BACK in his native Sheffield, club promoter Mark Deakin would often head to his favourite kebab shop at the end of a long evening’s work.
There he would liberally douse his take away with the eatery’s own homemade spicy chilli sauce.
Roll on a few years and having met – and later married – wife Shelley, Mark moved north up the M1 to join her on Tyneside.
Shelley also worked on the club circuit, and managed some of Newcastle’s most famous night spots, including Foundation. It was here that Mark successfully ran the Promise nights for five years from 2000, bringing some of the world’s best known DJs to the region, including Sasha and Paul van Dyk.
“Shelley ran the club and I ran the nights. It was a perfect set-up,” Mark says simply.
The couple settled down and became the proud parents of two sons, George, now nine, and William, six. In 2008 they finally tied the knot at the luxurious Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle.
All was perfect – except for one thing. Still fond of his after-hours kebab, Mark was unimpressed with the range of sauces available on Tyneside.
One night over a bottle of wine he began lamenting the loss of this culinary gem from his diet. The next day the 43-year-old tried to replicate it in his domestic kitchen – and so was born a blistering (in more ways than one) new food business.
The Hot Stuff Chilli Company only exploded on to the region’s local food scene in March last year . But already it has hit a nerve with the public. Demand for the fledgling firm’s range of dried spices, sauces, rubs, marinades and jams is such that it is not unusual to find the couple working into the small, wee hours in the kitchen of their home in New Hartley, Northumberland, preparing, making and bottling their fiery concoctions.
The couple well remember one weekend in the summer of last year when they had sold out at a food festival on the Saturday, and although exhausted had to come home and replenish their stocks for their regular Sunday pitch at Newcastle’s famous Quayside market.
They ended up burning the candle at both ends as their sons slept upstairs.
But if the Deakins ever question their sanity, the public soon refocus them. “We will be at a show and I might check my emails if we have a lull, and one will have dropped from someone who had only bought one of our products an hour before, saying they’ve got home, already tried it and love it,” Mark explains.
“It is moments like that that make all the hard work and late nights worth it. It is great to be making something the public enjoy – and enjoy enough to want to come back for more.”
The Hot Stuff Chilli Company has struck a chord with foodies not just in the North East but Cumbria, Yorkshire and even as far away as Scotland where they attended the Royal Highland Show.
For those looking for some flavour and excitement with their food, the Hot Stuff Chilli Company certainly does what it says on the packet.
But there is more to Mark and Shelley’s venture than just a side helping of jam and ketchup. The Hot Stuff Chilli Company also serves up a generous dollop of humour too.
Slightly Naughty Ketchup sits alongside its exceptionally bad sister, Extremely Naughty Ketchup (which is so wicked the only way to quell its intensity is to have a glass of water to hand). Then there is Hot Scotch Sauce, Kick Ass, Sneaky Caribbean Cheat Chilli and Sneaki Thai Cheat Chilli, to name but a few.
Some of the labels are even more amazing, featuring the silhouette of a curvaceous young woman outlined in fiery red with tumbling hair and a pair of devil’s horns – which bears a striking similarity to the title sequence of that much loved golden oldie, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
The girl is actually Shelley. Looking slightly embarrassed the 40-year-old says: “It has been taken from a photo of me from about 20 years ago. And no, I don’t know where the photo is now. Hidden away I hope.”
Mark and Shelley have deliberately played up the pleasurable side of their business. “We felt a lot of chilli stuff was quite serious,” Mark says. “But we wanted to come at it from a different angle. I suppose what we are saying is that to love food you don’t have to be serious. You can still enjoy it and have fun.”
Life, they believe, is too short not to have a laugh – a fact that is brought home to them every time they look out of the kitchen window of their stone cottage. Their 19th century terrace was where the manager, accountant and other officials involved in the local pit lived.
And just a few yards over the road from their family home is what remains of Hartley Colliery – scene of the infamous 1862 pit disaster which killed 204 men and boys. Almost an entire generation of husbands and sons of working age were wiped out as a huge steam beam used to take water out broke, one end crashing into the pit’s only shaft, entombing the miners alive.
The disaster sent shockwaves around the country, and for the six days of the rescue operation, the nation was held in suspense, awaiting news of the village’s loved ones. But the news the country hoped for never came.
The colliery has now been landscaped and grassed over, and adds an almost semi-rural feel to the Deakins’ house
But as Mark says: “Even all these years later it is a shocking tragedy and what is even more appalling is to think that children George and William’s ages would once have been working down not just that mine, but hundreds of others like it across the country.”
Thankfully George and William are growing up in an age where they are free to be children. But like most kids, they enjoy helping their parents and lend a hand when it comes to sticking labels on bottles and batch coding.
It is at this moment that William comes into the dining room where Mark and Shelley are sat chatting as they nurse cups of steaming hot tea.
Shelley ruffles her son’s blond hair. “This little one actually labelled a whole box without us knowing. Luckily he put the right labels on the right jars – we think!”
As far as possible, Mark and Shelley like to use local ingredients in their condiments and rubs. They have teamed up with rape seed oil producer Yellow Fields based near Morpeth to make a range of spicy dipping oils. Their neighbour’s apples (of which there was a bumper crop last autumn) have even made it into one or two of their sauces.
The Deakins also grow their own chillies at home, but demand far outstrips supply. To make one batch of Hot Scotch Sauce requires 10 kilos of Scotch Bonnet and Habanero chillies. “To try and grow that many here at home would be impossible,” Mark says. “But we try and get as many as we can from English companies and we import Naga chillies – the hottest on the planet – from India.
“You only seem to be able to get the heat from the imported ones, although there are chillies being grown here in England now that are starting to get up the heat.
“If we can get our chillies in England we will, although the season is over now for the winter.”
The Hot Stuff Chilli Company sells over the internet, through food festivals and at the Sunday Quayside Market in Newcastle and their range is also available at Mmm... in the Grainger Market.
Mark and Shelley are on the brink of having to decide if they move out of their domestic kitchen and into bigger premises as demand for their products increases. But with the UK in the depths of a recession, the couple have wisely decided to sit back and see what happens. And having both been made redundant in the last two years from their club jobs, they are more aware than many of just how uncertain times are. “We were lucky we had the chilli idea to fall back on,” Mark says. “It was a case of ‘we’ve been made redundant, what are we interested in? We like food and we like travelling.’ The chillies filled both criteria.”
Mark is the cook in the relationship while Shelley prepares (in fetching rubber gloves and occasionally a mask and goggles if the chillies are particularly potent), cleans, labels and packs. They cook between 9am and 3pm when the boys are at school and after they have gone to bed.
Did Mark ever imagine all those years ago in Sheffield when he stopped for a late night kebab that his passion for a certain sauce would one day see him running his own chilli business?
“No,” he laughs. “I never thought back then I would be doing something like this, running a cottage industry from a real cottage.”
The Hot Stuff Chilli Company, www.hotstuffchillicompany.co.uk, 0191 237 3240