By Andrew Patterson
Take one passionate foodie, one fanatical marketer, a good dollop of kiwi spirit and a sprinkling of lunacy and you have a business that unashamedly appeals to lovers of all things sweet.
These are people who fervently believe that a meal isn’t complete unless it includes dessert; or pudding as we used to say as kids.
Until recently, the choice for pudding lovers was pretty much limited to a range of frozen products that you might well serve to the family mid-week but definitely not appropriate for high end dinner parties with friends either at your place or theirs.
It was a gap that was spotted by Auckland based food start-up Dollop Puddings, yet another example of the growing number of artisan food producers that are popping up in the premium sections of supermarkets across the country.
Working in partnership, co-founders Julia Crownshaw and Christie McCarthy found their complimentary skills in food technology and marketing respectively allowed them to start a business together that has quickly gained a popular following.
As Christie McCarthy puts it, the idea for the business quickly became apparent after the pair returned to NZ from working in the UK.
“While we were in the UK we were both fond consumers of the premium chilled desert product range, in fact it became a regular treat for us after a hard day’s work.”
“You’d go into Marks & Spencer’s or even Tescos and head for the chiller and they’d be this array of beautiful handmade desserts that you could just buy straight off the shelf that you could take home with you to indulge on the couch or present at a dinner as your gift to the table.”
“When we returned to NZ we couldn’t find anything of a similar standard. The category in NZ would probably best be described as being very mature and at the value end of the market.”
“So there was a real gap there for a premium offering that people would feel comfortable both buying and serving.”
The business partners spent plenty of time researching the category fully before diving in and the valuable insights they gained during the process confirmed to them that they were definitely on the right track.
“What we picked up in our initial market research was that there was some real snobbery around a few existing brands in the category that one respondent described as being “as common as muck” – not to put a too finer point on it!”
“We quickly worked out there was a gap in the market for a high end product that reflected the values and social standing of that segment.”
“What also came out in the research was that people were able to buy a beautiful bottle of wine, some fresh olives and sliced meats from the deli for an antipasto platter and a huge range of options for the main, including cord fed chicken, but when it came to dessert the choice was extremely limited.”
While the average consumer tends to be a lot more health conscious these days it hasn’t stopped us indulging in those food pleasures that remind us of our childhood. In those days, the concept of supermarket shopping tended to involve purchasing the ingredients so the meal could be made and prepared at home. Now, as we increasingly define our lives as being stress rich and time poor, the supermarket has become a veritable feast of enticing product offerings each appealing to our sense of convenience.
“When you don’t have a lot of time, those quality product offerings become an attractive option as a substitute.”
The business operates on a virtual model where the two co-founders take responsibility for marketing and product development but the actual manufacturing process is contracted out.
Using such a model can sometimes create problems with quality control and consistency.
“So far the arrangement has worked really well, but from the outset we were really conscious of the fact that maintaining quality and consistency of the product was absolutely critical.”
Getting the supermarkets to stock the product proved easier than anticipated.
“When we talked to the delis and the supermarkets they quickly realised we had a real point of difference. In fact, they were really supportive of us because we’re done our homework and we were able to pitch a really compelling proposition to them and fill that gap in the market which they could see was there.”
Getting the attention of the consumer is where point of sale is important and Dollop Puddings has invested in getting its packaging noticed.
“We’ve won a couple of awards for our packaging which is a critical component in the sales process as well as being a core platform for really communicating the essence of the brand. Obviously it has to have the appearance of a premium product so the outward look of the product is important.”
Marketing & Social Media
Christie McCarthy explains that with limited marketing and advertising dollars to devote to the brand this aspect of the business, by necessity, has become very tactical.
“We’ve had a lot of exposure via media and PR as well as the fact that Julia appeared on New Zealand’s Hottest Home Baker which was a fantastic win for us and created some good credibility for the brand. However, even if you handed us a $3 million cheque tomorrow we wouldn’t go out and make a TV commercial and buy a whole heap of advertising time, that’s not what the Dollop brand is all about.”
“We are about craft and traditional baking techniques so our marketing strategy is always about executing on ideas that fit with our brand profile as an artisan product.”
“Social media has been useful for us to engage with our customers and for that reason alone it’s a very cost effective platform. We’ve got quite an active Facebook page and we use it as a means of gauging feedback and reading what customers are saying about the brand. We definitely plan to do more in this space in the future.”
Financials & Growth
While marketing tends to be one of the more fun aspects of running a business dealing with the realities of managing cashflow and chasing up slow paying debtors are often regarded as some of the less attractive features of running your own business.
“One of the key learnings for us that we realised very early on is that you are no longer a specialist when you’re running a business like ours and we both had to become a lot more involved in the financial side. Neither of us really had strong finance skills but we’ve had to come up to speed fairly quickly in that regard as managing our cashflow is really important.”
“So when people say cash is king, it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s absolutely true.”
Managing growth is also important for fledgling businesses such as Dollop as it seeks to not only build its domestic presence, but also consider the option of exporting as well.
“There is still a big opportunity for us in the domestic market, but we’ve just started exporting to Australia and there’s definitely scope for us to do more there as well.”
“Julia has done some very clever work on shelf life, so we’ve actually come a long way in that regard and it’s now made exporting on a bigger scale a real possibility in the near future.”
New product offerings
When it comes to product innovation, some of the best ideas often happen quite by chance. It was a fortuitous set of circumstances that led to the creation of an award winning product that has become a big hit with customers.
“We’d been doing some informal market research by crashing a dinner party and serving up some of our deserts and Julia decided to whip up a crème anglaise to go with them and everyone just raved about the recipe so we decided to launch it as a new product.”
“At the time, a few people suggested we should sell it in a glass bottle and so we hit on the idea of using the shape of the old cream bottle.”
“Probably if there were bean counters running this business we wouldn’t have gone with it, but we just thought it looked so evocative and emotive that it captured everything that we were looking for in the brand that we were sold on the idea. Plus, it went on to win the 2011 Cuisine Artisan Award.”
Keeping business simple is important and Dollop Puddings can be summed up in a simple phrase which Christie McCarthy says has been key to their success.
“If you use good quality ingredients then products taste good.”
It certainly doesn’t get much simpler than that. Of course the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
|Staff:||2 owners (manufacturing and production is contracted out)|
|Biggest potential market:||Australia|
|Domestic : export:||80% : 20%|
|Ownership:||Private (100% owned by co-founders and associated interests)|
|Recent highlight:||Dollop Vanilla Bean Custard – Cuisine Artisan Award Winner 2011|