A school of Queen Anne fish at the chocolate factory in Christchurch (Photo: Amanda Thompson)
A school of Queen Anne fish at the chocolate factory in Christchurch (Photo: Amanda Thompson)

KaiJune 3, 2019

Behind the scenes at Queen Anne, the Willy Wonka of Christchurch

A school of Queen Anne fish at the chocolate factory in Christchurch (Photo: Amanda Thompson)
A school of Queen Anne fish at the chocolate factory in Christchurch (Photo: Amanda Thompson)

Marshmallow justice warrior Amanda Thompson visits a real-life chocolate factory and quite possibly saves the Easters of the future. 

This story was published in June 2019.

What’s in a shape? When is an egg not an egg? When it’s a cheaty hoval, that’s when.

I recently wrote a ranking of the world’s most important foodstuff, chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs. What motivated me? Cadbury – or, more truthfully, a lack of Cadbury, or Sadbury as I have appropriately renamed them. Like everyone else, I was bummed by the loss of 350 jobs when the purple giants of the confectionery aisle closed their factory and took off to Australia. They’d made horrible slashes and burns to their family blocks and Roses already so we should have expected it, I guess, but for me the real blow came when the marshmallow Easter eggs got messed up. It just seemed such an unprovoked assault on a nostalgic childhood memory. What was once a full, lush foil-covered treat suddenly became a plastic-bagged half-egg for the same price as a whole one. Bridges fully blown up and obliterated, Sadbury. You’ll never get my $3.89 again.

Easter was drawing near and I threw myself into some market research. Not interested in fame, money or notoriety, I just wanted to find a very nice marshmallow Easter egg that was not Cadbury. I was thorough (I bought the first five eggs I found) and I carried out meticulous research (I ate them all). Eggs were ranked on price and yumminess – with the important guideline that the half-eggs, or half-ovals (hovals, as I wittily called them) would receive only half the points given to a whole egg offering – because fair’s fair, right? Right. Easter was saved, all was well and the results of this essential ranking announced here.

But all was not well. It seemed that not everyone shared my frustration with an incomplete ovoid – especially the fans of Queen Anne marshmallow Easter eggs. I had openly blamed their underperformance in the rankings – a dismal third – entirely on the silly non-egg shape. Hundreds of Queen Anne Chocolates lovers took to the official Facebook page, desperate to let me know that I’d gotten it all horribly, foolishly wrong. Apparently hovals are a choice, not a cheat – who knew?

In what Queen Anne owner Sarah Adams labelled a “call to arms”, customers were asked to “help save their traditions” and keep the eggs as they had always been – halved – and the response was overwhelming. Many fond tales were told of people buying their first-ever Easter egg at one of the fancy Queen Anne milk bars, the last of which closed in 1974. There was a slight edge of competition over length of memory, posts ending with older brags like “and I’m 81!”

I was impressed that anyone had actually read my listicle, disturbed that so many people over the age of 70 are on Facebook and seriously alarmed that perhaps New Zealand was, incredibly, declaring itself a half-egg nation. Or was this just another classic boomers vs millennials divide? I jumped at the chance to debate the whole crisis with Adams herself, when she recklessly invited me to visit her Christchurch factory.

Queen Anne’s call to arms on Facebook, and some of the responses

This was the stuff of my wildest eight-year-old dreams, one very good book and two terrible movies – a golden ticket! To learn the secrets of a chocolate factory in the mysterious south! Christchurch is such a long way for me to travel, it’s practically an OE. I got a bit excited. The Queen Anne website said they did “special orders” – how special? Could they make me a life-sized chocolate-enrobed marshmallow replica of my dog? Khal Drogo? Jesse Mulligan? Then I’d really be popular at book club. Maybe I could change my name to Charlie and inherit the chocolate factory, living out my best life as a chocolate squillionaire. Although actually I didn’t want to be Charlie, Charlie was a drippy yes-man – at least Veruca Salt got her own band. But maybe, just maybe, I could convince Queen Anne to finally make a full-sized, double-sided and therefore perfect chocolate-coated marshmallow Easter egg.

Ignoring my one friend who warned me that Wonka was a creepy human trafficker because none of the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory actually came home, I prepared to find out. I packed my bags, took another hit of my asthma inhaler and headed down to foggy Sockburn, knowing that if I was going to be any character from that book, it was definitely the kid who happily drowned in a river of chocolate.

Queen Anne Chocolates is a real-life phoenix. Adams is part of our own sweet treats royalty, her grandfather and father being the dynasty that was Ernest Adams cakes before it was sold in 1997. Researching her grandfather, Adams found that there had also been a chocolates and ice cream business, Queen Anne – a forgotten part of the original Adams empire. Riding the wave of popularity for milk bars in the first half of 20th century, Queen Anne shops were a staple of many a baby boomer’s childhood but disappeared in the 1970s. Old fans of the brand offered memories, and the late Vic Kent, an original Queen Anne factory manager, filled in the rest. With the opening of the new/old Queen Anne factory in 2010, the confectionery empire rose from the ashes. Adams found the original 1925 chocolate recipes in a family attic and some of the caramels and fillings are still made the same way today.  

