Chefs Carla and Richie Jones met when they were both working at Aria in Sydney. Between them they have been involved in some incredible restaurants, alongside some of Australia’s most well known chefs.
They are now married and have a young son, and have come home to the Coffs Coast and opened The Hilltop Store, with their long time friend Matt. We spoke to them about their vision for the new café, what it was like working alongside the likes of Matt Moran and Colin Fassnidge, and what they’re enjoying about being back in Sawtell.
Hi Carla. Can you tell us a bit about your history with the Coffs Coast and what brought you back to the area?
My family moved here when I was about three years old from Inverell. I attended both Toormina Primary and High School, then went on to the Coffs Harbour Education Campus for Year 11. I had already discovered that I wanted to pursue a career as a chef, so I began making choices to chase that dream. I started my apprenticeship here in Coffs.
Fifteen years later, after a few stops in Brisbane to Sydney to London and back to Sydney, I eventually made it home to Sawtell with my husband and newly born son, Hudson, to start this next chapter of life. Richie and I both decided we wanted to be closer to family and for Hudson to grow up here.
You, Richie and longtime friend Matt are the owners of The Hilltop Store in Sawtell. Where did the idea for this venture start out?
We all lived together in Sydney for many years. Matt isn’t from the hospitality industry but did get to experience a lot of it through Rich and I, and I guess a lot of our passion for it rubbed off on him. I remember many late-night conversations we all had about the idea of us opening up something together one day, although back then we weren’t sure what, where, when, or even how that would happen.
You and Richie are both chefs and have a very impressive work history at some of Sydney’s top restaurants. What are you hoping to bring to the Coffs Coast from that experience?
It’s not really about what we can bring to the Coffs Coast; it’s more about what the Coffs Coast has to offer us! Yes, we have years of training and experiences from our Sydney restaurants, but it’s more about showcasing the local food bowl and hoping that our training can do it justice and creating a place where people can come and enjoy it.
How has the region here influenced your choices for the menu?
Our menu focuses on fresh and local produce. We are very fortunate here on the Mid North Coast; we have the Fishermen’s Co-op on our doorstep, award winning poultry farms, free range pasture raised eggs and so many local growers who are incredibly passionate about what they do. We are spoilt for choice and incredibly lucky to have access to all of this.
Can you tell us a bit about some of the local suppliers and produce you have chosen to use?
Before the Hilltop had even been approved for development, we began making contact with suppliers we believed would help us create something special. A big thing for us was striking a relationship with the Fishermen’s Co-op; we wanted to get our hands on fish, pretty much straight off the boat. The guys down there are awesome and are really trying to make changes. Cookie, the legend we deal with, drops off fish and has to tell us not to prep it that day, as it’s that fresh it hasn’t firmed up yet.
Another supplier we must mention is Waterfall Produce; we use their pasture raised eggs on our breakfast menu. They taste the best, because they are the best! And, our customers love them.
The latest addition to our list is Burrawong Gaian Poultry Farm from down near Kempsey and a new local small business, Kouboya, making their own Kombucha. We also have a collaborative beer to be released in spring with Sam at Bucket Brewery in Kempsey. We are constantly meeting new farmers and growers and are trying our best to incorporate their produce into our menus.
You have worked alongside celebrity chefs Matt Moran and Colin Fassnidge; what have you taken away from that experience?
They have both taught us a lot not only on the cooking side of things, but on the business side as well. They both came from small humble beginnings, before being the household names they are today. They have instilled a hard work and dedicated work ethic in us that isn’t something you are born with. Back at the Four in Hand, I remember Fassnidge would be filming MKR one day and in the pot-wash the next!
The Hilltop Store is quite an iconic local building. Was it a location you were already aware of, or was it just something that came up at the right time?
A bit of both, I guess. I had always had this vision and dream of doing something at the Hilltop; it’s the perfect location. Just outside of the township standing alone on the hill, its outlook is incredible.
Then it was all down to being in the right place at the right time, I guess. We had looked at a few different sites around town, but nothing fitted quite right. It wasn’t until Narelle, who had the yoga studio in the Hilltop, suggested her site that things started falling into pace. It definitely hasn’t been smooth sailing, but it has been well worth the fight.