Bongo’s Rock & Roll Chilli Pickles
Nantwich’s reputation for boutique shops bursting with hand-crafted local products made by artisan entrepreneurs continues to grow. It’s a deserved crown, especially when you consider the incredible array of food and drink on offer. Such unique fayre is personified by Bongo’s Rock & Roll Chilli Pickles, one of the exhibitors at this September’s Nantwich Food Festival.
Bongo’s name itself is enough to intrigue most browsers, but add a riotous splash of packaging colour and a showbiz couple at the helm and you have all the ingredients to set taste buds racing. Manny and Debs Elias established Bongo’s Rock & Roll Chilli Pickles at their base not far from Nantwich in 2014. Manny had been producing chilli pickle recipes as a hobby over many years while he drummed for rock bands around the world (Tears For Fears, Peter Gabriel and Julian Lennon to name a few). When he met actress Debs (Cold Feet, Coronation Street and Emmerdale) at an Abba Tribute gig it was love at first sight. He soon moved to Cheshire, and after many years of encouragement from friends and family they decided to crank up the heat and kick- start the new venture.
Now Bongo’s produces a fiery range of chilli pickles, condiments, sauces, marinades and exciting accompaniments for cooking enthusiasts all over the country. Making that transition wasn’t straightforward, as Debs explained: “It’s been a massive learning curve taking things from a hobby to a profitable business – and we’re still learning. It’s certainly not as easy as people think, with reams of paperwork, qualifications and legal courses just to get the labelling right.”
There were other challenges, like sourcing the best suppliers, developing the company branding and evolving a way of working that suited them both. “In the end we just extended our personalities, and I think that shows in the fun we have with our customers,” observed Debs. “Our earliest success came before we even began the business, when we approached The Hollies Farm Shop with a couple of jars and asked them to taste what we’d made. We only had three products – no labels, no promotional flyers, in fact not a clue on the business front! But it was their response that clinched the deal, telling us that our pickles were ‘absolutely superb’, and that gave us the courage to really go for it.”
Humble beginnings, but Bongo’s soon had the royal seal of approval. “In our first year we met (and supplied) HRH Duke Of York. That was an honour, and things took off quickly. We are now stocked all over North West and as far afield as
Bournemouth on the south coast. We have created an online shop and had amazing customer feedback.” Bongo’s found itself on the food map, and soon became a 7-day- a-week business. Everything else took a back seat. Manny continued drumming when the opportunity arose, but the tours stopped. Debs also put acting on hold for the time being. As well as developing top-notch products, the Bongo marketing is pretty slick. You just have to love the company tagline ‘So good they should be illegal’ that adorns the official website. The line was actually coined by a customer, such is the warm relationship already firmly established with the growing army of people who buy the chilli pickles.
The feisty portfolio sets out to rock your socks off, but everything is 100% authentic, and all about the taste. Visitors to this year’s Nantwich Food Festival are in for a real treat. The product range is growing, and the labels promise to pack a punch. Chillimanjaro, Firework Jerk, XScream Crushes and the Chilli Jam are firm favourites, but there are some surprises ready for customers at this year’s festival. “We have a delicious BBQ Chilli Drench that everyone will love, a Lillimanjaro Hot Indian Lime Pickle and our Secret Batches (for the chilli brave only) to sit proudly alongside our best sellers. It’s so exciting being in the heart of Nantwich town centre being able to tell people how we make them and all about the wonderful ingredients.”
With customers snapping up jars as soon as the chilli condiments hit the shelves you’d expect to hear about expansion plans, but despite the rock & roll background there’s a cool head on Debs’ level business shoulders. “In order to keep up with our customers we’ve had to triple production. Some products are selling out as fast as we can make them, as our reputation for quality and flavour grows. We make everything ourselves, by our own hands. I think that Cheshire people have a lot of pride in their food. They want to know where it’s sourced, who makes it and why it’s unique to this county.”
“I guess the dream is one day to have a purpose-built unit of our own, with a manufacturing area, a research kitchen for Bongo and an office for me to run the business (although it’s surprising how much you can do from your bedroom at
home). But upgrading to become a medium-sized business requires considerable investment and we’re not there yet. But do I want to employ local people and grow to that level? Absolutely, and I believe we will soon.”
Being part of the Nantwich Food Festival is now an annual high-point for Debs and Manny, especially as their market experience started on a much smaller scale. “We started with a farmers’ market in Chester. We only had three products, and it makes me smile to think of it now because the table must have looked so bare! We did really well, though, and that’s when I got hooked. I love the face-to- face interaction with the customers, when they taste our different flavours and I explain about our motivation. To then see their reaction makes the hours of hard work totally worthwhile.”
This year Bongo’s will join 200 other exhibitors on the Nantwich streets – another record for the festival. The atmosphere will be electric, and the Bongo team can’t wait. “We loved Nantwich Food Festival last year – it was a brilliantly organised event with a real community spirit. I got ‘volunteered’ to be part of the Critter Chomp Challenge and nobody was more surprised than I was when I won it! Unlike some food festivals, this one has a real sense of serving the local community by providing not just food stalls but entertainment, information and laughter. I love the fact that it’s run entirely by volunteers and yet it’s so professionally done. There’s a happy buzz around the festival and I find it infectious. We are counting down the days…”
Bongo’s Rock & Roll Chilli Pickles will be exhibiting across all three days of this year’s Nantwich Food Festival: Friday 2nd September to Sunday 4th September.
You can find out more about Bongo’s at http://www.bongosrockandrollpickles.co.uk