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Ulster ace Louis Ludik is Hellbent on making food business a success as they establish Spar link

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Hellbent's food truck, with owner Louis Ludik on the side

Hellbent's food truck, with owner Louis Ludik on the side

Hellbent's food truck, with owner Louis Ludik on the side

Since starting Hellbent as a side-business to his rugby career, Ulster full-back Louis Ludik has seen his food venture blossom into something he never thought it could be at this stage.

Inspired by former team-mate Schalk van der Merwe's love for cooking and the potential of mixing South African and Northern Irish cuisines, Hellbent has gone from strength to strength since it was launched in March 2018.

With a wide range of products, from burgers to sausages to meatballs, the secret to Hellbent's success is the mix of Northern Irish meat and South African spices that have gone down a treat with the public.

And now, having made the dive into the food industry, Ludik and Van der Merwe have hit the next level in their business journey with their products now being stocked in all 27 Spar stores across Northern Ireland.

"Gary McMillan used to work with Spar, and one of our good friends who is South African but lives here, he worked with Gary a lot," explains Ludik, who works with the business in Northern Ireland while Van der Merwe helps with production in South Africa.

"I met with Gary and he gave us that breakthrough. He said he knew Spar very well and had worked with them for many years, so he passed me on to Henderson's and said to give them a call and see where this can go.

"From there it went really, really quickly. I met with Stephen Kennedy, the buyer for Spar, had a meeting for him and took him some products and he loved the idea. He said let's take a chance, let's go for this, and they immediately said they'd like three products - coiled sausages, the meatballs and the burgers.

"Whenever that meeting finished, we were absolutely delighted."

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Some of Hellbent's products

Some of Hellbent's products

Some of Hellbent's products

Of course, as with most businesses, Hellbent has its own unique backstory: the idea for the business started at, of all places, a child's birthday party.

"(Schalk) cooked up a few sausages a few years ago for his son's birthday and got some spice from South Africa, and whenever he made them, it was the best sausage I've ever had. We started joking that we could start a business and sell them, because we had a couple of players interested. Rodney Ah You ordered 10kg a week!" laughs Ludik.

"A couple of guys at the stadium just wanted some sausages, so we kind of said to ourselves, okay, let's see if there's a market here for this. When we started speaking to people, it seemed like there's a gap. There aren't many pure beef sausages, and then when you add the extra taste with the spices, people seem to really enjoy Hellbent.

"Invest NI played a massive part as well, we worked with the Ulster University to develop our own recipe and they helped out a lot. Carnbrooke Meats do the production for us, so we are very fortunate to have them as a partner. We started very small, providing to places like Indie Fude, Sawyer's and the likes, and it had been going really well.

"Those shops are very specialised though, so they work really hard as owners, but it's not massive scale. When it started going well with those stores, we wanted to go a bit bigger and that's when we started talking retail. That's a different animal altogether, it's massive, but that's the only way it can work, if we go that big. We're just pushing ourselves and seeing where we can go."

It's understandable to question how Ludik has the time to run a side-business given how much time he dedicates to his rugby career with Ulster, but that's where the rest of the Hellbent crew step in, and there's plenty of work going on in the background that takes the pressure off his shoulders.

The company is a family one, with the name Ludik having an influence throughout, from Louis fronting it up by making phone calls and speaking to potential investors to wife Chamé doing the behind the scenes work with product development.

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Louis Ludik in action for Ulster (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

Louis Ludik in action for Ulster (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Louis Ludik in action for Ulster (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

Back in South Africa, it's up to Van der Merwe to liaise with the companies creating the spices for the products, which are then shipped to local company Carnbrooke, who do all the production of the finished products here in Northern Ireland that will eventually go on the shelves.

"Hellbent is our company, a family-run company, and we are hellbent on quality. Our motto is "Whenever cultures collide, good things can happen", so we want to provide the best that South Africa can offer in regards to spice and recipes, and then combine it with Northern Irish beef and products. That combination can work," adds Ludik.

"Whenever we sat down and discussed with our branding company and worked out who we are as people, and as rugby players we are very driven, we want to get the best out of ourselves and achieve the best that our abilities can get. We feel the same way about life in general, we want to push ourselves and achieve in life as much as we can.

"We're hellbent on winning, so that's what jumped out to them and that's where the name came from."

Now that things have started so well with Spar, the potential for growth is there. With Hellbent products already flying off the shelves in stores around the country, thoughts can tentatively turn to what comes next for the company.

Of course, the fear is that they go too big too soon, and the owners are very cautious they don't get caught out. But the ambition is there, along with a few more ideas that will be kept in reserve for a little while yet, and that has Ludik excited by the potential that Hellbent has to grow into something even more.

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Hellbent's food truck in action at Kingspan Stadium

Hellbent's food truck in action at Kingspan Stadium

Hellbent's food truck in action at Kingspan Stadium

"We've got quite a few products in the pipeline. Chamé is the main driver behind that, she's great at product development. We have roughly eight products that we're developing, but you can't put that many products out there immediately, so we're holding them," says Ludik.

"We have our products out there already that we have to make a success of, and hopefully if this goes well then we'll be able to put out a couple more. So far we've let a couple people taste it and they've liked it."

The next step would be branching out from just Northern Ireland to the whole island. But, for now, making sure their new link with Henderson's and Spar goes perfectly is all that Ludik is interested in, and it's been so far, so good.

"If we want to go down south then there are other challenges because we don't know anybody there, so our challenge is meeting with the buyers," he adds. "Dealing with Henderson's is a really good test with us to see where it goes. If we found our feet then we could go a little bit further and see if there are any more retailers that would like to take it on board from there.

"There's a lot of room to grow, but first of all we need to make sure this is a success and make sure everything goes well with Henderson's and they're happy before we can go further."

The Hellbent crew are having a launch event at the Eurospar on Ladas Drive in Belfast on Saturday, March 7, with free samples of their products available from their food truck.

Belfast Telegraph