Gena Karpf, Sweetness the Patisserie

  What are You Doing?

I was a little girl who always knew that sweet food was the thing that I wanted to be around. There are some things that come naturally to people. And I’m really lucky that I found out what that was, because I think a lot of people never find. It’s amazing how the minute you find it … 

I worked for marketing operations for IBM and i’d go to these strategic presentations and I would labor over finding the words…. When I doing my application to go to school at Le Cordon Bleu. I was terrified to sit down and write an essay about why they should consider me a viable candidate. It was the easiest thing I ever wrote.

I’ve always been fascinated since I saw these old ladies making anise seed candy at my school fete. I never knew that people could make candy. Being around food is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. It’s instinctive to me. I want to talk about it. I love looking in peoples’ shopping trolleys. It’s generally been sweet food, researching, gifting, reading recipe books. It was always there.

I enjoy sugar as a material, I can express in lots and lots of different ways. It was just an exploration of that.

Here’s an apple pie, in the IBM café. And me saying “really, is that the best you can do?” I went home that night and made 4 apple tarts, following variations on a theme by Paganini. I did 4 variations on this apple tart. And I took it to the café the next day and I said “This is an apple pie”. I think I just wanted to show off.

If you said what’s your hierarchy of needs? What motivates you? First thing that motivates me is recognition. I’m an attention junkie. When people respond to something that’s my litmus test to stay that’s the correct direction. I’m doing the thing that’s natural to me and I’m being affirmed. That’s pushing this company. Is that strategically the right way to manage a company? I would say no. We are very reactive, less proactive, not because we don’t want to be proactive.

It takes a lot of time and energy to be responsive. We’re responding to the demand. We’ve always responded to the demand.

As a student I made a marshmallow at home and I brought the marshmallow in. Everybody loved them and all of a sudden it’s about saying if you make something and people want to have it, instinctively I want to make it accessible to them. Fast forward 7 years, all of a sudden everything that’s in here is an idea that somebody had about a product, or a response that a customer had, or something that master chef did.

How do you get the work done?

When it happens and I don’t have enough resource, I’m the fall guy and I need to pick it up. I work 80-90 hours every week and that’s not the hard part. The hard part is working 80-90 and at the end of it feeling inadequate, feeling like I didn’t deliver what I needed to deliver. It’s not that i’m not working, not trying. I need space to think, and I don’t get space. In my absence, I don’t have anybody to lead the kitchen, far too many young people, lots of questions and they all need to be guided. Try to do some thinking about pushing the business forward and they come in with needs ,and their needs are legitimate. And I need to respect their needs. Everybody gets 5 questions a day, better make them good. Don’t waste your questions. They do get it, because im asking them to get it and I expect excellence. There’s far too few employers expecting excellence. They’re grownups, I pay them to think. They are going to leave here better thinkers than they came, and that makes me proud. They’re too young and the company is too young.

I’m a corporate refugee. I remember my managers saying “I want to you be a manager”. I said “have no interest in managing or being a leader.” “If you don’t you’ll be the best manager we never had.” Fast forward 10 years, here I am with this burden of responsibility, leading 13-22 people. That’s a lot of people to be at the crossroads of. To be at the center of their desire and dreams and illness and joys and all the rest of it.This is not about the marshmallows at all. This is about an environment that I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in to shape people, and to shape people’s thinking. Because I have a responsibility. They know that photo needs to be wiped. Photographed for production history and wiped. They didn’t notice it. I could have done it as easily as then, but they know they need to do it. I say “yes” she says “yes, chef”. Such a big part of it for me is that you shape people.

The challenge is that there’s no fruit that comes to you for a long time. It’s like parenting a hundred kids. You have to wait 18 years. This is so much work. Holy shit this is a lot of work. This is a lot of work. This is a lot of work. On those rare moments I can look at it from the outside, and I just get it.

I used to have Wednesdays to do bookwork and thinking, and I have a brand new team and I have to be here with them. When i’m here I can’t do projects because I need space to think. As long as I’m in the kitchen, the business is treading water. Only when you take me out of the kitchen, I’m creative. I don’t have a production manager. I am the production manager and hr manager. We’re in this funny space between a small business and not-so-small business and we’re trying to find ways to grow on a shoestring budget, because we don’t have the cash that we need. But we’re not a factory. How many businesses take shape like this. We’re unique in what we are. These are just people making food.

The pears for panforte, the pears are on the cooktop now. They’ll be drained, and candied. That’s how we work. We don’t buy commercial peel. It’s not good.

