BY DAVE DROSCHAK
A ton of gumption more than two decades ago by a young Triangle couple—plus a catchy name—has resulted in one of North Carolina’s most recognizable brands. In addition to OBX, Cheerwine, Bojangles and Krispy Kreme, all of us here in the Tar Heel State should add Cackalacky—a Pittsboro-based company that has recently taken branding to an entirely new level—to the list.
In addition to Cackalacky’s award-winning barbecue sauces, hot sauces and seasonings—and recent designation as a Certified Woman Business Enterprise by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council—owners Page and Caroline Skelton have branded such popular items as snack nuts, specialty coffees, lip balm, clothing, outdoor gear, hats, glassware, craft beer, bitters and those iconic Cackalacky bumper stickers.
The company’s lineup of grocery retailers is beyond impressive, with products currently stocked in Harris Teeter, Publix, Lowes Foods, Food Lion, Wegmans, Piggly Wiggly, Carlie C’s IGA, KJ’s Market, Mast General Store, specialty retailers and the state’s international airports in Charlotte and Raleigh. “But we still nerd out whenever we see one of our stickers on a car bumper,” Page says.
A Hot Mess of Makers
The Cackalacky brand launched 23 years ago in Chapel Hill while Caroline was earning her masters at UNC–Chapel Hill and Page was doing the same at North Carolina Central University. “I recall at that time there were very few local craft foods and beverages available in our neighborhood grocery store,” he says. “There were a lot of national and even international brands, but very few things that reflected this awesome part of the country. We set out to change that—starting with our first hot sauce. It was something that we could all be proud of.”
Cackalacky has now become somewhat of a national brand, with products being sold in a dozen states. But the couple has never wavered from their commitment and ties to North Carolina. “We have a running joke that our mission is to ‘make the things that we like for the people you love,’” Caroline says. “We tend to gravitate to the things that we are most passionate about. It’s a real joy to partner with some of the amazing and talented ‘makers’ here in North and South Carolina to bring our product ideas to life, and help create and keep jobs here in the local economy.”
Like many small business startups, success was not immediate for the Cackalacky crew, which now includes Page and Caroline’s 16-year-old son and budding business whiz Harry.
“In the early days, I think our business strategy was strictly ‘by the seat of our pants,’” Page says. “And some days, it still is a lot of trial and error. But over time the Cackalacky brand started getting a toehold in the local marketplace, and grocery buyers and distributors slowly but surely started returning our sales calls.”
Everything tipped for Cackalacky when it partnered with Cheerwine to produce Cackalacky Cheerwine Sweet Sauce in 2013. Biscuitville soon followed by adding the sauce to its lineup nationwide, and that very sauce is packaged with heat-and-serve pork ribs and sold at every Food Lion in the country.
Most recently, Cackalacky partnered with UNC–Chapel Hill athletic supporters and created the Carolina Tar Heels BBQ Sauce. This new product is offered at UNC concession stands, and there’s even a Cackalacky BBQ sandwich that includes the sauce collaboration on the menu at Kenan Stadium for football games and the Dean E. Smith Center for basketball games.
“That brought us full circle to realizing our vision to make local products that we can all be proud of, right where the Cackalacky brand was born—in the shadow of the university,” Page says.
Fired up from the Start
Caroline, Page and Harry are a tightknit team, and aside from two dozen ambassadors across the country who help spread the good word, keeping the company’s leadership small works well for this group. “We play to our strengths,” Page says. “Caroline is the business sense behind the Cackalacky brand—always has been, and thank goodness for that. I’m more of a promoter personality. So, I handle our social media and product development. I’m the gas. She’s the brakes. And we recently discovered—much to our surprise—that our teenage son absolutely loves selling our products. And he’s a budding business nerd, too.”
In fact, Harry runs the company’s retail shop at the warehouse in Pittsboro. “Like most folks, I think the global pandemic changed things for us—brought us even closer together and even more focused on the family business,” Caroline says.
Looking back on Cackalacky’s humble beginnings, the couple made a wise move to press forward with trademarking the product’s name. “The name Cackalacky is alliterative and has a certain ‘of the people’ quality to it—and almost always makes people smile or giggle when they say it for the first time. It’s really magic,” Page says. “When we did some checking, it turned out no one had ever used the Cackalacky name in commerce. So, we trademarked it. The internet was still in its relative infancy back then, too. So we registered the cackalacky.com domain. And more trademarks followed, such as Famously Original and Beer B-Q.
We didn’t think it was a very big deal at the time. Boy, has that changed.” The Skeltons still manage to maintain a grassroots approach as Cackalacky nears a quarter century in business. There’s a good chance you might run across Caroline, Page and Harry sampling nuts and sauces at a local event as they talk up the product line. “We have many sayings that help us get through our day,” Caroline says. “One of them is, ‘No customer too small, no account too large.’”
Those humble beginnings that started with attending local events and making personal connections have paid off. “We launched the Cackalacky brand more than two decades ago by going to local beer festivals, barbecue competitions and farmers markets. If there was a crowd, we were there! It’s our way of staying close to our customers and remaining relevant in the marketplace,” Caroline says. “Marketing is not a mouth. It’s an ear. And we love meeting our customers and getting their feedback in real time.”
So, what’s next for Cackalacky? “We are working on a few fun ideas and collaborations where we see new opportunities to serve our Cackalacky customers,” Page says. “But our lips are sealed.” Stay tuned, Cackalacky fans.