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Behind the Kounta: How Cousin Jacks Went From Being a Local Market Stall to Award-Winning High Street Food Retailers

Q&A with Sanna Bedford, co-founder and store manager of Cousin Jacks, Australia’s First (and Best!) Authentic Cornish Pasty Shop.

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If many a hospitality success story is born from a love of food, then Cousin Jacks Pasty Co. is all heart. Founded in 2010 from a serious hankering for a traditional Cornish pasty, what started out as as a small market stall is today a much-loved stop for hungry locals and visitors alike in busy Bondi Junction.

As part of our ongoing Behind the Kounta series, we spoke to Sanna Bedford about the story behind starting Australia’s first traditional Cornish pasty shop with husband Mark, and what they’ve both learned on their path to success over the years.

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So, how did Cousin Jacks start?

Mark and I were visiting the UK and one afternoon we were sitting in his parents’ kitchen enjoying a traditional local pasty. Mark said “these would do so well in Australia if they were done properly like they are here!”, and that was the moment the idea was born.

When we got back to Sydney, we threw around the idea of starting a little pasty shop and, within a matter of weeks, made the decision to test the product at our local weekend market. The rest as they say, is history!

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What did you learn from selling at the local market?

As it turns out, starting at the market stall first was a great move because it gave us direct access to people who were more than happy to talk to us about our product, and that helped a lot with the research we needed to conduct.

We specifically wanted to find out a few things: firstly, whether Australians would buy Cornish pasties; secondly, what recipes would work well in this market; and finally, what we should charge.

To our delight, we found that Australians are big fans of pasties so we had a product that was in demand and could quickly move on to testing different recipes. We started by making two different types every week and observed what people thought. Pretty soon, it became pretty obvious which ones were received well and which ones weren’t, and once we had a shortlist of the most popular pasties, we made two different ones of each variant and perfected our final recipes that way.

One thing we weren’t sure of at first was price. Pasties are a takeaway food, but ours are handmade and more gourmet than your typical over-the-counter snack. We wanted to know what people thought was a reasonable price, and Mark had read about this idea of asking the public to ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ from Jamie Oliver. So the first time at the markets we decided to run the stall with no prices and asked people to pay what they thought was fair for what they got. The overall price was around $6.50, which is what we have stuck with to this day.

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Being new to hospitality, what did you and Mark do to get up to speed?

Mark was an IT contractor and I was in sales prior to starting Cousin Jacks. I always had a keen interest in food which helped but nonetheless, it was still very different to anything we’d done before. We started with our individual strengths – I’m more of a generalist with a market focus and Mark is more of a perfectionist with a systematic, process-oriented approach to things – so I made the fillings and Mark made the pastry.

He knew how important it was to get the pastry right, so he learned by working one day a week for free in an award-winning pie shop in St. Leonards. The rest we picked up as we went!  

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What was your first week like?

Once we’d decided to give Cousin Jacks Pasty Co. a try, we bought two portable pie ovens and a pie warmer. We both still worked full-time, so on Thursday nights I would make the fillings and Mark would prepare the pastry. We’d then fill the car on the Friday night and head to the market at 7.30 on a Saturday morning. It was hard work juggling two jobs then, but we certainly had a lot of fun.

Within the first couple of weeks it was easy to see the potential for growth from the responses we got from people at the market – the fact that we always sold out by midday was really encouraging!

We knew that if we didn’t give it a real go then, we would always wonder how well we could have done, so we decided to put getting married and having a family on hold while we got our venue started up, and we haven’t looked back since.

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How did you transition from a weekend market stall to running your own high street business?

Mark stopped his full-time job to focus on setting up the store and running the business. I continued working so we still had a stable income coming in if things didn’t work out. In my opinion, having a financial backup plan is really important if you want to start your own business from scratch. After a year of Mark running the store and getting all the systems in place, we swapped over.

I started working full-time behind the counter and Mark went back to IT contracting. Following some advice given by others who had been there, we decided it’d be best not to work in the store together, so while I was onsite, Mark worked from home doing administrative tasks and business development. This worked really well for us as I’m good with customers and managing the staff, and Mark is better at optimising business processes, looking for ways to save costs and executing new ideas.

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Where do you make the most money and what marketing tactics have you found to be successful?

I would say about 85 per cent of our revenue comes from takeaway and 15 per cent from dine-ins. We also sell coffee, smoothies and dessert pasties, and frozen pasties you can easily cook at home. Our biggest seller is the traditional pasty and a couple of other meat-based ones.

We’ve never done any paid marketing, in fact the only marketing we regularly do is updating our Facebook page. We find that word-of-mouth is where most of our customers have come from, that and our location. We get a lot of walk-ins and make a point of telling them our story and what we have to offer.

With anything we publish or have printed, we always stick firmly to our brand. For example, Mark is always writing little stories about the origin and history of the traditional pasty. The only other thing we’ve done is launch a loyalty program. We have over 1,000 email addresses in our database and occasionally send out offers to remind people we are here!

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What would you say the key to running a successful takeaway business is?

My number one motto is ‘be true to your product’. We’ve learnt that deviating too far from our key offering hasn’t worked. I would say spend time perfecting your product, and be true to it.

Second to that is our staff. Friendly staff make a huge difference to a customer’s experience. I employ friendly staff and then train them on our brand and product. There are obviously lots of other factors that help with our success; price, location etc., but these two are by far, the most important for us.

