Mr VegHead says...

Vegetable musings from Sea Spring Seeds
21
Mar

Goodbye fresh chillies

Growing Dorset Naga for seling as fresh chillies with Peppers by Post

Michael and Joy Michaud inspecting their Dorset Naga crop in 2008.

Since 1994, Joy and I have been growing and selling fresh chillies through the post. Though it has been a profitable enterprise, we have reluctantly decided that the 2015 crop would be the last one. After more than two decades of flogging chillies, I am naturally in a nostalgic mood; so indulge me while I look back on our history.

In the early 1990s, Joy and I were  market gardeners trying to make money from nursery-fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbages. Fed up with working long hours for little pecuniary reward, in 1994 we switched to growing chillies in the polytunnels that had already been erected on our land.

The switch to chillies was made at the suggestion of Dodie Miller, the founder of the Cool Chile Company. A trusted friend, Dodie was an early importer and supplier of dried chillies and Mexican foods in the UK. She used mail order as one of her marketing tools, and it was her idea that we, too, use the post to distribute our fresh product.

My reaction was immediate and decisive: what a stupid idea. Joy and I had little experience growing commercial lots of chillies, there was no precedent for selling fresh vegetable through the post, and besides, how much demand would there be for chillies anyway? Dodie and Joy, however, prevailed, and I eventually succumbed to their bullying tactics.

Michael Michaud looking at the chilli crops.

A very young Michael in 2007 inspecting the Anaheim chillies.

Once we adopted the idea, we established a new business and called it ‘Peppers by Post’. Though producing our own chillies came easy, selling mail order was new territory for us, and we weren’t exactly sure how to get started. Many of you probably don’t remember, but 1994 was many years before SEO, websites and e-mails were the norm.

Chilli plants growing in a polytunnel.

A polytunnel and another behind with a chilli crops for fresh chillies for Peppers by Post. At its height we were growing chillies in ten polytunnels.

Once more, Dodie came to the rescue. Because we didn’t know many people in the business, she generously included our catalogue with hers in the annual mail-out she made to her customers. To draw even more attention to ourselves, we also snail-mailed press releases to a select number of food journalists in the hopes that they would write about Peppers by Post. A few did, most notably Richard Ehrlich for the Guardian and Brian Glover for Homes and Gardens, and that’s how we got started.

Range of fresh chillies being sold by Peppers by Post.

The range of fresh chillies on offer by Peppers by Post: Thai Hot, Poblano, Spanish Fryer, Jalapeño, Whippet’s Tail, Cherry Bomb, Serrano, Hungarian Hot Wax, Dorset Naga

 

To satisfy the various culinary contingencies a cook was likely to encounter, we offered a range of 11 spice and vegetable types of chillies, including poblano, Anaheim and serrano. Several of our chillies were Mexican, so tomatillos, too, were added to the mix.

Hungarian Hot Wax chilli plants ready for a harvest

Hungarian Hot Wax chillies were always very popular among Peppers by Post customers.

Chilli plant var. Orange Habanero is very high yielding.

Until we started selling Dorset Naga, the hottest chilli we sold was Orange Habanero.

A harvest of Charleston Hot chillies

We sold Charleston Hot, a very attractive and very hot cayenne chilli, for a few years.

 

Initially, Peppers by Post wasn’t a romping success, and it took about 3 years before we made a profit. Since the tomatillos and most of our chillies were unfamiliar to British cooks, we spent a great deal of our time explaining what they were and how they could be used in the kitchen. The start-up of West Dean’s Chilli Fiesta in 1995 boosted our profile enormously, and it has since become an important venue in terms of meeting our customers and plying our wares.

Peppers by Post stall at the Chilli Fiesta

Our stall at the Chilli Fiesta at West Dean in 2000. At that time the festival was still quite small and the stalls were in the potting sheds.

Fresh chillies for sale.

Selling fresh chillies at the Chilli Fiesta in West Dean in 2004.

 

The catalogue remained more or less the same for about 10 years – the biggest change came when we substituted orange habanero with the brand new Dorset Naga, a new super hot chilli developed from a selection of naga morich chillies we found in a Bournemouth Asian shop.

Michael Michaud in the Dorset Naga crop

Michael in the Dorset Naga crop in 2005 just after receiving the SHU result and learning Dorset Naga was the hotttest chilli in the world.

We sold Dorset Naga in retail packs and as a wholesale crop for shops and sauce makers.

Dorset Naga crop just harvested for a wholesale order. We sold Dorset Naga in retail packs and as a wholesale crop for shops and sauce makers.

 

Developing the Dorset Naga fundamentally changed our business. When news of its existence first came out, it took the chilli world by storm – within 24 hours, we were getting phone calls and emails from as far away as New Zealand, Zambia and the States. Though we expected the sales of fresh fruit to skyrocket, we were completely surprised by the demand for seed – it was so huge, we began producing our own and supplying them in retail packs.

We then started a second company that eventually became Seed Spring Seeds. It became the retail outlet for seed of the Dorset Naga, though we added more chilli varieties (we currently offer seed of 68 chilli varieties) as well as a full range of vegetables that include tomatoes, lettuces and Oriental leaves. Shortly thereafter, we set up Sea Spring Plants and began marketing our own-grown chilli plants – including the Dorset Naga – through the post.

Dorset Naga chillies and Apero tomatoes seed packs

Sea Spring Seeds seed packs of Dorset Naga chilli and Apero tomatoes

Growing fresh chillies, running a seed company and producing plants meant that we were struggling to find not only enough time in a day but also enough space in our polytunnels. Consequently, we gradually began upsizing the seed and plant parts of our business and downsizing the fresh chillies in order to increase efficiency and profitability.

Even then, time and space were still limited, and in 2015 – after 22 years – we grew our last commercial crop of fresh chillies. Though it was a difficult decision, the success of our business comes first, and we now want to focus more on selling seeds and plants as well as breeding new chilli varieties. We had a great run, but this is the right moment in time to move on, learn lessons and take up new challenges.