Me and My Factory

Mexican food market offers spicy opportunity

- Last updated on GMT

Mexican food is proving a hot opportunity for Cool Chile Company
Mexican food is proving a hot opportunity for Cool Chile Company

Related tags: Tortilla, Mexican cuisine

Over a third of UK families bought or tried Mexican food last year, so it’s little wonder the Cool Chile Company’s sales have doubled since 2011, its chief operating officer Kelly Peck tells Nicholas Robinson.

Key points

We’re not a massive company, but we’re growing really fast, while making products that still represent what our founder first set out to do.

Dodie Miller founded the company in 1993 with the idea of importing and processing a wide variety of the best dried chillies direct from Mexico and to provide the UK with a whole new range of flavours and heat sensations for real Mexican home cooking.

I came here four years ago as the chief operating officer and deal with everyday operations such as finance management, dispatch and production at the factory. Dodie, who is also the director and is still very hands-on, mainly deals with new product development.

Getting into the food industry is something I’ve always wanted to do. I had my own catering business at one point and have also worked for Harrods International in its buying office.

The Cool Chile Co has more than 56 stock-keeping units, which range from chilli pastes and chipotle sauces to chilli-infused hot chocolates and traditional Mexican corn tortillas. It all started with the chillies and the chilli products. The corn tortillas came in about 10 years ago when we spotted a gap in the market: consumers were buying and eating Mexican food, but they were eating them with flour tortillas, which aren’t traditionally Mexican. Tortillas now account for 60% of our £800,000 turnover business.

Everything is imported from Mexico, which can cause problems. For instance, with the masa harina [corn flour], it’s not something we can buy overnight, so we have to ensure we forecast what we need. But that doesn’t mean we’re always right and we’ve had to dodge some bullets in the past. To put that into perspective, when we first started producing corn tortillas, we were importing 20t of masa harina a year, now we import that amount each month.

Corn tortillas popularity (Return to top)

Corn tortillas have become increasingly popular. We used to run the tortilla line five days a week and now we run it seven days a week. Last year we produced 150,000 of them and we have the capacity to make 3,500 an hour.

To make the tortillas, masa harina is added to a mixer with water and salt before being mixed for 20 minutes. The dough is then fed through the top of the tortilla machine before being rolled to a thin sheet and cut into discs.

The discs then go through six heated belts, come out, cool and are packed. We produce tortillas in 10cm, 15cm and 20cm varieties and they are hand-packed.

I think we’ve seen a rise in interest for our tortillas because they are naturally gluten-free, but also because pubs and restaurants that aren't Mexican are serving more Mexican dishes.

Before we started manufacturing tortillas, the company processed and packed chillies and various chilli sauces, rubs and pastes.

Sauce production is more labour-intensive than tortilla production. For mole, which is a traditional Mexican sauce, we have to toast our chillies, soak them and purée them.

We add the purée to other ingredients and toast them together. Water and vinegar is added and then the mixture is cooked out and puréed again. The hardest part of this process is toasting the chillies because you've got to get them to a point where they could burn them that's when we all start choking on the chilli fumes.

Making the sauce can be very pungent, but it's also aromatic; it’s kind of like Marmite and people either love it or hate it.

Investment (Return to top)

Investment in this site has been minimal. Two years ago we had a bank loan of £100,000 and we used some of that to make our tortilla production line better. The machine was housed in a unit on its own, but we brought it into the main part of the factory two years ago.

We invested in some food-grade walls and bought a conveyor belt so that the tortillas could cool better before being packed.

Some of that money was also invested in a tortilla chip cutter, which allows us to manufacture and pack tortilla chips. When the tortillas come off the belt, they’re stacked into kilogramme piles and then taken to the chipped.

However, they won’t be cooked because they’re for the end user to fry, which is usually foodservice companies.

That said, our next project is to try to find a manufacturer that can fry for us. We will make and cut our chips and another manufacturer will fry and bag them for us. This is something we would want to bring in house eventually but, at the moment, we haven’t really got the space. It’s also proving difficult to find a company to fry the chips at the volume we need.

We went to Kolak Snack Foods and our volumes were too low for them, whereas our volumes are too high for the other companies. Also, the majority of those we’ve approached haven’t fried corn chips before. They’re not the easy to fry; you have to lay them out to get rid of the moisture before frying them they're nothing like potato chips to cook.

Also, our business is very hands-on and whoever we contract to do the chips will have to work as closely as possible to that ethos. We have no plans to make our production process more automated either, as it’s very efficient and we like to be hands-on.

Future plans (Return to top)

There are plans to bring in a packing machine for the masa harina. We sell small bags of it for consumers to make their own corn tortillas with a tortilla press and at the moment we have to bag, date and label those by hand.

The business’s future hinges on expanding into more retailers and we plan on targeting high-end supermarkets with Mexican food kits to allow us to do that. We're targeting the high-end, such as Waitrose and Ocado.

We’ve created a new range of sauces and meal kits for consumers who want to cook Mexican food, but might be intimidated by it. The new range has a shopping list so that customers can shop for the ingredients they need to make the dish, which can be done in one pot. But we also have customers who want to try to cook something harder and that’s also where our attention will be in the future.

Find out how Cool Chile Company’s chief operating officer Kelly Peck overcame issues with importing ingredients from Mexico in our podcast.

Factory facts (Return to top)

LOCATION: 1 Enterprise Way, London NW10 6UG

STAFF: 19

PRODUCTS: 56 Stock-keeping units ranging from corn tortillas to chipotle sauces and chilli chocolate

CUSTOMERS: London-based Mexican restaurants as well as other foodservice outlets, independent retailers, Selfridges, Harrods, Booths and Wholefoods

SIZE: 5,000m²

TURNOVER: £800,000.

Personal

JOB TITLE: Chief operating officer

AGE: 39

DOMESTIC: Cohabiting

OUTSIDE OF WORK: My partner and I like to eat out and travel

BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT: Implementing new systems in my current role and growing the company's sales by 50% and then 100% since I started

ADVICE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF: Learn how to delegate from as early as possible, instead of trying to take everything on yourself. Try to hire a good team that you can trust and who are more than capable so you don’t have to say “yes”​ to everything.

Related topics: People & Skills

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