How a saucy local side-gig led to an extra kick for food everywhere

Posted 7/10/20

PITTSBORO — Around the turn of the century, Page Skelton was working a corporate job at a telecommunications company in Research Triangle Park. In his spare time, though, he was concocting the …

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How a saucy local side-gig led to an extra kick for food everywhere

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PITTSBORO — Around the turn of the century, Page Skelton was working a corporate job at a telecommunications company in Research Triangle Park. In his spare time, though, he was concocting the recipe for a sauce that would eventually be tasted around the country.

He bottled it in Mason jars and sold it to his office buddies.

“I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, and that was working my way up the corporate ladder,” Page said.

One day, his wife Caroline, who was working on her Master’s degree at UNC’s Kenan Flagler Business School, told him that maybe it was time for a change.

“I just picked up the phone one day and said to Page, ‘Hey what if you left your corporate job and did this full time?’ and he quit the next day. So we never looked back,” she said.

Now Page and Caroline, along with their son Harry, 13, are running the hot sauce business Cackalacky out of a warehouse that used to be a Chevrolet dealership in Pittsboro. Made up of just the three of them, the company fulfills internet orders to sauce-lovers all over the country, and Page attributes much of their luck and success to their decision to settle down in Chatham County.

“It felt really organic, the way the business community and the local community at large just really seemed to get what we’re doing,” he said.

“It didn’t require any explaining,” added Caroline.

Back in the days when Page was still making and bottling the sauce himself, he took a few jars to a party to share with his friends.

“We’re standing around the fire pit and one of my buddies is like, ‘Hey man, pass me some of that Cackalacky sauce.’”

Page froze. “What’d you call it?” he responded.

The name stuck, and the family trademarked it soon after that. Years later, Page now sees Cackalacky bumper stickers on cars while he’s stuck in traffic, and thinks about how lucky he is that Caroline convinced him to leave that telecommunications job.

“We’re not just some multinational conglomerate putting some stuff in a bottle or on a t-shirt or wherever, saying ‘buy our stuff and your dollars go somewhere,’” Page said. “You’re actually supporting our family.”

The company’s flagship product, Cackalacky Spice Sauce, is made with sweet potatoes and the brand’s “secret spice.”

“It’s not incredibly hot, which is kind of the whole point,” Page said, but then added, “A lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, you got anything hotter than that?’”

So they worked up the Cackalacky Hotter Sauce, with Carolina Reaper peppers that provide an extra kick.

When Page decided to devote himself to his new business, he spent years hustling around the country at trade shows — in Baltimore, Austin, Houston, New York and other cities — where he would pitch his sauce to customers. They were asked to cook for the Panthers Super Bowl tailgate party in 2004, and were able to start selling their products and merchandise at the then-popular, but now-closed Chapel Hill food store Southern Season.

Page credits Caroline and her business savviness for the brand’s explosion. She once offered him a piece of advice that would go on to define their route forward.

“Caroline said to me years ago, if you want to stay in business, you’re gonna focus on selling locally,” he said.

And so they did. They moved the operation from Chapel Hill to Chatham County, where they’ve been stationed for nearly a decade, and Page said he’s proud of the ties he has built with the community.

“I don’t know if it’s a case of Pittsboro aligning with fate or providing more opportunities for us, or both. It felt like people here really got what we’re doing,” he said. “People recognizing each other and lifting each other up, and that’s what’s been great about Chatham County. It just feels right here.”

A few years ago, Page said he launched an expansion with “a big box chain” that put him in 13 locations across a few southern states, but when that led to him and his family not seeing each other as much, they decided that bigger is not necessarily better.

“Part of our success is knowing when to say no,” he said. “It’s a balance between taking advantage of opportunities, and not just jumping on any opportunity that comes along.”

Page started Cackalacky as an adventurous side-gig. It soon became his career, and now, for Caroline and him, it’s a generational pursuit. Their son Harry is involved in the business, pitching ideas for products and helping with social media outreach, and they look forward to the day when they can pass the reins to him.

“It went from a kind of whimsical idea,” Page said, “to this adventure seeking quest, to a little more humble ends, to now —”

“Now we’re looking at it as, ‘Could it be generational?’” Caroline added.

Harry completes the team of three, who by themselves handle most of the business’ needs.

“I’m looking forward to eventually taking control and actually running the company one day once I’m an adult,” Harry, a rising 8th-grader at Pollard Middle School, said.

Cackalacky has defined its place in the community by teaming up with other local businesses. Together with Bear Creek Brews, they make Cackalacky Hot Red-Rye, and donate a portion of the sales proceeds to CORA, the Chatham Outreach Alliance, which provides food to those in need in the county.

With Cheerwine, they developed a “sweet ‘n savory ‘tomato based’ dipping-grilling sauce & marinade,” made with both the Cheerwine formula and the “secret Cackalacky spice blend,” according to the company’s website.

In the executive boardroom of Cheerwine’s headquarters in Salisbury, Page pitched the soda brand on a one-time collaboration, but left the meeting with an agreement to start a longstanding partnership.

“We just really hit it off with the folks at Cheerwine,” Page said.

Both companies are family-owned N.C. businesses. He said when the deal was struck, that was the moment in which “we went from having big dreams to realizing big dreams.”

Cackalacky collaborates on a coffee blend with Aromatic Roasters — located next door, just north of Pittsboro — and the “Cackalacky Chop” sandwich is available at 22 Biscuitville locations.

The company’s sauces and nuts are available at Lowes Foods, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Wegmans and Publix. Locally, Cackalacky products can be found at a number of locations throughout North Carolina, like the Chatham Marketplace, Carolina Brewery, Carolina Cravings and Pittsboro Feed. Products can be bought online at cackalacky.com.

Despite the economic effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on county businesses, Cackalacky has managed to power through the changing times. Their business model is widely built around internet orders and deliveries, so it’s been able to withstand the pressure.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the grocery business since people are eating at home,” Caroline said. “We’ve been O.K. We haven’t had too much of an interruption, just some changes.”

Despite his transformation from selling mason jars of homemade sauce on his lunch breaks, to collaborating with Cheerwine and other staples of N.C. business, Page likes to think humbly about his business, and above all, he just loves to make sauce.

“I don’t know if I had the idea to start a business, or if I just wanted to make a really good sauce,” he said. “I’ve never taken the time to analyze our customer data, but it’s a pretty broad spectrum of people, and I feel the same way about Chatham County.”

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