Even if you haven’t stocked up on his product in anticipation of spicing up March Madness eating marathons, you probably know Page Skelton’s company from its ubiquitous bumper stickers.
“Cackalacky,” they proclaim.
The name – whose origin is a mystery but is synonymous with the Carolinas – belongs to the sweet-potato-laced sauce that has put the Pittsboro entrepreneur’s company on the culinary map. Skelton is the creator of Cackalacky Sauce, a tangy slather for burgers and barbecue that has spawned a growing empire.
Since launching his business 13 years ago, Skelton has gone on to produce a hot sauce, a bourbon-barrel-aged sauce and spiced nuts, as well as T-shirts and those bumper stickers. He has also forged ties with other North Carolina companies to extend the company’s reach. Last year, he partnered with Salisbury-based Cheerwine to make a sauce using Cheerwine syrup. In January, the fruits of a collaboration with Fullsteam brewery in Durham produced more than 30,000 cans of a ginger pale ale under the Cackalacky moniker.
Cackalacky is also one of only a few North Carolina condiment companies to get a toehold at Costco stores.
“It’s fun to see him build the idea and extend the vision,” said Fullsteam brewery owner Sean Wilson, who has known Skelton for more than a decade. “He really wants to be an emporium of spicy and zesty things.”
It’s been a lot of work for Skelton to get his business where it is today. Right now, he and his employees are in the thick of their annual Cackalacky Road Show, traveling to one of the 14 Costco stores throughout the Southeast each weekend to work the floor selling liter bottles of the original sauce and Cheerwine sauce.
This year’s run started on Super Bowl weekend at the Costco in Raleigh. For four days straight, Skelton and his team set up their tent inside the warehouse store. On Saturday morning, Skelton’s wife, Caroline, and employee Jimmy Chalmers prepared samples of Kirkland Signature meatballs slathered in the original spicy sauce and the sweet Cheerwine sauce. Proffering a tray of samples, Skelton worked the floor.
“Hey! Who’s hungry?” he asked a father and son.
“Both of us,” said the dad, Brent Reck of Garner, taking samples for himself and his son, Rockford.
One bite of a meatball covered in sweet Cheerwine sauce, and a one-liter bottle went into the Recks’ cart to take home. Moments later, after the men tasted a meatball simmered in the original Cackalacky sauce, a bottle of that went into the cart, too.
Costco warehouse manager Eric Ward discovered Cackalacky at a state-sponsored event to introduce North Carolina specialty food products to grocery and warehouse store managers. By the time Ward’s team arrived, it was late in the day and many of the purveyors had already left – but not Skelton.
The Costco team liked the product enough to help Skelton develop 1-liter bottles of his original Cackalacky sauce to sell exclusively at Costco and did the same with the Cheerwine sauce.
“Our whole purpose was to find an item that would work for us,” Ward said. “It’s been a home run.”
Adjusting the recipe
Skelton, 46, grew up in Missouri and northern Virginia. (His father is the late Ike Skelton, a longtime Missouri congressman who chaired the House Armed Services Committee.) The youngest of three sons, Skelton often cooked with his mother. He attended West Virginia University, where he met his future wife, Caroline, in 1991. When a job opportunity brought her to the Triangle, “I followed her down here like a puppy dog,” Skelton said
Both were working full time – she in marketing, he in telecommunications – and studying for master’s degrees – hers in business, his in information science. Once he finished his master’s degree, Skelton had more time in the kitchen. It was then that he started tinkering with his sauce recipe. Friends and co-workers liked it; some even started paying for it.
That was when, Caroline Skelton recalled, her husband got serious about studying the condiment competition.
She would come home from work to find wine glasses lined up on the kitchen counter. Pouring a sample of a sauce in a wine glass, Skelton looked like a wine connoisseur, peering at the thickness and color and analyzing the taste. That’s how he came up with the idea of using sweet potatoes as a thickener.
One day, Caroline was in the kitchen, slicing cheese and sampling the sauce. When Page walked in after work, she told him the recipe was perfect. “Don’t mess with this. You’ve got it,” she said.
First 50-gallon batch
With a final recipe, they only needed a catchy name. Inspiration came one night while Page Skelton and friends were standing around a fire pit, eating and drinking. A friend called out: “Pass me some of that Cackalacky sauce.”
With a recipe and a name synonymous with the Old North State, Skelton incorporated in 2001. The first batch of Cackalacky sauce, made by a Louisburg, N.C.-company, was 50 gallons. (These days, a batch is about 1,000 gallons.) For two years, he juggled both his full-time job at MCI and his sauce company dreams.
Then in 2003, his wife realized he wasn’t happy.
“Page being unhappy is an odd thing,” Caroline said about her husband, who is a jovial, enthusiastic man.
“Why don’t you quit your job and go full time with the business,” she suggested. “We’ll figure out how to live on one salary.” His gleeful response: “Can I tell them right now?”
At the Costco, Skelton cracks jokes and pulls out a guitar to sing a Cackalacky song to customers. While playing a guitar emblazoned with “Cackalacky” in silver, Skelton and employee Jimmy Chalmers belt out:
I’ve been around this whole wide world.
I’ve been around a lot.
Cackalacky, Cackalacky, Cackalacky, all day long.
Cackalacky, Cackalacky, Cackalacky is where I belong.
Sometimes, Skelton wears a small bottle of Cackalacky sauce in a holder on his belt, like a pocket knife.
The song, the guitar, the showmanship are no surprise to Myrtle T. Earley, who does marketing for North Carolina specialty food products. She recalls the first food show that Skelton attended, wearing a cowboy hat and ringing a cow bell.
“He is so outgoing and personable,” Earley said. “People want to know to him; people want to know his product.”
Back at the Raleigh Costco, a customer asks Skelton about the Fullsteam logo embroidered on his black Cackalacky chef’s coat, which has a Cheerwine logo as well.
“Cackalacky means collaboration,” Skelton said, touting the ginger pale ale now in stores.
Skelton’s friendship with Fullsteam’s Wilson led to a conversation about producing a Cackalacky beer. Wilson’s brewer was working on a ginger pale ale – and a collaboration was born.
Last year, Skelton approached Cheerwine officials about producing a one-time sauce and donating the profits to charity. Looking to do a different sort of product pitch, Skelton showed up with a prototype of the Cackalacky Sweet Cheerwine Sauce and a carton of vanilla ice cream.
“We sat in the board room and ate ice cream,” Skelton recalled.
Instead of a one-shot collaboration, Cheerwine officials suggested creating an ongoing product; the Cackalacky sweet Cheerwine sauce came out last November.
Cackalacky Caviar Salad
1 (5-ounce) bottle Original Cackalacky Spice Sauce, about 3/4 cup
2 cups chopped onion
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 cups fresh or frozen cooked black-eyed peas
2 cups frozen yellow or white corn kernels
Chopped fresh cilantro as garnish (optional)
Salt to taste (optional)
Combine all ingredients. Let stand at least 15 minutes for corn to defrost and flavors to combine. Toss. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Garnish with cilantro if desired and serve as a chip dip or side salad.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Weigl: 919-829-4848 or email@example.com; Twitter: @andreaweigl