Table of Plenty founder on community and customer service
With just over six years in the business, Kate Weiss’ Table of Plenty is already offering the world a taste of healthy and delicious Australian snacks and muesli. Here she shares her reasons for starting the business, and what drives her to further success.
Kate Weiss is a little unusual for an entrepreneur as she didn’t come from a business background. Her parents weren’t in business, her previous work wasn’t in business, and before she began Table of Plenty, she didn’t have much experience in the area; apart from a lemonade stand. “When I was a teenager I did have a go at the lemonade stalls at the school summer fair, and I remember really enjoying that process of putting it all together. I think that peaked my interest,” Weiss recalls.
It took a few years and the birth of her daughter, Amy, before she really got the business bug. “She’s a child with disability and because of that I really couldn’t continue with work, it was just too much, and so I found myself at home,” Weiss says.
“It was a difficult time for me. I’ve always been a very outgoing and creative person and I found I got depressed. I had to find something to give me that spark back. It was also a practical decision in that we knew Amy was going to need looking after for the rest of her life so we had to do something that was going to build capital for her. That’s really where the idea for Table of Plenty came from,” she explains.
Starting with spices, Weiss embraced her passion for getting in the kitchen. “For the first few years it was really playing around. I really love spices, cooking and getting my hands dirty in the kitchen and creating delicious things,” Weiss says. “In 2006 I had my second child Ethan, and I said to my husband that he needed to come on board as it was going to be too much for me. Basically it was now or never because that was the time to do it, between your 30th and 40th birthdays, that’s when you’ve got the energy. We didn’t want to wait till we were older to start a business.”
The Victorian company produces healthy muesli, spices and snacks, ideal for busy parents determined to have good food on the table. Its success, since its inception in 2006, has taken it far beyond a small one-person kitchen operation. Table of Plenty is now a multi-million dollar business, available across Australia in Woolworths and Coles, as well as exporting to Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong and Malaysia and Dubai.
With Table of Plenty taking off, Weiss was determined to make sure she stayed true to the company’s original community ethos. “Table of Plenty is very much to do with community, and that includes creating a community with our customers as well,” Weiss explains. “It’s amazing, and it’s such a simple thing. Customers appreciate really good customer service and often they don’t get it. There have been a number of times when I’ve personally answered an email and they say I didn’t expect to hear back. It’s such a simple thing but I think people really appreciate the fact that there’s someone behind the brand who is passionate and cares.”
The customer is always right
This focus on customers includes listening to their many suggestions. “We have a group called our taste buddies who are customers that we work with. I send out ideas and sometimes samples to get feedback,” says Weiss.
“Our customers are our gods. It’s not Coles and Woolworths, though obviously they’re fantastic channels and bring our products to people, but what our customers want and what difficulties they’re facing, that’s really the driver, that’s where I keep my eye. They are the leaders of the business, because without the customers there is no business.”
Weiss loves to hear from customers with their ideas, and always keeps an eye out for more, taking inspiration from gaps that need to be filled in her own life, or from conversations she has with others. “I’m incorrigible. I’m in the bakery and I talk to the woman behind the counter and say what products are you looking for, and how do you manage dinner at 6pm if you’re working? I keep my ear to the ground,” she says.
With no business background, there were many lessons Weiss needed to learn along the way to get Table of Plenty competing in the market. However, these lessons weren’t just about finding the best supplier for product. Many were simply about staying on track. “Find out what you like doing and what you’re passionate about,” advises Weiss. “I like doing the R&D and the creative side of the business. That’s what I love. I don’t do the admin, I do as little as I can.”
Other lessons may have been learnt sooner, Weiss believes, if she had a business mentor. “I think I could have made shortcuts on some things if I’d had some more mentoring. Working with the supermarkets has been a huge learning curve, and I‘ve learned a phenomenal amount, about the industry and how it works. It’s a bit like playing chess: you need to understand the landscape and how you can position yourself in it.”
