Having lived in India all their lives, my parents missed it a great deal. They began attending their school reunions which gave them the opportunity to relive the good times with former colleagues and school friends. My Mum, in particular, loved attending these functions for a good gossip. My Dad always ensured she took a good supply of Brinjal Pickle and Hot Tomato Sauce and their arrival was always eagerly anticipated by all those who attended. It was usually my Dad who made them, using the much admired recipes of his mother, Gertrude.
My Mum died in February 1993 and Dad stopped attending the reunions as he found socialising a rather painful experience without my mother. This meant the supply of pickle came to an abrupt halt. In November 1997 my father died.
One day in early 2001, I was in a friends kitchenware shop in Southall and two ladies entered the shop. One of them asked him if he stocked "Opper Chatties". Oppers, are also sometimes known as Appam and, I suppose, they can best be described as a type of pancake. They are a very popular dish in South India. A "chatty" is the shallow clay pot in which Oppers are cooked. These pots have a concave base into which a fermented rice batter is poured around the edge. It accumulates in the middle, resulting in a crispy, lacy edge and thicker, spongy centre.
My friend, the shopkeeper, comes from Gujarat and had no idea what they were talking about. He was keen for them to leave shop so that we could resume our conversation. The ladies were about to turn and leave, when I remarked to my friend, "I love Oppers. I haven't had them for years". One of the ladies overheard my comment and looked back at me, obviously puzzled because I, a white guy, knew what she was talking about and the Indian man didn't. They kept glancing back at me, as they walked towards the door.
I called out to them "I was born in Bangalore. That's how I know about Oppers". They came back into the shop. "So was I," said one of the ladies and a conversation about Bangalore began. After a few minutes, one of the ladies asked my name, and when I said it is Chris Smith, she said " You're not Dolly Smith's son, are you?" I said I was and asked how she knew my mother. Her husband was waiting for her outside the shop so she called him in and introduced him. Although I didn't recognise him immediately, I vaguely remembered meeting him many years previously because, as we discovered during the conversation, his mother and mine had been the best of friends for over thirty years and I had visited her home frequently.
We spoke for a while about my parents and then one of the ladies said that she still craved what she referred to as "those wonderful pickles that your parents used to make" and which, sadly, were no longer available. "Do you make them?" she asked. I said I had never made any before, but I had the recipes and would attempt to make some for them if they were desperate for more.
When the pickle was finally ready and bottled, the labels looked rather bare with only the words "Brinjal Pickle" on them, so I added St. John & Dolly Smith's Pickles. They loved the idea and suggested that I continue using my parents names on the labels because it "sounded right" and had "a certain ring to it". I needed little persuasion and I am now delighted that I did because I feel that every jar I sell keeps their names alive. It has become my little tribute to the parents I love and to whom I owe so much.
Coincidentally, within a few days of this chance meeting, I received a phone call from a gentleman who was a school friend of my mother's. He asked, "I don't suppose your Mum and Dad left any stock behind, did they Chris?" I told him that they hadn't but that I was in the process of making some for the ladies. When he tasted the Brinjal Pickle he said it was just like my mother made which, as far as I was concerned, was the ultimate compliment. What he didn't know was, not that it mattered, it was almost always my father who made it. He insisted that I should attend the school reunions as everyone was missing the pickle. He was absolutely right. I started attending them for a couple of years but as these were annual events, there was insufficient business to make a living.
One morning I was sitting in Munson's Coffee Shop in Ealing, examining the label on a jar while I sipped my cappuccino, when the proprietor asked me if I would like to sample the contents. He gave me some on a saucer with a few bits of bread. He then asked me what I thought of it and in my usual, painfully modest way, I replied "Not bad, but I make better stuff!" His response was, "Let me try some and if I like it I'll sell it." I said I would bring him some, then forgot all about it the moment I left the shop. It was several months later, when I was driving past the coffee shop I remembered promising Pan, Munson's owner, a sample of the Brinjal Pickle. I took a jar in for him and the following morning he was on the phone saying "I love it, but you knew I would, didn't you? He bought 24 jars and then another 24 a couple of weeks later. I had my first retail outlet. More were to follow.
I began selling my products at speciality food shows and markets and soon started gaining a reputation for consistent, high quality pickles and sauces. I believe that this is by far the best way to create interest in a new brand as you have direct contact, face to face, with your customers and benefit from immediate feedback regarding the products. Fortunately for me, comments were always positive and customers were delighted to meet the person who made the pickles. This has enabled me to build an international client base and I have supplied pickle lovers from Australia to America, as well as many European and Scandinavian countries. I have also established long lasting friendships with people who were originally customers.
I would occasionally visit Spain for short breaks with friends, but for me it was always a working holiday. I would send over a small shipment by courier and when we arrived, I would collect the products before approaching bar and restaurant owners to offer them the chance to host pickle tasting events. They jumped at the chance, especially outside the busy tourist season. This meant I had free venues and, in return, they had dozens of customers desperate to relieve their burning tongues.
On one trip I was contacted by the presenter of the breakfast show on a local English radio station and asked if he could do "a taste test" on air followed by an interview about the products. After tasting a couple of pickles, not the hottest ones I must say, he mopped his brow and said, on air, "Bloody hell, I'm sweating!" I laughed and said, "It must be this beautiful Spanish sunshine, pouring through the window". The instant response was, "No it bloody isn't!" He then mentioned the name of a bar at which I'd be selling my products the following day and as a result, the bar was packed all afternoon. I think the owner loved me!
In 2005 "Old Nick" came into being when Nick, a friend of mine, suggested I should produce a hot chilli sauce. I had no recipe at the time, so I concocted one and made a sample batch of only nine bottles. Having been awarded a Bronze for my Hot Tomato Sauce at The Great Taste Awards the previous year, I decided to enter the competition again and submitted one of the nine bottles from this first batch. I was delighted to receive a Silver Award.
In 2008 I had a stall in the Fiery Food Festival in Brighton. One of the organisers approached my stall and asked me to go to the main marquee at the end of the day, to collect two awards. This came as a surprise as I had not entered any competition and when I mentioned this I was told that every member of the public who attended the show had been handed a a slip of paper with a number of different categories listed on it and they were asked to nominate their favourite products in each category. My Brinjal Pickle received the most votes for the Best Medium Hot Food and in the Best Hot Food section, "Old Nick" Scotch Bonnet Sauce reigned supreme. My company was the smallest participating in the festival and was the only one to receive two awards.
I hope this has been interesting and has given you an insight into my small business.
We are always looking for more high quality retail outlets in the UK and abroad, so if you know of any in your area please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you very much.