Packing a punch

Pinic-hamperCustomer demand for ready-made picnic hampers has grown significantly in recent times, but even those enjoying success claim this is an area of business to approach with caution, writes John Burfitt.

It was almost a decade ago that caterer Natalie Thomas received a phone call from a friend with, what seemed at the time like, a quirky request.

That request—a hamper for a romantic Valentines Day picnic—changed forever the direction of Natalie and her husband Simon’s business, and led to the creation of their Sydney Picnic Company.

“At that time, we found that no one else was doing this, but we doubted there really would be a business in it,” Natalie says. “We just wondered who would pay for something like this.”

Pretty soon, they had their answer, as word of their Valentine’s Day picnic hamper spread and new orders began to come in. Such was the demand, picnic hamper orders were soon competing for attention alongside their regular schedule of catering and food styling.

In fact, so quickly did the demand build—often in the vicinity of 40 new orders per week—that the Sydney Picnic Company began as its own business in 2010, and has grown ever since. “And we have just had our best month ever,” Natalie adds. “This has proven to be a very good business after all.”

Which is what a number of other caterers and restaurants have discovered as well in recent times, as consumer demand for gourmet picnic hampers has grown at a rapid rate, and the industry has responded with a range of bespoke offerings.

Hampers are at a range of price points, with the Sydney Picnic Company offering five hamper options, catering for two people, ranging from $110 to $200. The $155 Sydney Picnic remains the most popular option for customers.

Former Wokpool and Rockpool chef Anna Simamora is another who is making the most of this trend. She initially created The Floury Baker as a service to offer home-delivered chef-cooked meals, but quickly discovered over the summer months, a demand existed for picnic hampers as well.

“Over the past year, this has picked up in a big way and there has been a recognition by consumers this is an easy way to enjoy a picnic,” Anna says.

“People are prepared to pay for these picnics that are easily delivered to their door, for which they do not have to do anything but enjoy them.”

Three Floury Baker picnic options are available, ranging from $280 to $310 (including $100 refundable deposit). Anna estimates the company creates as many as 50 hampers per month.

“This is an upper-end experience, and most people seem comfortable with the price as they know this is a specially-created meal and we deliver on what we promise,” she explains. “The picnic is created only hours before and it is very good produce, not a collection of items we have grabbed off the shelf down at the local supermarket.”

One thing both the Sydney Picnic Company and The Floury Baker have in common is a strong demand from men planning marriage proposal picnics for their partners. Valentines Day is another time of a record surge of orders.

“The picnic is created only hours before and it is very good produce, not a collection of items we have grabbed off the shelf down at the local supermarket”—Anna Simamora, The Floury Baker.

“That is a very big part of the business, as this is a time when the customer wants everything to be just right for one of the most important things they will ever do in their life,” SPC’s Natalie adds. While this neatly offered package is proving a surefire hit, those involved insist its success is based on a number of factors.

The first of which is ensuring that what is packaged fresh in the kitchen is served up and remains just as appetising once the hamper is opened. A large part of that determines what can even be offered on the menu in the first place.

Paul Jewson, of Melbourne’s Fitzrovia restaurant opposite Albert Park, creates about 20 six-course picnic hampers a week for park diners. And, he says, each hamper order is handed over with a set of directions.

“We are very clear to the client that we need a precise time of when they will pick it up, as we are bound by legislation that states food can only be outside of the fridge for two hours before it is consumed,” Paul says.

“That is why all food in the hamper is only prepared and packed 15 minutes before pick up. We also explain it must be consumed immediately, and not left in a fridge for half a day or, even worse, left in the back of a car for hours. Logic must prevail and that is one thing you need to be so clear about.”

Assuming some kind of quality control of freshness also means seafood is off the menu. “We thought about lobster sandwiches, but decided against it as it could be a recipe for disaster,” Paul says. “Instead, we opted for items like tartlets, salads, some cheeses and desserts.”

That is an issue Floury Baker’s Anna Simamora has dealt with by including ice packs in her hampers, which include such fare as prawns, cured meats, salads, deviled eggs and baguettes.

“Having been an executive chef, I know how to co-ordinate things in the kitchen and timing for delivery, so you just have to know what is in there will work, and that the customer knows it is for immediate consumption after delivery,” Anna says.

Natalie Thomas adds her hampers are delivered or picked up, complete with similar instructions regarding consumption. “We do often get asked about oysters and smoked salmon, but we won’t do anything like that,” she says. “As a result, we have never had any issues with the safety of our food. People know this kind of picnic is a special treat, and so they just go along with the rules.”

It is not the menu offerings but the changing of seasons that appears to have the most impact on the success of the picnic hamper business. Summer months are always a time of big demand, with orders usually falling off between May and September.

“It is a seasonal offering, and we do well during the Spring Racing Carnival, Christmas and Valentine’s Day, but when it gets colder, then there is little demand for picnics,” Fitzrovia’s Paul Jewson says.

Floury Baker’s Anna Simamora puts it more bluntly, “Winter is dead, the warmer months are busy, and so you have to be prepared to ride with that with everything else your business offers.

“This is a proposition that you offer for the time of the year when people want to be outside. No one wants to have a picnic in an overcoat.”

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