Re­gional Food / Meet Tony and Karen El­liott of Can­non­hill Gourmet

A Christchur­ch cou­ple pro­duc­ing a range of uniquely-flavoured deli-ready fine foods has forged a name na­tion­wide for pair­ing sim­ple ideas with fresh, nat­u­ral, qual­ity in­gre­di­ents.

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS & IMAGES An­nie Studholme

Atrained chef with ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in some of Aus­tralia’s best restau­rants, Kiwi-born Tony El­liott met fel­low chef (now wife) Karen while they were both work­ing in the food in­dus­try at Ao­raki Mt Cook dur­ing the film­ing of Amer­i­can sur­vival ac­tion thriller, Ver­ti­cal Limit.

Bit­ten by the travel bug, to­gether they headed off over­seas, work­ing in Port Dou­glas, fol­lowed by Ja­pan and wider Asia, ex­plor­ing and get­ting amongst the lo­cal peo­ple and their cui­sine, be­fore re­turn­ing to Christchur­ch to raise their fam­ily in 2002. Tony then landed a po­si­tion at lead­ing sus­tain­able café Un­touched World Kitchen, which later saw him man­ag­ing the full restau­rant op­er­a­tion for a num­ber of years.

Keen to fol­low his pas­sion and start some­thing of their own, Tony and Karen headed to the Hok­i­tika Wild Foods Fes­ti­val with a car­load of de­li­cious home­made jams, rel­ishes and in­fused oils un­der the Can­non­hill Gourmet ban­ner. While Karen was left man­ning the street stall, Tony tried his hand at pro­duc­ing dishes for the thou­sands of hun­gry fes­ti­val­go­ers. Sadly, it didn’t quite go ac­cord­ing to plan with his hot beer soup and Māori bread fail­ing to hit the right note in the sear­ing sum­mer heat. ‘I think we were pos­si­bly the only stall to lose money,’ he laughs. ‘It was com­pletely the wrong mix, hot food on a hot day. After that, we got a lit­tle bit smarter.’

With heaps of prod­uct left over, the El­liotts took it down to the Ric­car­ton Ro­tary Mar­ket, mak­ing a whop­ping $ 80.

‘We thought this was great,’ laughs Tony. Heart­ened by their mea­gre suc­cess, they signed up for a weekly stall, later mov­ing to the Lyt­tel­ton Farm­ers’ Mar­ket when it opened in 2005. They also be­came reg­u­lars at fetes, A&P shows and fes­ti­vals through­out the re­gion, all while still man­ag­ing to hold down a full-time job and a young fam­ily.

Hir­ing a com­mer­cial kitchen, and us­ing the mar­ket as a test­ing ground, Tony ini­tially sold small batches of his lat­est cre­ations whipped up in their old kitchen whizz. Mak­ing the most of that face-to-face con­tact with their cus­tomers, they soon learnt ex­actly what peo­ple wanted. ‘We tried all sorts of lines to start with. Smooth, thick and creamy tex­tures with full, real flavours be­came an in­stant trade­mark of our mayos, with cus­tomers com­ment­ing on the ease and va­ri­ety of use. Around 90 per cent of our prod­ucts are gluten- and dairy-free which also gave us a big thumbs up!’ he says.

The ethos be­hind Can­non­hill Gourmet was sim­ple: ‘All of our prod­ucts are based on clas­sics that we’ve given a bit of a twist. We wanted to give peo­ple a base from which to

work with – de­li­cious prod­ucts made us­ing fresh, nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents that can be used at home any day of the week to make even the sim­plest of meals and en­ter­tain­ing that lit­tle bit spe­cial,’ says Karen.

Prod­ucts like their Saf­fron, Dill and Mus­tard May­on­naise, Gar­lic Aioli, Wasabi May­on­naise and Beet­root Rel­ish were im­me­di­ate hits. At Karen’s sug­ges­tion, they also added a com­ple­men­tary range of flavoured hum­mus in­clud­ing Chilli with Harissa, Cumin and Lemon, as well as Pump­kin, Feta and Dukkah.

All Can­non­hill prod­ucts are made from scratch in their Christchur­ch fac­tory. Aid­ing with pro­duc­tion they use two base recipes for the may­on­naise and hum­mus with flavours added af­ter­wards.

The Pump­kin Feta and Dukkah Hum­mus, Tzatziki, Beet­root and Tomato and Chilli rel­ishes, Mid­dle East­ern

Red Pep­per, Wal­nut and Pome­gran­ate Pesto, and Pre­served Lemons have their own unique pro­duc­tion line. ‘Where pos­si­ble we still source lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. As we have grown this has had its chal­lenges to have con­sis­tent sup­ply for the quan­ti­ties you are need­ing, but we en­joy work­ing and sup­port­ing the lo­cal pro­duc­ers,’ says Tony.

