Looking to start your own food business? Then the Fabulous Food Business series of articles is here to inspire you. This is a series of articles showcasing food businesses that are thriving, inspiring you to get moving on your dreams. One such business is Melbourne based business The Organic Kitchen Caterers, founded by Noula Kirlis. If you would like to read about the other food businesses I have chatted to, pop to the end of this article for links to those interviews.
Noula Kirlis grew up in Melbourne in a Greek family, where food was a key part of life. Every Sunday would starting with her parents creating food and good food was just part of living life. Her parents grew up on farms where they made their own milk and yoghurt and grew their own produce and they passed this love of food to their daughter.
With this background you would expect Noula to get off to a flying start in the food industry. Instead Noula went to University and studied Psychology. Like many people at the end of their studies, Noula realized she didn’t want to be a psychologist. Noula made the transition to the food industry by working in cafes. She spent time training in the original and now defunct Smith Street’s Soul Food Café where Noula grew her knowledge of organic food made from scratch. The US eventually beckoned and Noula spent 8 years there, spending time in Berkeley, an area in the US which has strong ties with the slow food and farm to table food movements.
A change in circumstances led to a return to Australia. Wanting to have a certain type of life for herself and her children, Noula created the Organic Kitchen Caterers, initially running the business from her own home. The Organic Kitchen Caterers is now an amazing food business delivering organic, clean meals to Melbournians keen to eat well. They cater to both vegetarians and those following the paleo diet and many of the Organic Kitchen Caterers’ meals are suitable for vegans. The meals are also gluten and dairy free.
With a strong belief in the need to provide quality to people buying her meals, Noula takes great pride in where she sources her ingredients from. I asked Noula how she sourced her food and what steps she takes to make sure she delivers the quality that is so important to her. Noula has good contacts in the food industry so word of mouth has been her first port of call. But she also talks to suppliers directly, suppliers like Three Ridges Biodynamic Farm. These conversations help Noula check on the values and methods suppliers are using. Noula also uses organizations like Spade and Barrow, who source goods from farmers in a way that is equitable and fair, to access quality produce. It is all about partnering with like-minded businesses.
On top of this, Noula reads and researches. The research is always changing and Noula is open to being told she has been misinformed in the past. It is all about questioning and doing your best with the information you have.
Growing the Business
Growing the business has been challenging because of time constraints. As The Organic Kitchen Caterers has grown, Noula has refined what she does. Cooking classes previously offered have now been cut due to time constraints. Instead Noula is growing her corporate and event catering that aligns more closely with the core element of the business, delivering meals. While it is good to have a clear idea of what you want to do when you start your business, you also shouldn’t be afraid to refine your business and change direction if that is what is going to work.
But Noula is not looking at growing just for the sake of getting bigger. She has been toying with the idea of franchising and moving into other states in Australia as well as opportunities in the US. And if the right opportunity came up she would be interested in a shop front. Noula has also had offers of funding to grow. However, if Noula is going to grow she wants to do it in a careful considered way that does not sacrifice her values. The quality of her product is too important to her to lose and food often has to change if it is going to be done on a large scale. That is not to say Noula wouldn’t like to earn more, but it has to be combined with integrity. This sense of integrity and authenticity has been a theme with all the businesses I have interviewed. It is such a great way for a small business to set themselves apart.
While the Organic Kitchen Caterers has done well, it has not been without worry. Noula freely admits that at times there have been strong feelings of overwhelm. There is an incredible sense of responsibility with being the owner.
When I spoke to Noula ,she was having to work doubly hard as her cook had resigned for personal reasons. There were 500 meals to make and it was up to Noula to make sure that happened. It is on days like those that Noula would prefer to be employed. But luckily for Noula this only happened 3 times last year. It does take a while to recover from these feelings but these periods are definitely in the minority for Noula. However, it is definitely something those contemplating setting up a business should consider. Owning and running a small business is not for everyone.
Loving the business
It was very clear from our conversation that Noula adored her business and I was keen to find out what in particular she enjoyed. Noula particularly loves that it engages all aspects of her brain; it keeps her sharp and focused. She gets to be involved in all aspects. And with this comes with freedom and the ability to do what she wants to do, particularly in terms of spending time with her children and travelling.
And Noula loves that more people are getting on board with clean eating and paleo. Obviously it helps her business on a financial level that there is interest in these aspects, but Noula is also excited about what it means for people who are improving their diets. She strongly believes in the impact it can have on the quality of life people experience. Noula has had the opportunity to work with organisations supporting those with chronic diseases such as coeliac disease and loves demonstrating that you can still have delicious meals even if you have a limited diet.
Not that she expects nor wants people to blindly follow these trends. Noula is keen on encouraging people to do their own research and to be freethinkers. She encourages people to question everything.
Advice for new businesses
As with all interviews I do with food business, I asked Noula what advice she would give to someone looking to set up a food business. Her top tips are:
- Do it for the right reasons
- Be realistic and prepare yourself for a lot of work
- The business will require your full focus and commitment after the excitement of setting up the business.
But the piece of advice I love best is that you need to treat running a business like a marriage. You have to commit to the relationship with all the good and bad parts and you have to work at the relationship. At the end of the day you will always have to make sure your kitchen is clean and there will always be health inspectors to work with.
I had a great time chatting to Noula and getting to know her business and would like to thank her for taking the time to talk to me. Her passion for providing quality food shines through. If you are in Melbourne and need some help getting on track with clean eating, make sure you pop over to the Organic Kitchen Caterers’ website and order some of their great food.
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