The story of Conor Lyons’ ‘island inspired’ Rock Steady Food Company is much like the batches of hot sauce he and business partner Aaron Comerford concoct, just the right amount of luck, support, passion and timing were necessary to bring the mix together;
‘I always say that this would never have happened if certain things in my life hadn’t aligned. There was so much I didn’t know about when we started, like how to lengthen the shelf life of the product and make larger batches of sauce without affecting the taste. The whole journey has been a massive learning curve from the start’, he admits.
When he’s not busy whipping up hot sauce with Aaron, Conor works in Marketing for Cork Heritage Pubs. At night you’ll usually find him DJing in any one of them, playing everything from rock to indie, but reggae is the music that always appealed to him most and that passion extends to food and culture associated with the Caribbean;
‘I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m a white guy from Cork. I’m sure people are like, ‘What does he know about Caribbean food and music?’, but honestly I’ve always had an obsession with it. That’s why I visited Jamaica last year, to completely immerse myself in it. Everytime I’m in the UK I head straight to Brixton to do some record shopping, and then get my favourite Jerk Chicken, Goat Curry or Plantain Chips. It’s become a sort of ritual for me.’
‘When I started to become interested in cooking, naturally I wanted to make the sort of things that I like to eat. I love hot sauce and easily go through a bottle a week. I have a house full of it! The UK have an incredible selection. They have giant hot sauce conventions and specialist emporiums like the Brighton Chilli Shop that I could lose hours in, but there’s only so much you can bring home on a Ryanair flight, so I had to start doing my own thing’.
Looking back over the last few years, Conor says a few factors were key to getting his new business off the ground. Firstly, he worked in the hospitality industry and had easy access to kitchens, equipment, chefs, brewers and mixologists who could not only offer him space to work out of but impart their knowledge also;
‘At first I was just dabbling myself at home but then I started using the network and resources I had in front of me, which have been invaluable. One of those resources was my friend James, who is a now a chef in an amazing restaurant called Pilgrim in Rosscarbery, West Cork. He was living with me at the time and we became very immersed in food and cooking. He’d come home after a shift and find me in the kitchen in the middle of the night making sauce! He’d help me and tell me different ingredients and techniques to try out. My sister who works in Ballymaloe Cookery school has been very supportive too. It was great to have people who knew what they were talking about to call on in those early days. They helped me build a strong product’.
Cookouts & Cookoffs
Once Conor developed his hot sauce to a standard he was happy with, he started incorporating it into the food-offering at cookouts he was running in the summer months in Cork. The positive feedback made him realise he might actually have a viable business idea;
‘We run 5 or 6 cook-outs a year. They’re big 12 hour events, sort of Brooklyn-style block parties – lots of fun. I alternate between the decks and the grill at them. One time I brought along one of my sauces and people really loved it. That’s when I decided to start bottling it and give hot sauce a proper go as a business. Aaron got on board about a year ago. He’s studying Culinary Arts at the moment so it’s a good fit because, although I’m massively into food and surrounded by people who are too, I have no formal background in it, so Aaron literally brings that to the table.’.
As the company is quite small scale, all of the cooking, branding and packaging is done by hand, and although its a time-consuming process, Conor and Aaron keep themselves entertained;
‘Each bottle is made to the sound of reggae music. That’s 100% true and written on every bottle. We’re always banging tunes out in the kitchen, which makes the process really fun.’
The cook itself takes about an hour. Then the mixture is strained through a Chinois, a conical strainer with a fine mesh that the sauce is forced through to give it a smooth texture. From pot to bottle the whole process takes them about 4 hours.
‘There’s a certain formula to it. The deeper in you get the more you learn about the chemistry. Everytime we cook we learn something new and we’re continuously streamlining the process. At the beginning it took us 5 hours to do 20 bottles. Now we can do a batch of 100 much quicker. We’re bottling and labelling by hand so that takes time, but I like that it puts myself and Aaron squarely into the making process. It’s all done by hand with love.’
‘Fire in the Dance’, a medium strength sauce, is their mainstay product, using dry chipotle chillies from Mexico rehydrated in Rising Sons’ Handsum IPA. Their ‘Jamaica Me Crazy’ sauce, a sweet and fiery blend of Scotch Bonnet Peppers and Pineapple, is Conor’s favourite;
‘I think there’s loads of ‘blow your head off’ stuff out there that doesn’t have much of a flavour profile. I like to be able to taste the different elements in the sauce. That’s the approach we take in terms of spice level and combining ingredients’
The Cork Chilli Community
Aaron and Conor started out selling their wares at farmers markets in Cork and have found both local and global support for their product. The Cork Heritage Pubs Conor works for embraced it wholeheartedly, incorporating the sauces into their menu and selling it by the bottle behind the bar. Their biggest stockist in Cork is Mr Bell’s, a second generation spice merchant who have been trading in Cork’s historic English Market since the 1970’s. Though the community is small in Ireland, Cork has become a hotbed of production, with 3 very active companies based there, one being the very successful Rebel Chilli;
‘Cork is so staunchly independent. We support one another here and word spreads quickly if you’re doing something well’, Conor says, ‘I equate the Irish chilli scene here now to the craft beer scene 10 years ago, which has seen huge expansion. I think what we’re seeing is almost a pivot back to the kind of environment we had before the crash. People are supporting local, small operations again. They want to know the story behind the product they’re buying. That’s why it’s been so important to us to tell our story authentically’
‘We’re now one of about a dozen hot sauce makers at work in the country. It’s very new here so we’re all still trying to find our feet with it, but we help each other out. There are always emails flying around in our mailing group, from advising each other about issues or challenges we’ve experienced to inviting each other round to visit kitchens and chilli farms. Clichéd as it is, if it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t have gotten this far. It’s still early days for us but the nice thing about being small is we get to meet our customers face to face, get their feedback directly and even swap recipes with them. For now we just want to keep things as they are and continue to do what we do really well’.