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.
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.