Beer-and-chips magnate Leigh Hart, who also has a day job as a comedian and TV show producer, talks to Jane Phare about his non-existent business plan.

The problem with interviewing Leigh Hart for a business story is that it’s hard not to imagine him squeezed into his tiny Speedo Cops uniform, or dressed up as Hamsterman or interviewing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the Target furniture store with a drone buzzing in her face.

We’re in the NZME studio to talk about his Wakachangi lager and line of SnackaChangi potato chips, to find out about his business plan (there was none) and his future plans (they’re a little vague). But there’s no doubt it’s all going well.

Julie Baillie, who has the unusual title of Head of Snacking and Private Label at Griffin’s Food Company, describes Hart’s SnackaChangi chip launch in June last year as “the most successful chip launch in 2020 (probably the only one due to Covid-19) and in a very long time.”

Fans crunched their way through more than 1 million packs in the first five months and Griffin’s expects the next million packs will sell even quicker.

Hart’s chips are thicker than the average chip, kind of like eating tasty pieces of corrugated iron, the sort of chip that, with a coat of varnish on the top, would make an excellent roof for a bach.

And it means that no dip is too thick for SnackaChangis. They simply won’t break. Hart has the science to back up the claim; it’s on the back of the chip packet.

The chips have a tension rating of 185 PCI (pounds per chip inch) and a promise that they have been “dip tested” in real-world conditions.

Hart wrote all the words on the back of the three flavours – BBQ, Tuscan Salt, and Vinegar & Salt – which is why some of them don’t make sense.

Take this: the chips are made from free-range, non-caged potatoes first discovered at Machu Picchu. They’re gently peeled left to right, then rapidly sliced from right to left before being cooked in the Crinkanhopper 3000, the machine that gives the chips 20 per cent more corrugation than regular chips, or size 34 corduroy pants.

Snacking supremo Baillie says the chips have sold so well that supplies are running low. In some stores, they sold out. To keep up with increased demand a new Crinkanhopper 5000 chip line is almost up and running and two new top-secret flavours are due to launch on March 8.

Hart and munchie maestro Baillie won’t give much away apart from saying there’ll be no surprises with the new flavours – nothing weird like Marmite and pineapple lumps; more along the lines of what SnackaChangi fans have requested.

One thing will be guaranteed, the back of the chip packets will be worth reading. Take the BBQ flavour which Hart describes as “BBQ smoke, spontaneity, a little chaos, sunburn, uneaten salads, unimpressed neighbours, 70s music, a touch of swing-ball, a hint of denim shorts, some general frivolity, and a ranch-slider door that keeps coming off its tracks.”

And tell Hart something can’t be done, he’ll dig his heels in.

“Everyone in the snack industry said it was impossible to add the vinegar BEFORE the salt,” the chip packet reads,” but thanks to some basic Kiwi ingenuity and a high-speed mishap involving the vinegar delivery tanker we’ve done it!”

Hart tells a story of reading author and cartoonist Tom Scott’s latest book, Searching for Charlie: in pursuit of the real Charles Upham. Scott popped in to have a beer and ended up chortling over Hart’s SnackaChangis.

“He was loving it. I had just read his Charles Upham book and he’s reading my chip packets.”

Hart says a popular misconception is that the beer and chips started as a joke and morphed into the real thing. Not so, says Hart. He’d worked hard as a comedian, scripting, editing and producing corporate videos and advertisements, and realised that he, or his characters, had a following.

He’d watch games like the rugby sevens and see hundreds of people dressed up as Speedo Cops or the Hamsterman. How, he wondered, could he harness that following?

A line of Speedo Cop swimwear? Hart thinks the Speedo company will probably pay him not to do it.

So he thought about beer, a “quite nice beer” that Kiwis would like, nothing fancy or crafty. He already had the name Wakachangi sorted before he did his market research (he jumped on Facebook and asked friends and followers what they thought of the idea).

As for Wakachangi, the Waikato river plays a big part. Back when Hart was appearing as That Guy on Sports Cafe, he pulled up to the side of the Waikato on his way to an interview and recorded one of his ridiculous segments.

“The ol’ misty, the ol’ lady, the ol’ waka chang chang, the ol’ waka tumba.” Hart recalls he was ripping off a Chevy Chase movie moment.

“It just sounded like a beer to be honest.”

And being able to shorten it was important. “I heard you had a few changis last night. You’re on the changis, were you?

And so he had it: a “South Otago beer with North Canterbury flavours, brewed by a West Coaster with the ol’ misty waters of the Waikato.”

Brewed by McCashins Brewery in Nelson, Hart claims it’s “probably” New Zealand’s oldest and most trusted beer, established “more or less” in 1648. Like the chips, the character of Great Uncle Kenny plays a part in the rambling, non-sensical history which involves a secret recipe being taken to Kenny’s grave, but fortunately photocopied by the undertaker.

The recipe had been missing for 400 years and inexplicably turned up in Greymouth. Before that it passed through the hands of nymphomaniac monks in Portugal; there’s mention of colour-blindness treatment, the effect on asparagus wees, “badger piss that’s been put through an 11th-century soda stream” and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

That the mad marketing spiel smacks of Hart is an understatement. But it works. Kiwis, and Australians, have been drinking around 250,000 litres a month to the point where McCashins is increasing production and has introduced a canned version. Another beer and a line of RTDs are in the planning.

Teething problems with a new canning line meant the tear tab came out sideways, causing it to tear off before the can was properly open. That’s since been fixed but Hart turned it into a marketing gag.

“We sort of front-footed that and said ‘look well this is an intelligence test now. You’ve passed stage one by buying the beer, part two is before you open it you have to straighten it up like that and then you’re away’.”

Aware that things move slowly in the commercial world, Hart looked around for a second product after launching Wakachangi and settled on chips. He approached Griffin’s where the team, and Head of Snacking, loved the idea and got behind the humour.

It’s that humour, and the non-PC attitude, that has become part of Hart’s brand. It permeates through all his work and characters, including his last series The Late Night BigBreakfast show – where he told Jacinda Ardern he’d bumped into Norman Kirk in the Koru Club – recorded in Target with customers wandering around in the background.

During lockdown, he holed up at his “eco lodge” at Mangawhai with his family, wife Ange, son Sammy, 15, and daughter Sophia 13. They became unwitting extras and camera holders for an impromptu series, Leigh Hart’s Big Isolation Lockdown.

The series, like The Late Night Big Breakfast, was a hit and Hart is now working on another comedy series for TVNZ due to show in March.

As for his beer and chips empire, Hart’s not sure about the next product. “The attitude is the key. It has to feel right. You really have to trust your gut instinct.”

It has to be a product he’d use and like himself. “I don’t drink a lot of wine so I would struggle to market wine.”

He’s thinking aloud now. It won’t be moisturisers or running shoes, no “jumping the shark”. It’ll probably be something in easy reach of the barbecue.

“Or maybe a gym membership … Leigh Mills. I could have free gym passes in the chips.”

More of Leigh Hart can be seen on TVNZ OnDemand or Moonflix.co.nz.

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