Dani left us a couple of weeks ago. When she was leaving we circled the team up to say goodbye to here. And she said “you really need to listen to what Chef says because she knows a lot of stuff, and not just about cooking.” she gets it. One of the hardest things about it is that all the credit to the company needs to be allocated out to the team, and all of the accountability needs to be work by me. It’s like parenting. It’s relentless and endless, but it’s just really precious. It’s so little about the marshmallow. It’s about so much more than that.

First thing we do is nondisclosure, second thing we do is code of conduct. Here I am as your leader and your job is to follow these rules. If it’s empty fill it. This is about the customer, not about you. I’m a taskmaster, however, i’m fair and I have a good relationship with them. They really don’t like me sometimes, and that’s really ok.

 

The space

We work in a very small space that we’ve got a lot of money invested to make this space work for a long time, so everything has a very particular place. Put it back where you find it. We’re too small a space with too much stuff, so you need to put stuff back where things belong.

We are able to sell the volumes that we’re able to because of the way we manage the space that we’re in. We don’t have any trolley space. How to fit ourselves in a tiny spot and make the most of it. Because we’re in such a small space, you have to be orderly.

Every item in here came at a cost to this company and to me. They’re so precious. This is all a physical manifestation of what’s important to me. The code of conduct that this company does.

 

How do you make decisions about materials/inputs?

We don’t buy all of our ingredients in AU. Why? Fruit puree forms the basis of marshmallows which are 20% of my business. If I buy fruit puree in AU, by and large, nobody can guarantee me that that particular fruit puree came from AU. It’s packaged in AU. Or I can buy fruit puree that comes from a French company, I know the quality, it doesn’t have stuff in it. It’s fruit or fruit and 10% sugar. It’s consistent, it’s fabulous. If I knew that I could buy fruit from an AU manufacturer and it was Australian fruit. Would I buy it? Yes. I would even restructure the way we manage our stockholdings.

We don’t work without artificial colors. Why? We make marshmallows in 36 flavors, lemon and lime use fruit juice and citrus oil, but there’s no color in that. What about naturally derived colors, find me a color house that will work with me as a manufacturer. Color houses are not making it easy for me to find a naturally derived color, that is made without fat, which will collapse my marshmallow. I want a color house who will work with me. I’m a very little guy and very little voice.

We talk about sustainability. What does that mean? Part of it means that I’m sourcing ingredients as close to home as possible, organic as much as I can, the worker that’s growing or picking or processing is paid fairly. Part of it means that i’m paying a price that’s affordable. Because there’s sustainability and there’s economic sustainability for my company. No good if I tick all those boxes and then I collapse. I’m doing the food world a better service by being as hand on heart with as many of those things as possible, even if I can’t tick all those boxes.

We don’t add preservative to food ever. Coconut, gelatine, and glucose have sulfite in it. I declare it. We don’t add anything, but it is in some of the source ingredient.

I found an alternative to corn syrup from the US. Now i’m using corn glucose from New Zealand. One of my greatest victories.

We have a compost at the back. We were composing. We use a lot of limes and lemons. It turns out way too acidic. We’ve got no garden waste. It won’t break down. Citrus won’t break down on its own.

I pay big surcharges to run on green energy. I’m going to trust that’s what it is.

There’s a guy next to me at a market and he came to me and said “My supply of candied oranges has dried up. Where can I buy them.” Then I thought “why wouldn’t you just candy them?” So I came back and we candied three oranges. And it worked. They didn’t fall apart. We started candying our own oranges. We’re slicing and candying them, and we do that with quince, pear, pineaple, oranges, grapefruit. We don’t ever buy commercial peel. It is a labor of love, but the difference is exponential. It’s time-consuming. The oranges I’ve got on the trolley now have been there since last Wednesday. We’ll dip them tomorrow. It’s a five-day process from slice and candy to dip. They are great. They’re finicky to make, but it’s well worth it. They’re not one of our biggest movers. Nobody candies fruit in this country. Commercially they don’t do it.

 

How do you make decisions about transactions?

How many businesses doing 800k/year in a kitchen that size? Dipping one peppermint patty at a time? That’s why we’re not making money.

We are 5.5 years old. For the first 15 months it took that long to find ourselves in the black. Then we had 18 months and we were able to invest in point of sales and tempering machines, then lots of things happened in the next 18 months. I made some decisions based on a team member which were costly and that person walked away. When they walked away then there was an operational load that I needed to pick up.

