IT was the chance discovery of a wood-fired oven in the monastery town of New Norcia that provided the spark for the New Norcia Bakeries brand, according to founder Kingsley Sullivan.
“While the oven was there, from a marketing point of view the area has the 120-year history of the monks baking bread,” Mr Sullivan told WA Business News.
“It was an artisan’s haven and it was a beautiful and tranquil place.
“We wanted to bake traditional breads and the history of the region fitted with that concept.”
The story began in 1992 when Mr Sullivan stumbled upon the oven. New Norcia Bakeries now turns over $3 million annually and exports products to Europe and Asia.
There was no retail component to the bakery in the early years, with the company instead focused on servicing a wholesale market.
“Kate Lamont rang up and wanted some bread, and we organised that. We then supplied other restaurants and it kept growing,” Mr Sullivan said.
“And we never rang anyone to sell bread. Word spread like wildfire.”
Food critics have played an important part in the bakery’s national and international wholesale expansion.
“Stephanie Alexander was writing for The Weekend Australian and she wrote an article on our Nut Cake. The next day I had someone from David Jones on the phone asking about it,” Mr Sullivan said.
The product and the Dom Salvado Pan Chocolatti, which was developed later, are now sold in David Jones nationally.
Initially the company was known as New Norcia Natural Breads but a change of name resulted as the company began to export its new range of long-shelf life products – Nut Cake and Dom Salvado Pan Chocolatti.
“We changed the name because the Asian market got confused when we sold the Nut Cake there because it wasn’t bread,” Mr Sullivan said.
The Nut Cake today looks quite different to when it was launched in 1994, Mr Sullivan said, emphasising how important food packaging was to sales success.
“When we launched Dom Salvado Pan Chocolatti we knew that the packaging had to be good, it needed to be of a world standard,” he said. “It needed to stand up against an Italian or a French product.
“The Nut Cake sales were heading down but if you gave people both to try, 60 per cent would prefer the Nut Cake. So we changed the packaging and sales turned right around.
“My advice to any new food producer is the get good packaging.”
Mr Sullivan’s first retail outlet was the result of another wood-fired oven find. This time, though, it was a little closer to home.
“A real estate agent called me and asked if I was interested in premises in Mt Hawthorn that had a wood-fired oven. I said I was interested, and the shop was 1,000 metres from my home.”
Mr Sullivan said being able to offer his bakers local work helped attract and retain quality employees.
Some baking still takes place in New Norcia, however.
The business’ early days were frantic and Mr Sullivan said he spent more time working in the business than working on the business.
However, in 1998 the company received an injection of capital and business acumen by way of local businessman, and Mr Sullivan’s current business partner, Mark Young.
“Things really turned around then. It freed up a lot of my time and together we concentrated on the business operations,” Mr Sullivan said.
“I could put effort into things like winning the Qantas contract. Our bread is served on international and domestic first and business class meals.”
Word of mouth and networking have built up a recognisable brand name for New Norcia Bakeries.
“I’m a member of the Western Australian Tourism Commission’s visiting journalists program. They ring me every now and then and say, for instance, that they have a Singapore food writer in town and whether I am interested in taking them to New Norcia,” Mr Sullivan said.
“I take them there myself so I can explain the region and our business.”
And it’s not just visiting journalists who get the personal touch, with new staff members also visiting New Norcia as part of their induction process.
“It means that we have a four-hour car journey where I get to know about them and they get to know about my business,” he said.
“They also get to know about New Norcia so when customers come into my shop and ask about things they know about it and they’re not stuck for words.”
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