How a South African chilli sauce company broke into the American market

Rozelle Abramson

Rozelle Abramson

Interview with Rozelle Abramson

Lives in: South Africa

Fynbos Fine Foods started in the kitchen of co-owner Rozelle Abramson. Today, the company produces a range of hot sauces, pestos, chef salts, and jams that are sold worldwide. Jaco Maritz talks to Rozelle about building the business.

The interview covers the following topics:

  • How a large order from an American retailer rescued the company from the brink of collapse
  • The importance of a diversified customer base
  • Navigating the export market
  • The crucial role that attending international trade shows has played in Fynbos’s growth
  • Private label partnerships vs building one’s own brand
  • Dealing with electricity and crime challenges in South Africa

In 2010, in the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2007-09, South African food company Fynbos Fine Foods found itself grappling with declining demand. The crisis severely impacted consumer spending on discretionary items, and the company’s range of gourmet hot sauces and food flavourings was no exception. It nearly led to the collapse of the business. In response, Fynbos had to make tough decisions such as asking its staff to work reduced hours, avoiding layoffs.

During this challenging time, Julian Abramson, the company’s co-founder, attended the SIAL trade show in Paris – one of the world’s largest food industry events – in hopes of securing new clients. It was there that a representative from a major American retail chain discovered Fynbos’s chef salt and habanero sauce. Remarkably, before Julian even returned back to South Africa from the show, Fynbos had received a substantial private label order for approximately 70,000 units from the buyer.

Rozelle Abramson, who took over the company’s reins following her husband’s retirement, recalls the deal provided Fynbos with a lifeline.

The company was then faced with the daunting task of fulfilling such a large order. Sourcing enough glass packaging was a particular challenge. Previously, Fynbos had been accustomed to picking up boxes of glass from its supplier; now, the demand had escalated to pallets. It struggled to persuade the glass supplier to provide the necessary quantities and to lower its prices for such a large order. After extensive negotiation, an agreement was reached. However, when the pallets of glass finally arrived, the Fynbos team had to manually unpack them, as the company, at that stage, could not afford the luxury of a forklift.

“Sometimes you just need to take a fat chance and not think, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to produce this?’ says Rozelle, reflecting on that time.

Today, with over 100 permanent employees, Fynbos continues to supply the American retailer and various other clients globally and within South Africa. Annually, the company produces about 4.4 million units of hot sauces, pestos, chef salts, and jams, with exports comprising roughly 70% of its production. Fynbos has capitalised on the global trend toward healthier foods by offering products free from preservatives, colourants, and additives.

Venturing into farming

Julian and Rozelle first met in their late teens in South Africa. They reconnected in Canada, where they both relocated – he as an employee at a farming company and she as a teacher. In the mid-90s, prompted by Rozelle’s father’s illness, she decided to return to South Africa. Julian had recently purchased a farm 63km outside Cape Town in the Tierfontein area, renowned for its high-quality water.

Starting with bell peppers and chillies, the company initially supplied produce to a single supermarket. It was during this time that Julian and Rozelle learnt a crucial business lesson: the importance of a diversified customer base. One time, after delivering their produce, the supermarket’s buyer unexpectedly refused to pay the previously agreed price, justifying the lower rate by pointing out the increased availability of peppers. The Abramsons refused to accept this reduction; they loaded the peppers back onto their truck and left.

“You need to have a lot of different, even smaller or medium-sized stores. If you just supply one retailer, they’ve got you. They think that … if they say ‘we’re not paying you the price that we promised’, you have no other recourse but to say ‘fine’. But we were not accepting that … We found lots of smaller people to supply and it was much safer,” Rozelle comments, highlighting the strategic shift towards a more diversified client base.

Bottling the harvest

Faced with retailers’ demand for only symmetrical peppers, Fynbos was left with a surplus of perfectly good, yet unsellable, produce. Determined not to let these peppers go to waste, Rozelle created the company’s first processed product in 1997: chilli ginger jam. This recipe of peppers, chillies, and ginger, cooked into a jam, was made right in her home kitchen, with each jar labelled by hand.

The lineup soon expanded to include marinated sweet peppers and sliced jalapeños, products Fynbos continues to produce to this day.

One of the first major clients for the company’s new bottled products was the deli chain Melissa’s, which has since closed down. The company benefited from a stroke of luck when Fynbos’s farm manager took a few bottles home to his family who where friends with Melissa and she tried the jam. Melissa’s continued to carry the company’s products right up until the chain was forced to shut down due to insolvency in 2018.

Fynbos eventually also started supplying the Spar grocery chain in South Africa as well as several other outlets. As the orders started getting bigger, production moved out of Rozelle’s kitchen and into a proper facility on the farm.

A promotional picture for a selection of Fynbos Fine Foods products.

A promotional picture for a selection of Fynbos Fine Foods products.

Navigating the export market

Fynbos’s initial foray into exporting began with a South African expat in the UK, who discovered the chilli ginger jam at Giovanni’s, a renowned Italian deli in the lively Green Point area of Cape Town. He expressed interest in selling the product in the UK, prompting Fynbos to start supplying him. But the deal turned out a disaster for Fynbos. “He ended up not paying us, and it was a big knock for us,” Rozelle recounts. Learning from this setback, Fynbos no longer supplied product without first receiving at least part of the payment up front. “Now we have a settlement on invoice [and] there’s a payment as it’s dispatched. Obviously, you trust your customers, but we don’t take the chance anymore of not being able to cover the production,” Rozelle elaborates.