Employee management is one of the biggest challenges the hospitality industry faces in my opinion. They directly represent you, but you can’t control them, they get sick, they leave, they have different personalities and you have to continuously train new ones. It’s ongoing work but it’s just the nature of the industry. All you can do is try and provide a good working environment for the employees you have and hope for the best.

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What’s your secret to finding and keeping good staff?

We look for people on Gumtree, then conduct interviews for the applicants we get, followed by a trial period at the shop. That’s pretty standard. What we find really worked for us is to send a training pack to new staff members prior to them starting.

This training pack contains key information about our business, our menu and other things we sell, as well as a video introduction to the Kounta Point of Sale system we use. It prepares our new staff for the trial period they have to go through and helps them get stuck into serving customers right away. Doing this also lets us see if they’ve done their homework before arriving, which shows how serious they are. We’ve found the good staff have been over the menu and video at least a few times before their trial.

Finding the right employees (and keeping them) is probably the most challenging part of the business! We’ve found that besides pursuing a job in a different industry or going overseas, leaving to go to another hospitality venue tells means they don’t like working for you, so we do as much as we can to ensure our staff genuinely enjoy coming to work.

We have a great culture and are as flexible as possible with shifts. I also allocate staff jobs according to their personalities – some people prefer working out the back and some enjoy interacting with customers. We also pay competitively. I’m happy to say that other than the backpackers that have to leave after six months or so because of their visas, we have a relatively low staff turnover for the industry we are in.

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Do you have any suppliers you would recommend or equipment you can’t live without?

We’re really happy with all our suppliers and would recommend them all. We use EWH Food Services for small/dry goods (they offer great service), source our produce from providores at the Sydney Markets and go to The Wood Roaster for our coffee.

There are quite a few tools we can’t live without!  Our custom-made display warmer, UNOX ovens, dough mixer and pastry roller are essential for the pasties. The cold room is also extremely important to keep the pasties and other ingredients fresh.

Our dishwasher conked out last year and although we learned we can live without it, it makes everyone very unhappy. I would say we definitely need one of those for staff morale.

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Do you have any mentors in the industry?

We’ve got some really amazing friends in the industry. The guys from Guzman Y Gomez and the CEO of Muffin Break are our go-to people for advice. They’ve been such great mentors, especially in our first year of business, and have given us very sound advice, such as which accountant and branding company to use.

Also, Mark’s father used to be on the board of the SPAR retail chain which had with over 1000 stores in the UK at the time, so he has plenty of great business advice to offer all the time. He doesn’t live in Sydney so he accesses Kounta and pulls all the reports he needs off the cloud to help us out. We’re really lucky to have him.

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What have you tried that you wouldn’t do again?

Every time we’ve ventured away from our core products we haven’t done well. For example, we trialled doing yoghurt and granola for breakfast and it didn’t work. We’re known for pasties and that’s what people come to us for.

We also realised that if we sell something that customers can’t see, we don’t sell much of it. We did side salads which had to be kept in the fridge so not many people bought them. Photos definitely help to entice our customers – this is especially true with tourists or people from out of town – they get a better understanding of the product when they can see what’s inside.

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Have you made any mistakes that have helped you improve?

We’ve made lots of little ones, mainly around recipes that didn’t sell and staff we shouldn’t have hired. With that I’ve learned to always follow my gut. Previously, I’ve have been optimistic and hopeful with staff that weren’t quite right and had some bad experiences.

Our biggest mistake I think, was when we opened our Martin Place store. It started off really well and we were selling double what we were in the Bondi store. Unfortunately, the Westpac building which was next door and had 4,000 staff, relocated to Barangaroo and Kogarah and our sales plummeted so much we had to eventually close.

The landlord and real estate agent we paid to find the site for us did not mention the changes ahead, and on our part we’d failed to double-check the advice we were given. We were relying on one existing nearby business for a large chunk of our sales and we’ve learned not to do that again.

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Have there been any market issues or opportunities that have affected your business in the last few years?

Food trends have been something we’ve had to keep up with – there are definitely more vegetarians and people requesting gluten-free options today, but having said that, our sales are better than ever so it isn’t a problem.

The other issue we face is competition, particularly new cafés in the area. Our pasties are unique but our coffee isn’t, and when a new café opens, people are of course excited to try their coffee.

New opportunities for us include getting our liquor licence and additional outdoor seating. We have yet to start selling beer and cider, but putting some branding and advertising on our outdoor seating helped us stand out more against other business on the high street and attracted more customers in.

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What advice would you give other aspiring hospitality business owners?

Do as much research as possible before you start. I think a lot of people go into hospitality thinking it’s all about the food, they likely have a romanticised dream, probably from watching Masterchef! Food is only part of the job. Things like managing staff and bookkeeping are just some of the activities that will take up more time than you can imagine. The reality is you spend more time running the business than enjoying the fun parts – the food side and socialising with customers.

You have to be prepared to learn a lot and do a lot more than just make nice food. Also, testing your offerings out at weekend markets or some other low cost way will really give you a feel for things early on. At the very least, doing this before committing to a venue lease means you’ll have a much lower chance of losing a large security deposit in case things don’t work out.

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What exciting things do you have planned for the future?

We’ve just been through the process of obtaining a liquor licence so we will be introducing English beers and ciders to go with the menu very soon. We’ve also just started doing pasty-making classes for kids which are going really great.

Ultimately, the end goal is to have more than one store, but we have an 18-month old with us now, so it might take a while before that happens, but it’s something we’re definitely working towards in the near future.

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