word from the wise: how to start your own food business
Eat delicious cookies, build a cookie empire.
Simone Clarke from Butterbing Cookie Sandwiches literally went from selling treats on the side of the road to opening up a super-popular baking business in just a couple of years. We asked the biscuit-maker herself for some advice on how to start your own scrumptious food business.
When and where did Butterbing begin? I started as a wholesale bakery in my home in 2013. I was living in a really quiet neighbourhood in Melbourne. I’ve always thought those countryside honesty boxes selling honey and jam were so cute, and that I wanted one of my own. I put a bar fridge on my front porch, and named it the ‘Honesty Fridge’. My neighbours would pop down, pick a treat, and slide an envelope of money under the door. It was a tiny operation in the early days. When I’m having a tough day, I like to look back at it to remind myself where it all started.
How did you turn baking from a hobby into a career? I desperately wanted a career change. I’m a graphic designer by trade, and I’d worked in the industry in Canberra for about four years before backpacking around Europe for 18 months. When I returned, I moved to Melbourne, very determined to start my own food business. I had dabbled in working in cafes in the UK and just loved being a part of the hospitality industry. My skills as a designer helped me brand and promote Butterbing, while my tiny kitchen was the perfect platform for me to tinker and develop flavours and techniques that could later evolve into a commercial venture.
What are some things to consider before jumping into your own food-selling gig? Get dreamy, but don’t get silly with your money in pursuit of that dream. I would love Butterbing HQ to be in a beautiful warehouse in Collingwood, with a bakery that looks like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Instead, we’re in a warehouse in the industrial estate of Dandenong where the walls are painted ’70s pink. I still dream of the Willy Wonka-style factory, but I’m firmly planted in the reality that I cannot afford it (yet!).
It’s also important to learn the basic stuff, such as food safety laws, employment laws, GST, basic bookkeeping and cash flow management. I remember when I first started, I would deliver cakes, hand over the invoice, put the cash in my pocket, and either go buy more ingredients (or maybe a beer), and that was that. I soon figured out I was supposed to be recording the payments, so I knew which customers had paid. Sorting that out was a nightmare!
What were some of the hurdles you faced when first starting your business? At the start, being a business owner was somewhat lonely. You face unique issues that not everyone understands. I had some large knowledge gaps and I would just stumble upon them as they became problems, then adapt and learn. I’ve made some pretty big (and expensive) mistakes as a result.
How did you know that there was a market for your product? I'm lucky, because it became bleedingly obvious to me. Before the Butterbing was born, I was baking a large range of cakes for nearby cafes. Some products did okay, others not so well, but overall there were certainly enough orders to keep me busy. The day that brownie cookie sandwiches hit my stockists, they were an instant hit. Within three months, they took up 80% of my sales and I couldn’t keep up. Within a month I ceased production of all other products and rebranded as ‘Butterbing Cookie Sandwiches’. That's when the business really took off.
Have you had any mentors who have helped you along the way? Increasingly, I speak with my father, who’s a talented salesman and has had several of his own companies. He gives me advice that he wishes he listened to when he was younger. I also speak with my sister a fair bit about the difficult decisions I have to make and she gives me clarity. I’ve tried working with professional mentors, but I feel as though I haven’t met the right person. It’s a relationship that requires a lot of trust.
How did you turn a cookie recipe into a recognisable brand? I had a very specific journey planned for the Butterbing brand and as such I only worked with venues that matched that vision. I built up the Butterbing reputation by brand association. At the start it was quite difficult; I didn’t really have any connections in the industry and I wasn’t sure how to get my product into the cafes I wanted it to be in.
At the start, I put my efforts into Instagram and hoped that cafes would email me. I received one from Patricia Coffee Brewers, who I considered to be the bee’s knees of Melbourne coffee shops. It meant the world to me and it changed everything for the brand. As soon as we were seen there, enquiries increased significantly and we were suddenly considered a ‘must-have’ cake brand.
Is there anything you wished you knew before you started Butterbing? Yes! Some knowledge of what equipment commercial bakeries use would have been very useful. As result, I’ve developed excellent googling skills. Along the way, I’ve found that naivety can be a great thing for creative business development. I didn’t really have an appreciation for the way traditional wholesale bakeries operated, and it helped me stand out from the crowd.
Any tips and tricks for folks just starting out on their food business journey? I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to grow is that I’ve had a budget, albeit a very simple one, in place since day one. I wanted my ingredients and packaging to be at 30 per cent, staff at 30 per cent, all other expenses at 30 per cent, and to aim for a 10 per cent profit. It’s crucial you don’t ignore the ‘business’ part of your business. A lot of people hate bookkeeping and administration, but if you’re one of them find someone to help you as soon as it’s feasible. A really simple trick is to pay for everything with card, not cash. That way, even if you lose your receipt, you have a record of what you’re spending money on.
What’s the best part about running your own biscuit business? I’m over three years into the journey now, and I really love where the business is at. My role in the company is now General Manager. I oversee important parts of the business, but at no time am I tied to a particular location or time frame to do my job. This year I’m working remotely in London for a month, and I hope it’s a tradition I can carry on for years to come, visiting a new city each year. That said, the team I’ve put together here are genuinely good people, and I spend most of my days with them simply because I enjoy it. I love creative days where we develop new buttercream filling flavours, and I can’t help but get involved in the process.
What are the ingredients to a successful food company? It’s a real ecosystem of people and skill sets. We have bakers with an amazing passion for authentic baking who send only the best cookies out into the world. A customer service team who love people and giving our customers the best experience possible, and a marketing team who care about the perfect placement of a cookie sandwich stack to make sure the photo is just right. We’re a lucky bunch who enjoy coming to work each day – it makes a huge difference.
Want to tuck into a Butterbing or just find out more about what they do? Then swing over here.
Lovely snaps by Suzannah Milne.