When Erica Ormsby and her sister and fellow foodie Andrea Mason first talked about launching their own fine foods label it was always as the first step in realising their dream of running their own food store.
Just 18 months down the track Three Birds is stocked in about 60 retailers all over Western Australia but the focus is still on fine-tuning the wholesale model before making any move into the risky retail sector.
Given the current weakness in consumer spending, the sisters’ decision to hold back on their retail aspirations looks like a savvy one.
But neither woman is a newcomer to the challenges of running a small business and the perils of biting off more than you can chew financially.
Ms Ormsby is a graphic designer and has run her own printing shop and graphic design businesses.
Ms Mason’s background is in restaurants and catering and it was her collection of much-loved pickle and jam recipes that provided the inspiration for Three Birds’ first product range.
“Our original plan was to open a gourmet food store because we felt like Fremantle was missing that,” Ms Ormsby said.
“But we weren’t really ready at the time to make that financial outlay and we wanted to fill the store with our own product line.”
As a compromise they decided to start by developing a wholesale business that would give them time to build up an inventory that could eventually line the shelves of their own store.
“We still talk about the food store but we would like to have this (wholesale) side of things smooth and operational so we don’t have the pressure of both,” Ms Ormsby said.
Ultimately, the plan is to hire staff to cook and create the product range for a national market but in these early days the sisters undertake all the production themselves from a commercial kitchen they share with another small business in O’Connor.
The operation is underpinned by both women’s love of simple, fresh tasty food but it’s also a marriage of their two different skill sets.
And as much work has gone into the blend of flavours in the Three Birds salt mixes, as has the look of the Three Birds branding and packaging on the shelf.
Like any fast-moving consumer product, the look of Three Birds is almost as important as the taste and it’s vital in attracting the attention of customers.
Getting them hooked on the product range comes down to the blend of flavours and that’s Ms Mason’s domain.
“A lot of the products were recipes and ideas that Andrea had been working on and then it was a matter of working out how we could make it on a grand scale for major production,” Ms Ormsby told WA Business News.
The range has extended from those initial jams and pickles to more than 20 products and the mix changes regularly.
To launch the business Three Birds approached up-market Cottesloe provedore The Boatshed.
It was a simple strategy of targeting high-end stores in Perth’s western suburbs to build interest and momentum in the brand.
Once they had established a foothold in these gourmet trendsetters they took on a distributor, who broadened Three Birds’ retail footprint as far south as Albany and north to Broome.
And the sisters have plans to expand into the gift and tourism market as well as selling their wares into cafes and restaurant kitchens.
But perhaps the biggest opportunities are in the online market.
Some publicity on the east coast led to a rush of orders on their site and Ms Ormsby said the key to this slice of the market was a strong brand.
“We only just started doing it a few months ago and we need to really work on the brand and get some good exposure,” she said.
The business is already washing its face and the sisters believe they can steadily build their customer base, their range and profits along the way.
Despite the focus on their wholesale business, Ms Ormsby and Ms Mason recognise the value of direct interaction with customers through events like the Perth Upmarket.
These market days give them a chance to meet customers, demonstrate how the product can be used and get feedback on the range, vital information you can’t get as a wholesaler.
The product range now includes sugos, preserves, rice infusions and glazes, all of which can be simply used to create quick, tasty meals.
Having a young family of her own, Ms Ormsby understands the value of a product that can be simply combined with everyday groceries to create a satisfying, flavoursome meal.
“A lot of things we make … are simple solutions so you can have a dinner really quickly,” Ms Ormsby said.
“It’s really fun to come up with something new and I think it keeps the retailers interested and the client interested.”