Small Business

Sophie Storen and Nicole De Bono of Cookes Food

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Thursday 11th December 2014

For our final ‘Small Business’ snapshot of the year, as we look towards a summertime of fun, food and hopefully stress-free entertaining, it seems fitting to have a chat to the hardworking pair behind Cookes Food – a super awesome local catering and events company who we LOVE, and who we have had the great privilege of working with at our TDF Open House events since 2011!

Sophie Storen and Nicole De Bono are the industrious pair behind Cookes Food, and I am constantly in awe of their incredible energy and infectious enthusiasm for what they do.  Over the past four years, I’ve seen their business grow and develop, yet Sophie and Nicole still maintain that awesome ‘start up’ attitude, you know, where you can tell that running their own business is something they truly LOVE doing, and every challenge is met with enthusiasm.  They pride themselves on starting each job with a  blank canvas – that means a tailored creative idea for each and every client – no cookie-cutter packages!

Sophie and Nicole are kinda young (well, my age… early thirties!) and started their business in mid 2008.  With a shared love of great produce and a creative approach to food, they started out with the premise of offering seasonal and locally grown ingredients in the catering realm. ‘The catering industry seemed to be over populated at that time with very standard menus and lots of fried foods – we wanted to work towards changing those catering clichés by offering a more personalised approach, and great, exciting ideas to a variety of clients’ says Sophie.

Since launching in 2008, Cookes Food has gone from strength to strength.  Originally a fledgling operation with Sophie in the kitchen and Nicole as event manager and ‘front of house’, they now have a full-time chef (Simon), part time project manager (Philippa) and a team of experienced service staff and contractors, which expands and contracts seasonally as required.  The business has also recently upgraded to a brand new premises – moving from a small combined office and kitchen space into a larger premises with industrial kitchen in St Kilda.  ‘It feels like it has taken forever to get here, our new location now really reflects us and our business, and we both feel so proud!!’ says Sophie enthusiastically. ‘We feel completely re-inspired to work harder towards our new challenges and goals as a young business’.

We dropped in to visit Sophie and Nicole in their new space recently and grilled them on the remarkable growth of their small business.

Can you tell us a little bit about your business – how is your business structured, how many staff do you employ, what services do you offer?

Our business is all about offering our clients an opportunity to start from a blank canvas, and we try to keep that way by steering away from standard packages or looks. Our services are flexible – we arrange as much or as little as our clients like. We look after food, beverage, staffing as well as event management and production of styling and all creative touches.

Sophie manages clients, the kitchen, its people and suppliers, and from time to time steps back on the tools. Nicole is more office based, managing admin, accounts, clients and all the casual staff whilst training up our own event managers in house.

Over time we have employed so many staff, many of them come and go, and others have stuck by us since day dot!  This year we employed our first Kitchen manager and Head Chef Simon, he is a complete God send and now we have him we don’t know how we ever managed before! We also have on board another project manager Philippa who is incredibly awesome, efficient and super reliable!

What does a typical work day at Cookes Food involve?

Sophie – At the start of every week I go through the job folders for the following 7 days, I print them out and highlight any hard to source items I might have put on the menus. I run through these with our head chef Simon, and we discuss logistics and transport and which recipe we are using for what.

I am sometimes light on details within my menus, and that’s because I don’t want to feel trapped by an ingredient that might not be perfect due to weather or availability. If I say salad leaves, is it wasabi leaves or sorrel? I just want the best quality outcome and I want it to be Australian not Peruvian.

Beyond this I check through my emails then review and update my ‘WIP’ – an office tool that Nic got me into. My WIP is my ‘Work in Progress’, it’s ultimately a list – the list! I once cried because I could find my WIP, this is how precious it has become to me! Without it, there would be a hell of a lot of post its everywhere!

On event days we are both up at the crack of dawn, it’s casual comfortable attire and in the kitchen there is endless checking off, counting and packing until we are ready to go. The office printer is going crazy with print outs of schedules before the setups commence and the countdown is on.

On site we are problem solving, doing walk throughs and in constant discussions about who is doing what and when. We are setting up tables, chairs, laying out menu cards and place settings whilst making sure band members arrive and celebrants are on time.

Before the event starts we ‘hit the refresh button’ as Nic always says, and we spruce ourselves up before the guests arrive. Any services can be intense, it’s go-go-go, and when we have completed the food component we all relax a little and then start to catch our breath before going straight into pack up mode. We and our staff work so hard on these days, and we appreciate them all so much as they all do it with a smile!  Together we all have fun and make the most of it before it’s over!

What are some daily office rituals and systems you employ to enhance your team’s productivity?

It has to be our weekly Work in Progress meeting.  We all sit down together and run through the events ahead, we raise any concerns or issues and then work through logistics and planning.

Our internal events calendar is also super important, it gets updated constantly, all day every day, and we all rely on this to tell us what is on and when!

What computer programs, apps and software do you utilise to streamline your daily tasks and keep everything running smoothly?

We have just upgraded the office computers, we all use PC here, we would love Macs but Nic’s a PC girl from way back and for her to keep the office admin humming when we moved, we felt it was a better choice to stick to what we (she) knew.

For internal communication and file sharing we use Google Mail, Google Drive, Dropbox.

Out of all the phone apps, it goes without saying that we could not do our job very well if Google maps did not exist…. even though sometimes we go far and beyond where the maps work!

For inspiration and reference gathering, Pinterest is a personal favourite.

We also love Instagram – we have nearly hit 2000 followers which is very exciting for us, considering it’s free to advertise and network this way!

With the bonus of hindsight, what do you know now about running a small business that you wish you knew when you started?

Sophie – Trust your gut, if you think something isn’t going to work – i.e. getting swans to tap dance – say no! It’s better to be realistic than to over promise and blur any expectation! It also took me a long time to accept that we are not for everyone and that some you have to let go and not take it personally.

Nic – I was a little naive at the start, and put very little value on all the years that I had worked so hard on building a rapport with my clients and suppliers in all my previous jobs. I thought that being nice was just a given, and I never put a value on that practice and how it transcends into good healthy business operation. Building relationships is really what this business is all about, and I believe also the thing that equals good job satisfaction.  As a result, I never feel like I’m at work, I just always feel like I’m around friends and having a good time!

What are your top three tips for running a successful small business?

Sophie

1. Treat your staff well, and they will do the same in return.

2. Create a harmonious and fun work environment, so even the action of showing up to work becomes exciting.

3. Work on your business, not in it (From ‘E-myth‘ – yes I’m one of those people)

Nic

1. Be honest and never make rushed or pressured decisions, take your time and keep a good life/work balance.

2. Find great staff and reliable suppliers, go local where you can, and build up good relationships with all of them.

3. Listen to everyone around you, whether it’s your bestie, your supplier, your parents, the person you get your coffee from in the morning, ask questions and use all of their feedback to help make good choices and also get inspiration for each and every day!

Cookes Food
Ph. (03) 9510 9443

11 & 11a Wellington Street
St Kilda
Vic, 3182

(Meetings by appointment)

Nicole and Sophie of Cookes Food having a silly moment in their new St Kilda headquarters!  (This irreverent snapshot captures Sophie’s personality perfectly – always professional, but never too serious!).  Photo – Sean Fennessy.


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