Despite her creative side, Weiss knows the importance of sticking to an idea. “I personally think it’s easy to think of good business ideas but implementing, creating and persisting at it, and having the longevity for it, is a very different thing. It’s easy to think, especially on a day that’s not going as well as you like, maybe I’ll do a lawn mowing business or something. But I’m not passionate about lawn mowing, so it doesn’t fit criteria number two,” laughs Weiss.
Her business criteria, which have evolved naturally over the years, are what keep Weiss focussed on the tasks at hand. “It’s really all do to with those three core things: being focussed, staying close to what you love and what you’re passionate about and communicating with your customers, by having that truthful honest interaction. I’m truly happy when someone writes to us with a complaint because then I know what’s actually going on out there. If nobody told you, you could merrily go along and suddenly say why are my sales dropping, and nobody’s told you that there was a burnt batch of muesli. I really think all feedback is valuable.”
When starting out in the food industry there are many pitfalls to be wary of. Launching a product that is going to be ingested means that testing, hygiene and meeting all necessary Government and industry standards is crucial. But that’s not even the start of the daily lessons that need to be learnt. “It’s an ongoing thing, especially with transport. Transport is such an expensive part of the business, especially in Australia, which is such a large geographical place. We’re always looking for a cheaper way to send a palette,” Weiss admits.
In order not to put too much pressure on the business, Weiss decided not to hire too many full time staff from the get-go, instead outsourcing staff needs until it became viable to bring each position in-house. “In line with our philosophy of being supportive to families, I have quite a few satellite mums who work for us during school hours, so we’re in daily contact by phone,” Weiss explains.
With a family of her own, Weiss knows that flexibility in the workplace is important. “A lot of our business is now in the cloud so it’s flexible. I’m a true believer in more flexible workplace arrangements. I think that less and less the office is going to be the hub of everything. If you’ve got reliable staff who are capable of managing their own time, then you don’t need to have everyone in the office. There are some roles that need to be in the office, and some that don’t.”
Running a business is never going to be smooth sailing, especially when the stakes are so high, but Weiss isn’t short of a laugh when recalling some of her more embarrassing moments. “One day I found myself in floods of tears in front of the Woolworths buyer because it was all too much for me. I couldn’t believe that I was doing it, I was so embarrassed,” she laughs.
Competing for the top
It’s no secret that there are many other healthy snack alternatives competing with Table of Plenty for that family customer. However, while Weiss says it’s important to know the market, she doesn’t let the competition distract her. “It might sound funny but I think the main thing we do with our competition is ignore them. If you get too caught up in looking at exactly what everyone else is doing and trying to second guess them, it drains and de-energises you and you might not take risks and be bold. I do keep my ear to the ground, but in the end I stick to what I’m wanting to create rather than take too much time to analyse what the competition is doing.”
Finding that certain gap that needs filling is really the key to Table of Plenty’s success. “Innovation is what people expect from us, they expect to find something different from Table of Plenty that they haven’t necessarily thought about before but that’s filling a gap or a niche where they go wow, we wanted that,” Weiss says. “I think our rice cakes are something that’s done that, where nobody expected a chocolate-covered rice cake. We’re not making decisions based on a scientific process as maybe larger companies do. We see something and say this is needed in the marketplace and we act.”
Now that Table of Plenty is taking off, Weiss is less concerned with dealing with the cynics worried about the business’ success. This even included her father. “When we said we’re going into business, it was like we said we were going to live in some crocodile-infested swamp. I think he’s stopped worrying now.”
Taking on a business is never a small decision, but it’s clear that for Weiss it’s one that has proven fruitful. While she’s proud of her successes, and excited about those that are yet to come, she says that having a reason to go to work every day is the push she needs to really make Table of Plenty the success that it is. “I think it’s really important to have a motivation that’s greater than yourself. I know that I want to set Amy up for life, that really gives me an extra reason to do this.” With her upbeat attitude and positive outlook, Weiss will be serving up great product on many tables yet.