekly stalls in St Anne’s, Herbert Park and Glasnevin.
McCarthy-Saïd doesn’t want to rush any expansion. “The whole point of doing the markets is to find out exactly what the customer wants, what’s trending, and what’s going to sell in the shop,” she says.
A day after their stint in St Anne’s Park, the couple are back out, this time with the Sitto Z stall set up by the bandstand in Herbert Park. Regulars and first-time browsers stop by, as Saïd offers samples.
“People love meeting producers,” McCarthy-Saïd says.
Small-batch producers offer an interesting alternative to supermarket sauces, says Peter Bullen, who drops by. “They’re the things you’re not going to find anyplace else.”