Queen Anne operations manager Aaron McConnochie and owner Sarah Adams (Photos: Amanda Thompson)

Lucky, I think. The best thing I ever found in a family attic was a mummified rat and although cool, it was definitely not lost-chocolate-empire cool. How did you get from snooping around your attic to owning a whole chocolate factory? I ask Adams.

“Well, I just said to my husband one day, I want my own factory.” Note to self, try the direct approach.

Adams is quick to point out there was a bit more to it than just “wanting to work with nice things”, however. She even has some sympathy for the amount of consumer-backlash sticky stuff Cadbury has buried itself in – chocolate-buying Kiwis are a tough market.

“If I’d known how hard it would be, I wouldn’t have done it. I really knew nothing and I had to do everything wrong before I got it right, I made so many mistakes in the beginning. Manufacturing is a tough environment, it’s hard for everyone out there. But I mean, it’s chocolate. You never have a bad enough day with chocolate to make you not want to do it any more.”

I’m allowed to poke around the top-secret machinery. There’s surprisingly little and Adams knows it all inside and out, fondly introducing me to her “favourite melter”. “I have been known to come in here and fiddle around with dipping new flavours sometimes. We’ve tried dipping chips, pretzels in here, all sorts of things.” I want to know if they were good, but it’s a stupid question – chips and chocolate, of course they were good. So instead I ask if anything ever turned out really bad. Adams has to think hard. “No – nope, I don’t think so. It’s always pretty good.” And I really believe her. I also really believe that I need my own personal chocolate melter.

Most of the work here is done by hand, and the whole place is amazingly tiny – it’s cosy and oily and smells like paradise. There’s a factory shop where you can buy any wobbly rejects at a cut price, which is always the best kind of price. Except for the stuff the workers get to take home on Fridays, of course – a regular perk called the “Friday Bags”. I love this kind of thing. I would die for Friday Bags. I ask a lot of nosy questions of the poor people just trying to get on and do their jobs whipping, coating and packing, until they shut me up by giving me an apricot nougat. Then a raspberry chocolate bar, a salted caramel, a pineapple egg. Then we join operations manager Aaron McConnochie with a cup of tea and really get down to the business of chocolate eating while we talk. Coconut caramels, butterscotch nougat, double chocolate enrobements. I’m beginning to feel a bit high. I’m not surprised Wonka’s golden ticket winners never bothered to go home.

Two pineapple hovals stuck together in a desperate attempt to make a whole egg (Photo: Amanda Thompson)

I want to know Adams and McConnochie’s takes on the “by hand or by machine” double-sided debate. Cadbury has insisted that the reason they had to stop making whole eggs was because in the move to Australia, they lost the use of the machine that stuck the freshly chocolated marshmallow halves together. A bland social media announcement in January that it was “impossible to change back due to upgrading equipment” was put out just as Easter egg competitors Rainbow Confectionery announced it was still (as always) sticking hovals together by hand. Rainbow, Oamaru’s own little candy factory paradise, said it hires about 40 extra staff – mostly students – to pick up this extra work on the Easter range. General manager Brent Baillie says he doesn’t know of any machine that can do the job, but he doesn’t mind the inconvenience because “it’s not an inconvenience for us to make what Kiwis know and love”. Good point, Brent. Good point – although I bet it’s not Mr General Manager himself out there, mind-numbingly sticking thousands of eggs together in the holidays. Unknown students, I salute you, whoever you are.

So why doesn’t Queen Anne give the customer (ie me) what they really want, and just make a whole egg?

“It’s definitely because of tradition, it’s not because we’re cheaty,” insists Adams. “The eggs were always made like that, and we know how much customers hate their chocolates changed.”

It’s also clear that the large traditional Queen Anne eggs would be overkill doubled up, but not one to admit defeat, I have a look at the smaller pineapple eggs they put out this year. The right shape and texture, it looks good as one egg and tastes better. It works. By machine or by hand, ponders McConnochie. Adams is confident he can work it out and he’s already bending his vast operations manager brain to the problem when I leave, thinking about machinery they already have, musing over how you get all the hovals the right way up. This is powerful stuff. I feel like I am present at an important moment in history. I feel like a marshmallow justice warrior. I ask Adams if I can tell the world that we may have just hatched another whole egg and she reckons they will definitely look at it. “Watch this space.”

And I will be watching – the excitement is real when Easter 2020 is only 325 days away.

Keep going!