When they started, the El­liotts made a huge range of prod­ucts, but the move into spe­cialty stores and su­per­mar­kets forced them to make some tough choices, con­dens­ing the line. Not all made it into the fi­nal 12.

Busi­ness was slow ini­tially, but over time their prod­ucts gained trac­tion win­ning peo­ple over with their bold, unique flavour pro­files. Spe­cialty food stores such as Rae­ward

Fresh, Moore Wil­son in Welling­ton, and Auck­land’s

Farro Fresh even­tu­ally picked them up and in time, more sup­pli­ers came knock­ing.

After spy­ing a gap in the mar­ket they also ex­panded their of­fer­ings at fetes and fes­ti­vals sup­ply­ing pun­ters tasty lunch op­tions to eat there and then, which show­cased their prod­ucts, as well as sell­ing prod­ucts to take home. ‘We no­ticed there wasn’t a huge op­tion for lunch. It was pretty ba­sic, and we were get­ting sick of eat­ing hot chips and hot dogs,’ says Tony.

For a long time, Tony jug­gled Can­non­hill Gourmet while work­ing full-time, leav­ing Karen to fo­cus on their grow­ing fam­ily along with deal­ing with all the lo­gis­tics and man­age­ment side of the busi­ness. She even­tu­ally stepped away al­to­gether, putting the skills she had learnt to good use help­ing other small busi­nesses with ac­counts, of­fice and HR sup­port. ‘It’s been quite a jour­ney. With a young fam­ily, there were a lot of sac­ri­fices along the way. We have learnt a huge amount. There were def­i­nitely tough times, but I loved the prod­ucts that Tony made and knew there was a place for Can­non­hill in the mar­ket,’ she says.

For her, progress has been frus­trat­ingly slow at times. ‘I like things to move a wee bit faster,’ Karen laughs. ‘We are a good mix, bal­anc­ing each other out. Tony is more risk-ad­verse, while I’d just jump in and go for it.’

‘Two-thirds of it was prob­a­bly my make-up and a third was wait­ing around for other peo­ple to do stuff,’ ad­mits Tony. Even­tu­ally, though, he re­alised that for busi­ness to go to the next level, some­thing had to give. ‘It got to a stage where un­less we put more time into it [the busi­ness], it wasn’t go­ing to grow.’

‘ Smooth, thick and creamy tex­tures with full, real flavours be­came an in­stant trade­mark of our mayos, with cus­tomers com­ment­ing on the ease and va­ri­ety of use.’

Pre­pared to take that next step in 2016, Tony handed in his no­tice and ploughed all his en­ergy and at­ten­tion into the busi­ness, and hasn’t looked back.

Re­cently, Can­non­hill Gourmet scored a huge win be­ing made part of Food­stuffs’ A-range, putting it in all New World and Pak’nSave su­per­mar­kets na­tion­wide. ‘That’s a mas­sive step for us. It means our prod­ucts are on auto-re­plen­ish. Once they are at a cer­tain level the Food­stuffs or­der­ing sys­tem au­to­mat­i­cally re-or­ders. No more shelves sit­ting empty,’ ex­plains Tony.

Tony now spends most days in their Wi­gram fac­tory, which they share with Ja­son Scott’s Ar­ti­san Bake­house, slav­ing away in the kitchen mak­ing batch after batch of hum­mus and mayo. Al­most ev­ery­thing is made to or­der, with prod­ucts on su­per­mar­ket shelves na­tion­ally within a week of be­ing pro­duced.

De­spite its re­cent growth, Can­non­hill Gourmet re­mains en­tirely hand­made. Tony still cre­ates ev­ery prod­uct by hand in small batches. Even their pot­tles are still ar­du­ously filled by hand, with Karen and the chil­dren, who are now aged 16, 12 and 10, reg­u­larly on hand to pick up the slack when re­quired.

‘When we started, I made them in the kitchen whizz; now we make them in 240-litre buck­ets, but the prin­ci­ple is ex­actly the same. It’s quite a work­out. It takes about 12 min­utes to make a batch of aioli and then one and a half hours to fill the pots. Things are about to get quicker as we fire up our new pot­tling ma­chine!’

The El­liotts have plans to grow their busi­ness even fur­ther, with many new prod­ucts in the pipe­line, but Tony wants to stay fully in­volved in the process. ‘I have loved the jour­ney, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us,’ he says.

‘We are a good mix, bal­anc­ing each other out. Tony is more risk-ad­verse, while I’d just jump in and go for it.’

ABOVE/ Can­non­hill Gourmet prod­ucts are all hand­made in small batches us­ing fresh, nat­u­ral, qual­ity in­gre­di­ents.

ABOVE / Christchur­ch cou­ple Tony and Karen El­liott are be­hind Can­non­hill Gourmet’s range of uniquely flavoured deli-ready fine foods.

TOP / Un­til re­cently, Tony was still hand-fill­ing all Can­non­hill Gourmet prod­ucts.

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