In the early 2000s, Fynbos secured a more dependable export partner in Turqle Trading, a relationship that persists to this day. Fynbos crafts relishes, seasonings, and hot sauces for Turqle’s brands, which are then sold in Europe, the US, and Australia.

Attending international trade shows have played a pivotal role in Fynbos’ growth. Rozelle highlights the substantial support Fynbos received from South Africa’s Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, Wesgro (the Western Cape’s trade and investment promotion agency) and USAID which previously sponsored the company’s attendance at these events.

The Fancy Food Show in New York – North America’s largest specialty food trade event – was the first such exhibition Fynbos attended. Despite generating interest in their products, Rozelle notes that this didn’t immediately translate into business. She emphasises the importance of persistence in attending expos, stating, “We’ve been going to those trade shows for years … I think when people see you in New York, and then they see you in Paris, and then they see you in Germany, they know that you are a legitimate company.”

Private label vs own brand

About 85% of Fynbos’ sales come from private label products, through partnerships with entities like the large American retailer and Turqle Trading. Private label refers to items that Fynbos manufactures but are then sold under another company’s brand.

Rozelle strongly believes in the advantages of this approach. “As much as we love our brand, it is vanity,” she asserts. Selling one’s own brand in grocery stores necessitates substantial on-the-ground effort to ensure the product is displayed attractively on the shelves. “You can do it locally but overseas it’s very difficult. It costs an absolute fortune,” she notes. In contrast, supermarkets have a vested interest in promoting their private label brands, which can significantly benefit those products.

Benefitting from the African Growth and Opportunity Act

In 2022, Fynbos was honoured with the Top AGOA Exporter award in the medium size business category. AGOA, or the African Growth and Opportunity Act, grants duty-free access to the US market for eligible sub-Saharan African nations, including South Africa. However, debates are ongoing about whether South Africa should remain a beneficiary under AGOA when it comes up for renewal in 2025. The discussions focus on South Africa’s classification as an upper-middle-income country and political considerations.

Relations between the US and South Africa strained in 2023 following South Africa’s involvement in a naval drill with Russia and China on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion. This event led to proposals by US lawmakers aimed at reevaluating the bilateral ties. The situation escalated with allegations from the US ambassador that South Africa was covertly supplying arms to Russia for the conflict in Ukraine. President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered an investigation, which concluded without finding evidence of such weapon transfers. The White House acknowledged the investigation’s findings, affirming its commitment to AGOA, though not all lawmakers shared this view.

Rozelle remarks that while losing AGOA benefits wouldn’t be disastrous for Fynbos, it would certainly affect profit margins on certain exported products.

Employees at Fynbos's production facility.

Employees at Fynbos’s production facility.

Controlling its supply chain

Today, Fynbos continues to cultivate a variety of chillies and peppers, as well as aubergines, tomatoes, basil and coriander on its 10-hectare farm. Additionally, the company sources ingredients such as ginger from other farms. By 2010, Fynbos ceased selling its crops to others, funnelling all produce into the creation of its own products.

Some people have questioned Fynbos’ dual focus on agriculture and food processing, saying the company should only concentrate on manufacturing. Rozelle understands the rationale behind such views but points out that having direct control over its agricultural production has often been crucial, especially when external suppliers faced disruptions due to weather conditions like hail or drought. “There’s so many things that we can’t control on other peoples’ properties,” she notes.

The company once faced a significant challenge in sourcing habanero chillies for a large American order, as they were out of season in the Western Cape. It discovered a supplier in Cyprus through an international trade website. After verifying the supplier’s references and receiving a waybill from the shipping company, Fynbos proceeded with the payment. But the product never arrived, the supplier’s website vanished, and they became unreachable. The fraudsters swindled the company out of a substantial amount of money. “It was so sophisticated … It was a good learning curve,” Rozelle reflects on the scam.

Rozelle says if she were to do her business journey again, she would be less trusting of people. “I don’t know whether it is a South African thing that we are naive and expect people to be honourable, and to do what they say they are going to do. I think I’d be a little more cautious and less trusting of everybody.”

Dealing with South Africa’s challenges

South Africa has grappled with electricity shortages for over a decade. In recent years, increased scheduled power outages, known locally as load shedding, have left some regions without power for up to 10 hours a day in severe instances. Rozelle says the company wouldn’t have had a business if it weren’t for its diesel generator that powers the factory when the electricity is off. It is also in the process of installing solar panels and inverters to power some equipment.

A further challenge is the crime in the area. She notes that the last few months have been particularly hairy. High unemployment and drug use are pushing people toward crime. Unemployment in South Africa reached 32.1% in the fourth quarter of last year. For example, Fynbos recently installed a solar-powered gate with batteries, only to have the solar panel and batteries stolen the next day. “People are having it really rough,” Rozelle explains.

Food trends

Rozelle points out key trends shaping the food industry, emphasising a continuing shift toward healthy eating, clean products with minimal ingredients, and sustainable production. Vegan options also continue to grow in popularity.

In terms of specific products, chili crunch – an oil infused with peppers and crunchy, flavourful bits – has experienced a significant increase in demand, while chili sauce remains a strong trend. Rozelle also points to increasing interest in matcha, a powdered green tea from Japan, and baobab powder, which benefits Africa because the baobab tree is native to the continent. “All these new emerging trends – they start small and then people start putting them in drinks and in all kinds of food applications,” she observes.

Fynbos Fine Foods owner Rozelle Abramson’s contact information

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