How nimble artisan producers are surviving the crisis
ONE sold her house to fund her ice block company, another started making his cheese from home as a teenager, and another imported a $40,000 machine never before used in his field.
The lengths artisan producers in Queensland are prepared o go to is matched only by their passion for quality. The COVID-19 challenges have come fast and hard. Could it be our smallest and most nimble food makers are the most likely to survive.
It was a hot summer's day inside an industrial shed on Brisbane's southside when QBM first met Alessandro Motta to find out about his lauded hand-crafted buffalo mozzarella.
He was a hard man to catch, flat out delivering to some of the city's trendiest restaurants and eyeing expansion plans after five years' building his business.
"Phew it's crazy at the moment," he said, describing making 300kg of cheese by hand every couple of days to keep up with demand.
"It's quite overwhelming."
Motta described how as a teenager in suburban Brisbane he craved the mozzarella of his childhood after his family moved to the city from Italy when he was aged 11 in 2003.
So he started making it himself.
Now the wholesale arm of his business is gone, and his buffalo milk supplier is on the cusp of folding. "The buffalo mozzarella market is basically zero,'' he says. "I am selling 4kg a week.
"I used to sell hundreds.''
So the day after restaurant closures were announced he bought software to start an online store showcasing his and other locally manufactured products and he is now delivering to homes instead of restaurants.
"We've been doing it for four weeks and it's going pretty well,'' he says. "It doesn't really cut it if you consider the rent and everything else so we still do need wholesale back. But it was an opportunity to grab a new venture.''
Apart from making the best cheese, Motta is also passionate about the sustainability of the dairy industry in Queensland and educating consumers about the true cost of making food here.
It is a topic that the shutdowns have pushed further into the spotlight with the local buffalo farmer dumping milk and looking at selling stock that took 20 years to breed to the abattoir because of lack of demand for the specialty milk.
Motta says it can't be allowed to happen - so amid the coronavirus challenges, there is opportunity to do things differently.
"There has been quite a lot of change for us, not for the better but in a good way," he says about the collaborations he is now working on.
Motta has joined forces with others to lobby supermarkets to take more cheeses made with buffalo milk.
"We have a lot of following on our estore and people are buying every day,'' he says.
"We just need more of it, to support those businesses that don't have direct support like the buffalo milk farmer.
"The only thing we can hold on to as a light at the end of the tunnel is that in a month they are reviewing restrictions."
For a long time Brigid Woolnough thought her sprawling high-end chocolate business needed to be more focused in order to be successful.
In the chaos of COVID-19 it turns out her omnichannel approach could actually be the key to survival and means the school teacher turned chocolatier has changed her plans.
"Fortunately, in this experience I have realised something important," Woolnough says.
"For a long time, I have felt that we have been too stretched across too many channels.
"We are in groceries, gourmet IGAs, delis, gift shops, hotels, minibars. We're in airport shops, corporate gifting, the online store, our retail shop. So lots of different channels and I was thinking 'We need to streamline'.
"But this whole experience has taught me no, you don't need to put all your eggs in one basket."
Woolnough recounts how bit by bit her business footprint shrank day by day last month as first the KOKOPOD Chocolate retail shop at the Ginger Factory on the Sunshine Coast was forced to close when the factory did. Next came the shuttering of shops at the airport that stock her chocolates, then some smaller gift shops too.
"But all our grocery (outlets) went through the roof and online too. So thankfully we have multiple channels to rely on. It's been a blessing and I wouldn't have said so."
With a team of six, Woolnough is still making chocolates and gearing up for a different type of Mother's Day after trading through an unusual but positive Easter.
With people losing jobs and economic worries on the horizon she thought chocolate lovers might cut back and eschew her gourmet range which uses premium ingredients and therefore costs more.
"So I thought 'Here we go, good quality chocolate is not going to be on the menu'. But that's not the case at all and when I looked back at all the recessions chocolate is not one of the categories that drops, it in fact spiked.
"People still find it as an affordable luxury - and it's like $12 a bar - but they shift their spending from buying lunch or coffee at work to treating themselves.
"Or they justify it as a family event because they are not doing social gathering this Saturday so they can justify spending $30 online.
