Orcona Chillies'n'Peppers

August 2014

An electrician and a foodie have begun a business with chillies and capsicums

Orcona Chillis’n’Peppers is a successful Hawke’s Bay food company growing chillis and peppers and manufacturing them into chilli-based relishes, sauces and infused oils. In 2011 they won a Cuisine food award for their Tunisian style harissa paste. 

Anne Prescott, a foodie, and Kevin Baker, an electrician, bought Orcona in 2005. Anne, who had been running a café in Napier for five years, was looking for a new challenge and wanted to be self-employed.

It was a busy start for the couple, who were new to horticulture. And while looking after the chilli plants meant they had to learn lots of new skills, they had the benefit of inheriting the recipes developed by the previous owners. Kent Baddeley, a local chef, had also been working with the business since its inception in 2000.

Their property covers 0.6ha with 1500 square metres under cover, one third of this area is glass and the rest is plastic. They employ staff for 30 hours a week to look after growing the plants, while Anne concentrates on sales. Kevin has an off-site job for 30 hours a week, but the rest of the time he looks after maintenance of the greenhouses and specific tasks such as fertilising the crop.

Chillis belong to six basic families with 185 naturally occurring varieties and hybrids. To avoid growing any product that is not true to type, Anne imports fresh F1 hybrid seed every year from the US.

At Orcona, around 18 different varieties of chillis and capsicums are grown. Varietal mix varies depending on customer demand and seasonal variation, but hot favourites at the moment include Jalapeno and Cayenne. Habanero chillis are grown for sauces, and Scotch bonnets are being grown for a celebrity chef.

The plants take about 12 weeks from sowing to planting out at the beginning of October. They are trickle-fed in a semi-hydroponic growing system. It takes another eight weeks before the plants start fruiting in December, but this is weather-dependent.

They don’t grow chillis during winter, as heating is expensive, although they do have electric heaters in the greenhouses, which they use if necessary during cold spells.

One of their customers, a restaurant group, wants to buy their chillis throughout the winter. So recently they re-floored one greenhouse with a shingle gravel mix and a fine layer of polystyrene strips as an experiment to see how the plants might be encouraged to grow during winter.

First grade fruit is mostly sold fresh, and seconds are used for processing into sauce, relish, pickles, paste, flakes or dried products. Orcona produce a range of 30 different products, and all are “pure”, with no tomato, bulking agents, colours, flavourings or preservatives added.

Processed chilli is sold year round and fresh chillis are sold for 10 months of the year. The fresh market is an important part of Orcona’s business and they are at the Hastings Farmer’s Market every Sunday morning.

Their chillis are also available throughout the country in delis and high-end shops, and often sold for food service direct to chefs. They are also available in a couple of supermarkets, as well as high-end grocer Moore Wilsons in Wellington.

Anne says chillis release endorphins and make whoever eats them feel better – giving them a “chilli grin”. They are also high in Vitamin C. And they are very cheerful to work with because they are so bright and colourful. “It’s like picking a Christmas tree every day.”

When they began making sauces and relishes, they bought 300 bottles at a time, but now sales have increased they are buying in lots of 3,000.

They also contract out three or four sauce products to a factory, a process that has also been a steep learning curve for Anne. “It’s a whole big step up. In a day they can make what it took me two weeks to make in our commercial kitchen. And it’s a challenge for me letting go of total control of the product, but it’s part of growing the business.”