For the love of it

Maggie Beer’s ideology involves top quality ingredients; but, she says, quality means nothing without marketing.

Maggie Beer’s ideology involves top quality ingredients; but, she says, quality means nothing without marketing.

Maggie Beer’s done it, so has Stefano de Pieri. Nicole Azzopardi looks at making the shift from signature dish to supermarket staple.

When Maggie Beer won the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year Award in 1992, the little Barossa Valley restaurant known as Pheasant Farm was unwittingly given the kiss of death.

From that day on, curious gourmands packed the restaurant to the rafters, bringing the celebrated chef to the brink of exhaustion.

“We actually had to close the restaurant a year after winning the award,” Beer says. “The fame was such that I was burning out. I had won it based on classic home-spun dishes and I found it difficult to expand the restaurant to fit in with my food philosophy.”

Forced to re-examine the nature of her business, Beer turned to classics such as pate and verjus—products that she had been making between the lunch and dinner service at her restaurant since 1982.

Soon to follow was a small production kitchen on the Adelaide-based farm and, later, a purpose-built export kitchen which now churns out the line of supermarket products bearing the growing household name.

“It takes a huge capital investment to undertake something like this,” Beer confesses. “And it’s hard to get other people to make products for you when you’re a control freak like me.”

According to Beer, the same ethos used at Pheasant Farm is applied to her ever-expanding range of gourmet products.

“It has to be fresh and not diminishing of quality,” she explains. “For example, Pheasant Farm pate is made just 10 kilos at a time. It’s the only way I can ensure the quality of the product.”

But no matter what product you aim to introduce to a larger market, it is crucial to understand that a product for open distribution is vastly different to a restaurant product, Beer says.

“You need to have a HACCP kitchen, one that is audited, with controls for the testing of a product,” she says. “And one of the most difficult things in all that is to have economies of scale on small runs.”

A watertight business plan was Beer’s strategy for making her kitchen cost effective and it made good business sense to send only 30 per cent of her products to supermarkets.

“If we didn’t have wide distribution network, we would be dead,” she says. “The fortunate thing is that the supermarkets came to us. They want quality and if you are small enough they don’t push you. That’s a fantastic position to be in.

“Even though we are a medium business, our brand is important to them; but there is only a core of our brand that goes into the supermarket.”

With her retail outlet, Farm Shop and a comprehensive website to cater to customers further afield, Beer has been able to diversify her offer while providing safety mechanisms for her overall business.

Direct sales have been a staple for Beer for many years, but she has also relied upon the diversity offered by gourmet retailers.

“We love the specialty supermarkets,” she explains. “They are seeing that gourmet is the way to go and are expanding into high quality.”

But no matter how wonderful a product is, unless you can market it, forget it, she says. “Unless, of course, you want to make it a niche product part of your restaurant down time and then sell direct. It’s the only way that niche producers can get started.

“The costs in distribution, the transport, you name it—it’s huge.”

So large was the cost burden that Beer bided her time until 2000, waiting seven years before extending her product beyond her direct retail channel.

“These days we really have two prongs to our business,” she says. “The export kitchen efficiencies allow us to do things like our marmalade and our pastes are handled by a packing machine that allows us to do things in no time.

“At the farm shop we make our dukkas and lemon butters—things we can only afford to sell there because they are much more labour intensive. We can only make five litres of lemon butter at a time. The good thing about it is that it still allows me the thrill of diversifying my offer.”

However, despite the thrills, Beer counsels that it is much better to specialise and do one or two things very well.

“Having said that, the benefit of having a range is that it’s easier to distribute—the face of your product on the shelf makes a larger impact,” she says.

Sixteen years on, Maggie Beer has a popular television show on the ABC, 65 people on staff and continues in the development of herself as a brand. But despite the many successes, the celebrated cook and business dynamo says she is most proud of her latest range of ice-cream.

“The thing that’s been the most amazing success has been our ice-cream,” she says. “I’m very proud of my burnt fig ice-cream. It’s winter and we can’t keep up with demand.”

Whether it’s ice-cream or olive oil, in reality it takes a lot of dough to push the transition from restaurant food to supermarket item.

Despite the high stakes, the rewards can be large and there’s potential for success.

Marketing specialist Professor John Roberts of UNSW says there is huge scope and demand for gourmet prepacked food, but advises starting small.

“There is a lot more room for prepacked meals in Australian supermarkets,” he says. “Look at England, where retailers like Tesco and Marks and Spencer have a huge prepared food market. People want ease and low levels of involvement, but also quality.”

To get started, Roberts says there’s no place like home. “Display a take-home product at your premises,” he says.

“The good thing about selling stuff in your own shop is that you are selling to a market that is already predisposed to you. It’s another offer and your distribution costs are very low.”

To start the process, however, it’s essential you recognise what you have and work to your strength. “If you really have something special, why hide it away?” he says.

According to Roberts, the logistics of preparing a product for market tend to be relatively simple and most of the job can be contracted out.

“Any bottler can do small batches, which is suitable  at the beginning. Graphic designers can do labels for you at a reasonable price. You could have labels created for as low as $1000.”

From here, the whole secret is in the migration strategy and creating a product that consumers want and trust.

Woolworths and Coles will want evidence, data and slotting fees; for an unknown person to begin this process, it’s one not of leaps but steps.

“Think about getting your product line into some specialty stores and gourmet delis in order to build up brand credibility,” Roberts says.

“It doesn’t matter how small you start—if you are successful you’ll grow.”

Stefano de Pieri could not agree more. Having expanded  flagship restaurant Stefano’s by supplying products to David Jones stores three years ago, de Pieri has not looked back.

Beginning with citrus and fruit products from the rich Mildura region, such as blood orange and lime marmalade, de Pieri made his debut. He followed with bottled antipasto, chilli capsicum relishes and pickled asparagus.

“Braised onions is another product we do that people love because they can’t be bothered chopping at home. I don’t know, maybe people don’t want to cry.

“Tomato sauce has a huge following, but that’s another chapter altogether.

“Done with care, it’s a little bit pricey, but once you put it on the plate you go berserk. There’s a market for food that is a little more expensive but is of out-of-this-world quality.”

For de Pieri, the journey has offered national exposure, legitimising his products.

“There’s a certain magic about DJs. It equates with quality,” de Pieri says. “Everybody is a bit afraid of its procedure, but we’ve found
it a breeze.”

Apart from David Jones, de Pieri has turned his attention to independent operators, provedores, cafe owners and home chefs.

“There is no reason why one day we wouldn’t do supermarkets, but you need to equip yourself to a very high level of technology and we are not contemplating that right now,” he says. “For now we are building up our brand; but it’s no quick way to riches.

“It’s always a passion before profit, but it’s sustained by the satisfaction of doing something very beautiful.”

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