Success: Venture adds spice to retirement

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Enthusiastic cook has turned his hobby into a business venture

Ralph Jaeger's business reflects his passion for the delights of Cajun cooking. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ralph Jaeger's business reflects his passion for the delights of Cajun cooking. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Retirement after more than three decades in the public service should be about kicking back and enjoying some well-earned downtime.

But Ralph Jaeger says he doesn't want to spend his retirement sitting in a chair waiting to die. And even though he is a golfer, Jaeger admits he couldn't stand playing every day.

Instead, the 70-year-old has put his energy into bringing the flavours of Cajun cooking to New Zealand dinner tables.

After researching the market, he found no one was bringing Cajun products into the country, so three years ago Jaeger began importing a range of authentic spice mixes and pre-packaged meals from a family-run business in Louisiana.

For Jaeger, a New Orleans native, it's the taste of his childhood and even after more than 40 years living in New Zealand his passion for the unique taste of Cajun cooking remains strong.

Jaeger's own chef-quality Cajun cooking has friends and family demanding he prepare gumbos, seafood jambalayas and fried chicken when they visit.

Even his three grandchildren are fans of his "special rice".

Jaeger says Cajun flavours are based on onion, celery and capsicum, with black, white and cayenne peppers added for seasoning, reflecting a mix of African, Native American and French cooking.

Into the pot goes anything on hand, with nothing wasted.

To cook a gumbo from scratch would take up to five hours, but with Jaeger's mixes it's possible to get the same taste in 20 minutes.

"My mission here is to introduce New Zealanders to the delights of Cajun food that I've enjoyed all my life."

Jaeger's trips to the United States to visit family and friends meant he was regularly bringing back the spice blends needed to recreate Cajun food, but he admits he was "as green as grass" when it came to establishing a business to supply supermarket-scale quantities.

Importing food products is complex and not for the faint hearted, with substantial cross-border compliance costs, he says.

Jaeger was mentored through the process of getting on shop shelves by the owner of a Wellington New World supermarket, who not only saw the potential of the distinctive product range but was also able to pass on his industry experience and contacts.

Some early advice was to look to the future but keep yourself in the present, with a sharp eye on expenditure and overheads, and never employ someone to do what you can do yourself, says Jaeger.

While he uses a distribution and marketing company to manage that side of things, Jaeger negotiates the supermarket shelf space and is out on the shop floor doing food demonstrations.

"I have a lotta, lotta fun talking to people in supermarkets about Cajun food; how to prepare it, what it tastes like ... it's not even like work."

Meals like red beans and rice, which are easily reconstituted with water, are perfect for trampers and emergency rations, and the fish coatings are proving a hit with boaties, Jaeger says.

Sales growth has doubled each year, with Jaeger now bringing in about 14 cubic metres of product every three to four months to supply more than 50 supermarkets.

After making the grand sum of $809 last year, he is predicting the business will do much better this year. "It'll be enough to pay for my golf subs and a couple of beers."

But it's not just about the money. "I'm doing it for me and because I like doing things like this. I like being successful, I like achieving and this is something I can do as an older person."

- NZ Herald

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