Narelle Plapp on persistence, passion and patience

Narelle Plapp - Food for Health founder

With food intolerances on the rise, business opportunities are ripe for the picking by entrepreneurs who are savvy enough to spot them. Narelle Plapp saw her chance to enter the health food market back in 2005, after demand for the two homemade allergy-friendly mueslis she had created for clients of her naturopath business went gangbusters.

So, she began stocking the products in her newly purchased health food store and before long they had a cult following, leading her to launch the Food for Health range on the wider market. Plapp continued to hand mix the muesli herself for a couple of years, often working into the early hours of the morning to fill orders. But demand continued to pick up, and before long it became more than she could handle on her own. She went in search of a manufacturer, and began producing her products on a bigger scale.

Now, she heads up a globally growing business that enjoys turnover of $3.7 million a year and whose products are stocked in 3,000 stores around the world. In this interview, Plapp talks about how she ensures the business remains competitive and reveals how entrepreneurship has improved her mental toughness.

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced since launching the business? How did you overcome this?

Food for Health outgrew the “hand mixing” operation quite quickly so finding a manufacturer that would help me was a big challenge. They all had huge minimum runs and I just could not afford it. It’s the same for many small businesses – cashflow, is pretty tough in the early days. But I had to do something as working in the store and then mixing muesli till 2am each night was starting to take a toll. I was extremely persistent with one particular manufacturer, you could even say I harassed him, but I eventually convinced him to allow me to do a small run. I sold my passion to him, and this was a huge turning point in the future success of Food for Health.

After I realised I had the right capabilities, I presented my two products to Woolworths and they ranged them. And before I knew it, I was making more than the minimum amount required by my manufacturer.

Healthy, allergen free foods are taking off in Australia, so how do you ensure Food for Health remains competitive?

Food for Health will always remain true to its core values. With my background [as a naturopath], healthy eating is extremely important and I get very frustrated with the unhealthy snacks on our supermarket shelves. People with food allergies want to have healthy options, and I think the perception is that ‘gluten free’ or ‘free from’ is healthy, but it’s definitely not the case. There are a lot of cakes and biscuits on our shelves that are gluten free but are full of cane sugar and saturated fat.

Food for Health provides people with food allergies healthy food solutions and we will always stay true to this. Our position in the food allergy category means we have to work to ensure customers can trust our brand and understand that Food for Health will always represent healthy eating.

What are the essential traits you think an entrepreneur needs to be successful?

First, you need to be comfortable with taking risks and not being financially stable in the start-up phase. To get through this stage you need the 3 P’s: Persistence, passion and patience!

If being an entrepreneur and running you own business was easy, everyone would do it. Nothing good is easy to get, so work hard and enjoy the journey you’re on, stay focused and never say ‘can’t’, ask ‘how’ instead. You learn something new every day in business, so as hard as some days can be never give up because if you have passion you’ll eventually see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

You now export to 6 countries. What are the steps a small business needs to take to become an exporter?

Export is a whole other ball game to our domestic market. Understanding regulations and consumer needs in each market takes time and a lot of research. You also have to be with some cashflow projections, because with long shipping and landing times you might have to wait a while for payment.

Austrade are a fantastic resource for small businesses. They have a lot of relationships with many countries, so they are extremely helpful in guiding you on your export journey. Also, with the assistance of the EMDG (Export grant), you can gain access to funds to help with your export research or marketing plans. At Food for Health, we have received this a couple of times and it has been very helpful in cashflow management.

Food for Health’s export strategy has been to team up with Austrade or other Australian exporters and exhibit at international tradeshows. Around 80 percent of our export business was signed up at these shows. It also gives you an opportunity to visit the country you’re interested in and get a better understanding or how the retail environment works there, and what consumers want.

Being an entrepreneur can be tough. What do you do to get through the difficult times?

Early on, probably cry! But being a female entrepreneur in a male dominated industry has definitely made me a lot tougher, so if I’m having a bad day, I will give myself a ‘mental health day’. This means I take myself away from the office, switch off my phone and spend the day with my little boy, Jack. Hang out in the park and do simple things. I find this brings everything back into perspective and makes me realise what is really important in life. I think: is not making that deadline going to change my life? Probably not.

I think we set high expectations of ourselves when we run our own businesses, but at the end of the day we do it all for our family – so that’s what’s most important.

What’s your secret to running a profitable, Australian made business?

Employing people that really love and fit the Food for Health culture. We only have a small team, but we all love coming to work, especially for our Sushi Wednesday team lunches. My wonderful team work as if the business was their own and you can’t buy that kind of commitment and passion. Without them, Food for Health wouldn’t be where it is today, so building a fabulous and fun culture is my little secret.

What’s next for Food for health?

We are about to launch four exciting new products; two for kids and two for big kids. These will roll out in October and November consecutively. This has been a big project of mine, so to finally see the products on the shelves will be exciting.

We have also just finished a rebranding strategy, and as a result we have new logo and new packaging, which will roll out over the next couple of months in line with the launch of the new product lines. This project has taken up a big chunk of the year, but will be well worth it as the new logo is super cute.

  • Nice work getting in with the big guns of the supermarket industry! That would have been a real pivotal point in gaining momentum for your business. Congratulations and good luck with the rebrand and new products.