"It's fascinating. They don't stockpile it, but it's not something they stop all together."
Time usually spent preparing for a long list of markets and major food festivals that are all now postponed means Woolnough can dedicate some energy to tasks she previously had been too stretched to get too.
"We have time to put towards our vegan brand which we launched last year," she says.
"And we have a lot of wholesale leads that I have ignored for a while because we haven't had the capacity to fulfil them.
"Now we can go back and make contact with those people again and create some sort of system to help us to manage that a bit better.
"This is also the time to give staff training.
"You are often pedalling so fast there is no time to teach anyone anything because you don't want them to make the mistake that could be costly during the middle of production.
"Whereas now, you have time."
The Fresh Chai Co
It was while teaching yoga in Tasmania that Adam Donoghue earned the nickname "The Chai Guy" for his habit of grinding up the spice-infused tea mix to share at the end of classes.
In the five years since he moved back to his childhood stomping grounds on the Sunshine Coast he has innovated and built The Fresh Chai Co to be in every good cafe from Noosa to Byron Bay, with 500 stockists Australia wide.
While half of his business has disappeared with nearly all cafes and retailers closed, direct sales from customers are booming and turnover is up 60 per cent for the month, he says.
"Luckily we seem to be in the toilet roll category," he says of his fresh teas which come blended with honey, mixed in his specially built factory where spices are precision-ground with a $40,000 coffee machine.
"People don't want to miss out on having comfort food like coffee and chai or whatever they drink regularly."
His challenge now is keeping supplies up with a recent lockdown in India where he sources tea and spices.
"We had supplies that were literally just about to be put on the boat before the lockdown so it was just sitting there for six weeks."
Donoghue is also using a State Government artisan producer grant to revamp his website at a time when more new customers than ever are ordering online. "Obviously it is people who used to go to the shop to get it and now they will order directly from the source,'' he says.
"That is good and bad. I want to support the retailers who supported us, but it does mean people can access it still and we are doing well.
"In 2020 I do see there is potential for export or made under licence overseas because a lot of people have spotted our stuff.
"People say to me that it's the best chai on the Sunshine Coast or in Byron Bay but actually I am going for the best in the world.''
Less than two years ago Annabel Langley imported a giant iceblock-making machine from Turkey and set it up on the Sunshine Coast ready to scale her business.
Langley was inspired to create Electropops - an alternative to electrolyte iceblocks using real fruit juice and coconut water - a few years back.
A background as a driller in the mines, then doing family day care while raising her three children, meant the switch to food manufacturing was a decision driven by passion and a belief there was a market for quality, healthy iceblocks for kids, nauseous pregnant women, cold and flu sufferers and sporting clubs and gyms.
In February she was coming off the back of a successful summer - just her second summer since she ramped up the business from a hobby with husband Scott.
Electropops were stocked in independent shops from Brisbane to Cairns as well as IGA supermarkets, tuckshops and Queensland netball and Surf Life Saving clubs.
There was even one trial export to Singapore.
It is that exponential growth, typical of a new business, that is now proving the key to accessing Federal Government income support.
Langley, whose business is still operating thanks to her products being stocked in IGAs and pharmacies, says behind the scenes she is now doing everything she can to keep afloat.
"Our biggest problem is we are a new business and have only been around two years and they want us to compare financials," she says.
"So we've just come out of summer which is our best period ever and they want us to compare to the year before. It actually looks like we made money because in the first year we were just starting out. We only had four stores (stocking the product), not 50 stores, so it's not comparing the same situation."
Langley understands the rules can't cover every permeation of business and has turned to an accountant to apply for funding without knowing if she will be eligible.
"It's funny, because everyone thinks you are not busy but you are actually busier than ever doing things that you don't know how to do."
She still sees huge potential for her product as consumers turn to local and natural food.
"People are more aware now of where food is coming from and who made it, for the health of their children and themselves,'' she says. "So we could grow hugely. Being frozen is our limitation but I am working on that. We are all self-funded.
"We sold our house to start this business after my husband's chronic illness and the death of my father, which is a bit crazy but you just realise life is short so why not give it a go."