Nick Smith on business

Nick Smith is an award-winning freelance writer

Success: Selling with a touch of cool

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Don Saunders' designs marry good looks and functionality. Photo / Christine Cornege
Don Saunders' designs marry good looks and functionality. Photo / Christine Cornege

Don Saunders reckons the death of modern craftsmanship has been greatly exaggerated; like the Kakapo, artisans are endangered but not extinct.

Saunders urges doubters to visit the factory near Hamilton where his company, Cater Cart, makes handcrafted vending carts that look as if they've rolled straight out of a Mediterranean film set.

"I've been stunned by the engineering prowess of the guys in the factory," he says. "They can make metal sing. The way that they weld and craft, it's just unbelievable."

The aesthetics of good design may be worth applauding but, says Saunders, these beauties still "have to go out and earn a living - and that's where the engineering comes in; they're built rugged and they're designed to take the knocks".

Cater Cart is an unusual business story. Its wares are handmade but are pitched at a price the everyman entrepreneur can afford (less than $6000 for a base and canopy). Now that the expensive bit - three years of self-funded research, development and design - is complete, Saunders predicts that a return on his undisclosed investment will soon be in view.

The immediate goals are humble (50 cart sales next year, twice that in 2013), and Saunders concedes he won't "get a feel for the market" until he achieves those goals. The plan is to roll out 14 designs, including cart transporters and kitchen trailers, establish a market presence and then "Australia is the next cab on the rank".

Saunders calls the transporters "motherships" supporting "a whole bunch of bambina carts". "If you wanted to know my Napoleonic view on the world, envisage the Fieldays ... you'd have a mothership trailer, half-a-dozen carts all being fed and they are your shopfront."

Cater Cart's point of difference is not just handcrafted beauty married to functionality - changing a cart's retail purpose is as easy as switching the kitchen top - but also its delivery; a reflection of Saunders' background in advertising.

Instead of "the old greasy caravan and a guy with a fag hanging out of his mouth and wearing a greasy apron", Cater Cart operators are decked out in embroidered and branded chef's uniforms. "What we're trying to do is to create a sense of theatre," Saunders says. He has pitched the package to evoke a sense of Old World elegance with some modern accoutrements.

If it's a crepe cart, then the operator wears a backpack drench gun to apply batter: "The pack is filled with batter and the insulated hose comes over your shoulder, like Ghostbusters, to a drench gun in a holster." The carts are high-tech, fitted with running hot and cold water, and hot and cold kitchen options. Each cart can be custom-fitted to the operator's requirements.

Demand will be high, he predicts, because the initial outlay for an operator is small. "It pays more quickly than a lot of other businesses would," he says. "This is a seriously good little business earner.

"We may not crank out the highest volume of carts but we will make the most sophisticated, both in appearance and technology, and have the best build quality and technical backup service."

This means he will supply any franchise-type operation not only with Cater Carts, but foodstuffs, uniforms, licensing, branding, a business plan, audited costings and customer projections. Vendors can operate independently or under the Cater Cart umbrella.

New Zealand is the perfect test bed for his plan as it has no existing cart culture. By "hot-housing" here, Saunders believes he can iron out any problems before exporting the model.

He believes the overall quality of his product will protect his business from cheaper manufacturers, who might "reverse engineer" the carts. He has trademark and copyright protection but not patents: "For this kind of thing, [patents are] a recipe for litigation."

Besides, he backs his people at his Hamilton factory, which Saunders calls his "R&D" hub. "To protect our IP, we need to be continually innovating to keep ahead," he says. "We won't stop innovating or creating; this is long-term stuff."

- NZ Herald

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