Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Time in the kitchen pays off

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Christmas cakes were the starting point for a fast-growing food firm

In the food business, it's important to anticipate changing tastes, says Karen Staples. Photo / Sarah Ivey
In the food business, it's important to anticipate changing tastes, says Karen Staples. Photo / Sarah Ivey

For Karen Staples, the smell of Christmas baking comes with a powerful sense of nostalgia.

It was in the lead-up to Christmas 1997 that she created her gourmet food company, pure delish.

The mother of two small boys had no money for presents, but she did have a talent for baking, which she put to use making and selling $6000 worth of Christmas cakes at markets and by doorknocking businesses.

Each following year, around October, she would crank up the ovens in rented catering kitchens for weeks at a time, so she and a small team of helpers could mix and bake thousands of cakes.

"I'm an ideas person and have always been a really hard worker, so wasn't afraid of any of that," says Staples.

That's just as well, because she was juggling the cake-making with part-time work in the fashion industry, in between racing home to look after the kids.

"I'd be in tears most days."

Finally, Staples reached a tipping point: she had to either sell the business or turn it into a self-sustaining, year-round operation.

A range of cereals sprang to mind, something that people eat every day, she says, but at a higher quality and price point to what was then available.

"I've always wanted to be innovative and be completely different and not be like anyone else, particularly in that cereal category because it is so old-school and traditional."

Her latest creation is a "no grain-ola", made mainly from nuts and seeds, which hits the mark for gluten-avoiders or those following a low-carb, high-protein diet.

"You've kind of got to be fashion-forward," says Staples.

"You've got to always be looking for the next thing that's happening in the industry, which I think I've been quite good at doing."

Although Staples has tried to ensure growth was slow and sustainable, she recalls challenging times when she needed to take money out of the wages from her other job to pay her bakers.

In the shadow of the global financial crisis, she made a conscious decision to dig deep and make a success of her business.

That meant quitting her part-time job and devoting herself to pure delish.

"Unless you've really been there you don't understand how it drives you. That was my driver.

"I had no choice but to make this work because I was at the bottom, and luckily hard work never bothered me, really.

"A lot of it is down to just honest-to-God putting in the work, putting in the hours."

Although it was terrifying to give up the safety net of her salaried job, focussing solely on the business has paid dividends, with double-digit growth for the past four years.

Staples employs 15 full-time staff who hand-make all the products, which now include biscuits, slices and snack bars alongside the original Christmas cakes and cereals.

She loves the fact that she can give people a job, and enjoys creating a product made the traditional way which sets it apart from the competition.

"Every cereal we've tried that's made in vats or however they do it, it just does not taste like ours, simple as that."

Customers love her products - one is even exporting pure delish to China - and so does the food industry.

Cuisine magazine gave her spicy ginger and walnut caramel slab the nod in this year's artisan awards, and pure delish products have been finalists or winners at the New Zealand Food Awards.

"We don't need it for our success as a business but the cred's nice," she says. "Those things make you feel like you've kind of cracked it in a way."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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