Living in New Zealand in the early 1970s, there wasn’t a great selection of food in terms of European or Asian ingredients, even fresh herbs like basil or coriander. And growing up on a farm meant our diet consisted mainly of meat. I became a nurse after school and really loved the profession, until I travelled overseas to England and Europe and fell in love with the variety of produce available. That’s when I started becoming interested in food.
Whilst nannying, I applied for a job and slightly embellished my cooking skills - I said I was a Cordon Bleu chef (at which point I couldn’t even make a roux!). I was employed by a lovely family who took me to their chalet in France where I had to cook a three course meal every night for 15 guests. After the first night they asked me where I had learned to cook! They weren’t surprised when I said I was self-taught... so during that month the woman (who was a Cordon Blue chef herself) took me under her wing and taught me all she could. It was the most stressful job I’d ever had but it cemented my love of cooking.
I returned to New Zealand in the 1980s and I started a role as a Sales Manager for some lifestyle magazines, starting my collection of Gourmet Traveller magazines which I still collect to this day. I moved to Australia in 2000 to join Australian Consolidated Press, still in magazine sales by day but at night my world revolved around food. I loved having dinner parties and creating beautiful menus for my guests. Now that I’m working in food I haven’t had a dinner party for years!
My children are now quite grown up (Sebastian is 18 and Babette is 14). I left the corporate world when my son was born and when he was three years old I started ‘Bombay Blue’, an agency for Sid Dickens, a Canadian artist. The business grew quite rapidly and we ran the agency until a couple of years ago. My husband, a talented Chiropractor with his own successful private practice, took over the day-to-day operations when my daughter was born. Juggling growing children and a growing business wasn’t easy. Long hours, a lack of sleep, and feeling guilty for not giving 100% to the children, all took their toll. But the alternative was worse – working long hours for someone else, no personal satisfaction or struggling financially. At the end of the day, running my own business was definitely the best option for my family, and for me.
In my 40s, I was really looking for flexibility as well as something I could be passionate about. I worked with a friend of mine for a year, helping her set up a large cafe and food store. We faced many hurdles, but it gave me the confidence to set up my own food business. So in 2010 I found a gorgeous, tiny space that I knew I just had to have. It was a complex set up as it didn’t have a retail zoning. I believed in it completely so I invested what I was prepared to lose and eventually I was granted the lease that I needed to open "The Little Grocer". I really had no idea how all encompassing the food business was, so the first year was such a major learning curve. I had to surround myself with people I could really count on. After initially trying to open from 7am and close at 8pm whilst trying to get the kids ready and off for school, I realised how impossible it was to maintain, and I changed my hours several times before finding opening hours that suited my family unit. I discovered I could tailor the opening hours around what suited me because it was my own business, and I was my own boss.
The Little Grocer expanded into catering because of customer demand. I had a deep understanding of what my customers wanted in terms of gourmet foods, lunches and take home meals. I was constantly offered catering opportunities but I could only really supply a minimal selection that I could manage whilst running the shop as well. I found that whilst it was only a tiny business, I still couldn’t do everything on my own, which was a big lesson for me. I needed staff who were great in the store and great in the kitchen, and I relied a lot on my husband who helped look after the store while I was catering and my children who helped me wherever possible. You really need to be able to count on others. It’s important to realise that a business can be flexible, that it can change and grow as it evolves. Nothing is set in stone and you can decide how to operate it and keep tweaking it depending on what works for you.
Initially I had no intention of setting up a serious catering side to the business, but I listened to what my customers wanted and provided what they requested – which has led me to the success that the catering company has today. Two years ago a very good friend of mine whom I had known for years (and who actually is a Cordon Bleu chef!) came back into my life and helped me to make my catering dream a reality. She was returning to Australia after working overseas for many years, so we decided to team up and form She & Me Catering. Finding the right business partner has been the key and I am extremely lucky to have joined forces with such a talented and experienced chef like Michelle. We started off with one catering job every couple of months and now we’re doing three or four jobs a week, based purely on word of mouth.
We’re a boutique operation – there’s only two of us so we attend every function, be it 18th’s, 21st’s, 5oth’s, dinner parties, working lunches or drop-offs for ladies lunches. What I really love about food now is how creative we can be. We design the menu for the client based on a brief, and that’s what we really enjoy. We’re now both in our 50s, so our goal is to maintain a boutique business where our satisfaction is derived from being creative with our food and being there for our children. Even though they are older, we still want to be there for them every day after school and at every evening meal, and once they are settled for the evening we can manage the functions that we have to attend. We’re not trying to build an empire, it’s all about satisfaction and enjoyment.
My advice to other mums wanting to start their own business, is to find your passion, follow your dream and remember that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Be kind to yourself, and allow yourself the flexibility to adapt your circumstances to suit you and your family. Being your own boss means that you set the perimeters, your goals and your rules. Be disciplined, work hard and enjoy the ride.
She & Me Catering is a boutique catering company servicing Melbourne’s CBD and southern-eastern suburbs. With a special focus on personal service, creative culinary delights, quality ingredients and bespoke menus, She & Me Catering can provide the perfect solution for your special event. The Little Grocer is a gourmet food store, offering takeaway breakfast, lunch and dinner delights as well as specialised ingredients, fresh bread and salads and delicious desserts. 59a Armadale street Armadale
Tel: Caroline 0410565997 Michelle 0466883153
The Little Grocer - 59a Armadale Street, Armadale VIC 3143
Copy: Melanie Quirk Photography: SomedaySomehowStudios
To find out how you can get get your business started and become the next Business Mama head to www.businessmamas.com.au