Last Christmas was tough. I knew we were not in good shape financially. Let’s get through Christmas and see how much cash we come out with. We had an average Christmas which was hard because we worked our balls off, and by third week of Jan we owed 25K and had no money. It was a really bad Monday, and I just decided “Enough. I cannot continue to throw good money after bad. I’ve tried everything I know how to do to make this work, everything that seems feasible. We’ve got to stop. I’m out of money, i’m more than out of money. I’m going to have to go find a job. What am I going to do with my marshmallow trays?” The realities of saying “I’m going to dissolve this company” are really painful.

I needed 20k right that minute. The next morning I woke up and I thought hang on a second, one is the 20k and the other is to shut the doors. In terms of shutting the doors, I’ve already decided to, so let’s try and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll shut the doors. So we started brainstorming and eliminated 38% of the items on the shelf. We looked at top sellers by volume and by revenue. The value of top sellers was .25m. Cull the outliers, Lets look at value of items we’re ready to cut. The elimination was 10% of the revenue. It was nothing. We eliminated them. And I exhaled. It’s easier to teach people if you don’t have to teach them so much.

It doesn’t matter if turnover is high, when you don’t have to teach people as much. It was immediately apparent that it was the right idea. We gave away the recipes to the customers. I’m not going to make it for you anymore, but I’ll even teach you how to make it. We told the story to the customers, we’re not making that anymore, we were losing money making that, we want to stay in business. 2 days later we found out we won 4 awards by Melbourne fine foods. 2 days later, Qantas confirmed their first order with us. And then we won an award, “best sweet spot in Sydney”. It was a good decision not to shut the doors.

Feb 14 was a fabulous day, we made a lot of money, everybody was still together before I started to eliminate hours. My payroll runs at 50% and we need big production loads to make the money. Easter and Christmas show us that when we have enough volume we can be profitable. We have ideas to drive revenue, but so much time poverty.

I would always rather retail. We don’t work with any distributors, because where are they going to get their 35%. You have to have a specific retailer who can do your product justice.

Why do people buy from you?

Because they know us, they can see us, we’re transparent. Because the product is beautiful.

Because when we eat, generally we eat for two reasons. We eat for what it tastes like on our tongue, and what it feels in our tummy. And there’s a third place, it’s in between, it’s in the heart. You eat something and you say THAT. I don’t know what it is, but I want THAT. That’s the food that we make. That’s the kind of reaction that it elicits. There are not many opportunities that people have to buy food that tastes like that from somebody that they know.

When we were talking about the mortality of the company in January. If found myself pondering, will anybody miss us? I know they will. I think it would have been a great tragedy if we had shut our doors. People buy from us because they believe in us, because they know we’re vulnerable as a company, because we’re authentic. Not because we make authentic candy, but because I’m authentic. I’m vulnerable, it teaches my team to be vulnerable. That’s kind of like the salt in your pasta and the salt on top of the pasta.

One of my greatest challenges, one of the guys sold pies at the market next to us. I bought one, and it was really average. I said to myself, as soon as people buy one, they’re going to cotton on. But people kept buying them. And I’m so disappointed in that. I’m so disappointed that people’s tongues are not more discerning. I’m not saying I’ve got the answer because I don’t make pies.

But will you buy something that’s quality?

Please don’t buy that.

Here’s a better way.

Aren’t they delicious?

But people buy the cheaper one.

We don’t get taken to task on cost very much. Generally we don’t get a lot of feedback about cost. And we’ve gotten better at knowing where to charge.

Here’s the peppermint pattie. I use this Hobart and that bowl. Icing sugar and peppermint oil and butter and I make filling and I roll it on trays. And I put in the freezer over night and then next day I punch it with a cookie cutter. And then I leave it overnight on the trolley to dry. And the next day I dip it. And that takes an hour a tray. We dip it. We were charging 10 for 10. We now charge 13.50 for 10. Is that the right price?. I don’t think so. If we’re not making money we’re not doing anybody any good, because we’re not viable. There are people who will buy what we’ve got but we are trying to get to those people. The fact that we don’t have time and resource is getting in the way of getting to those people.

We’re in a unique position. People buy from us because we make sweet gifts, and we do it really well. We fill a unique market position, we’ve got very little competition. We’ve got competition for discretionary spend, but compared to other people who do what we do, we do it really well.

This interview took place in November 2014 in the kitchen of Sweetness in Epping, Sydney, AU.

Sweetness closed in December, 2016.

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