Small Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Manufacturers - Tracey O'Toole, Cucina Foods

Tracey O'Toole, director of Cucina Foods.
Tracey O'Toole, director of Cucina Foods.

Tracey O'Toole is a director of Cucina Foods, an Auckland-based artisan pasta manufacturer.

How did you get into the manufacturing business?

My husband and I bought Cucina Foods as a going concern in October of 1999. I had always wanted to have my own business and knew it would need to be something that involved food. By chance I happened to find this little pasta company that was for sale and I loved the fact it was making a big range of different pasta products, as well as other interesting gourmet foods that complemented the pasta.

Initially the biggest change we made was to prune back the range of gourmet foods and put the focus on the pasta. I wanted Cucina Foods to be the New Zealand equivalent of the thousands of pastificio outlets you find all over Italy, which specialise in making fresh pasta daily. We take an artisan approach, making all of our fresh pasta to order. It's a labour intensive process, as the pasta is rolled by hand through machines giving it a unique texture and quality.

We primarily supply the foodservice industry - restaurants, cafes, hotels and caterers - and a few select retail stores. More recently we've started selling directly to consumers via our website.

The figures show it's a pretty buoyant time in general in the manufacturing sector, but what is the climate like for you in your business?

We have noticed the market is more buoyant now than it was, say, a year ago, and there is clearly more disposable income being spent in dining out, which we see through our supply to the foodservice industry. We're enjoying the fact our customers are beginning to branch out again with menu development. Through the tough times what is noticeable is people take a 'batten down the hatches' approach and don't want to make too many changes or try different things and everything becomes very price driven. Chefs are generally very creative so I guess it follows they must find constant cost cutting difficult. The ability to innovate again probably reflects the feeling of optimism in the market.

Despite the buoyancy, what are some of the challenges that remain as a small manufacturer?

One of the biggest challenges is staying true to what we believe in with regard to quality - and getting this message across to our target market. From time to time over the years we've considered becoming more automated, but ultimately we've shied away from this as we know automating will affect the texture and quality of our products. The difference with really top quality handmade fresh pasta is enormous and our chef customers rarely change once they've used our product, so we enjoy terrific loyalty.

It is also a major challenge ensuring our cost-to-serve is micro managed and that our product offering is dynamic. We have developed a cost-to-serve model that highlights whether a customer is a 'drain' or 'marginal' and this enables us to do something about that.

But does being a little guy also give you some advantages against larger competitors?

We do believe that being a small manufacturer is a big advantage in many ways and we consider we punch well above our weight in terms of our systems and processes. Being small means we're nimble and keen, so we can make special flavours or types of pasta to order and we really value our customers and are committed to delivering a top notch service. We are very proud of our regular 98% KPI achievement on DIFOTAI - delivered in full, on time, accurately invoiced. We have a very direct and close relationship with our customers, which has developed due to having a small and close knit team.

It's an election year. Is there anything you'd like to see legislators do to make life easier for small manufacturers such as yourselves?

Compliance costs are always challenging for a small business and as food safety is so important for us we find the compliance costs are high and overly cumbersome, with a lack of clarity and at times relevance to small business. Similarly, I believe ACC costs are very high and out of sync with what our business achieves.

Coming up in Small Business: Many blog for love, but do you also do it for money? I'm interested to hear from small business bloggers - if you've got a story to share, drop me a note:

- NZ Herald

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