Skipper’s Choice Sauces and Dressings is one of those producers that many people may not realise is made in Nelson, but it is a Nelson, family-owned business that has been evolving over the last 40 years or so.
The origins started in the 1970s when Ted Jones and his late wife, June, owned the Tea Kiosk in Queen St Richmond where the ANZ bank is now. It was a classic kiwi tea rooms where you could get a meal as well as takeaways in the days before modern-style cafes started popping up everywhere.
At the Tea Kiosk they made all the food they served, including a tartare sauce that became so popular people started asking if they could buy some to take home; Ted and June started selling their tartare sauce and that became the first of many to be sold under what was to become the Skipper’s Choice label.
After the Tea Kiosk Ted and June owned several food businesses, including the Skipper’s Choice fish van that they drove around the Nelson Tasman area selling fish from, and provided the name for the current business. Then came Port Takeaways that was located on Wakefield Quay in a building that had been used as a fish factory for decades previously. After that they bought and successfully built up Triple JJJ Takeaways on Bridge St before they took a leap of faith, and believed in the range of products they made, and started Skipper’s Choice Sauces and Dressings in 1995.
The business is now run by their son Clint who has expanded the range and sends product all over New Zealand. Ted, who is now in his mid-80’s, still turns up every day at 8am and puts in an eight or nine hour day working in the business he loves.
When I visited the Skipper’s Choice factory last week I was keen to find out more about this quiet achiever business, the range of products and plans for the future.
Clint told me that while the factory they now operate from is ideal for them it has been a bit of a rough journey at times. “We started in one building in Wakatu Estate, it got flooded, we re-established the processing plant and after that the building was burnt out in a fire that started in a neighbouring business, so we moved across the road into an old building. That got us through about five years while we replaced equipment and re-established the plant.
“Then we took on the lease of a better, bigger space and fitted it out as a modern, food grade commercial premises. It gave us space to grow the business.”
Ted says “Covid has made me a bit cautious and we have never taken huge financial risks. We would rather grow slowly to meet the market demands.” I think this attitude reflects the hard yards he and his wife June did when they were in business.
He says “We started Skipper’s Choice with a bucket and jug in the kitchen, we had no money, for June and I it was hand to mouth when we started. We went to flea markets around the South Island, as well as the Saturday Market, we worked our butts off seven days a week.”
But what about the products they make today? Skipper’s Choice currently produces a number of sauces and dressings that are sold in supermarkets and takeaway businesses across the country, but it is the dedication to producing a quality product that drives the success of the business.
Clint says “We went to Massey University and they refined a base sauce we could use for commercial production rather than hand-making small batches. From there it’s like baking, once you understand the basics, what works and what doesn’t you can develop products by trial and error.
“Just trying different things and responding to market needs. We get suggestions from customers and we keep an eye on changing food habits. 15 years ago no-one really knew much about aioli but now it is an important part of our range.
“We also have a few legs to the business, as well as our own brand we do quite a bit of contract manufacturing for other companies.”
One very popular product is their Supreme Batter Mix that is bought in bulk by a lot of takeaway shops, “we had a good recipe and because we were selling sauce to go with the takeaways many of these businesses decided it was better to use our batter mix than try and work out a recipe of their own that they could produce with consistent quality.
“Ted saw a need for tempura batter and over about four years he worked out how to make a product we could commercialise and add to the range. We try and make products that compliments what we already have and then looking at things that are becoming popular.”
Another key to the success of Skipper’s Choice is their use of what Clint calls ‘proper products’ in the manufacture of each sauce. “Rather than using acetic acid in our range we use a proper brewed vinegar from AZ Distilleries in Temuka. Using a brewed vinegar rather than an artificial vinegar gives a much better flavour and is far less astringent.
“For us it’s about the integrity of the products we make, there are no preservatives in our tomato sauces and we use fresh garlic that we crush ourselves to make our tomato and garlic sauce. Many others use dried garlic powder or flavourings, for us the integrity of the product is really important and we’re really proud of the fact we use proper ingredients in our products.”
“Where we do need to use a preservative to extend the shelf life we use a minimal amount of vegetable based preservative to keep the product safe.
Key products for Skipper’s Choice are their sauces, Tartare and Seafood which is a Thousand Island Sauce, and batter mixes. Some people even buy these in bulk amounts direct from the factory to use at home.
The very tasty, high quality Skipper’s Choice Sauces and Dressings can be found in most supermarkets as well as at Fresh Choice Richmond and Guyton’s Fish shops “who have stocked the products since the day we started in 1976,” says Ted, who gets the last word!