Getting saucy with a fast-growing food business

My Business speaks with Sauced Pasta Bar co-founder Ben Thompson about how he has grown from one store to half a dozen in just four years – with more planned.

Food businesses are common in the Australian business landscape, but can be difficult to make commercially viable. Yet Sauced Pasta Bar is just one example of a thriving business posting rapid growth, expanding both its workforce and the number of locations it services.

My Business speaks with co-founder Ben Thompson (pictured below on the right) about breaking into the crowded hospitality sector, the pros and cons of rapid growth and much more:

My Business: How did the idea for Sauced Pasta Bar come about?

Ben Thompson: We started the business toward the end of 2012. I had another company that I had to liquidate, unfortunately. I went to Sylvan for some advice on my CV, because he was working in marketing. We had a chat around my CV, and I left the conversation feeling a little bit enlightened about what I was going to put in there, and how I was going to fight for some marketing jobs.

He called me up and said ‘Look, I've got this idea and I don't know who to tell about it. You've got a few start-ups, you might be the guy’. That was sort of how we started it. From there, it took us a good year to really develop the business plan and get investors on board and everything else, and we opened up this restaurant in, I think it was 30th of September, 2012.Sylvan Spatarel and Ben Thompson, Sauced Pasta Bar

MB: How did you go about securing investors to fund your business idea?

BT: I had never had to raise capital in that way before for a business, so it was new to me. And Sylvan had always worked in the corporate world [so it was also] completely new to him. We went back to our university thinking and wrote the nicest textbook marketing plan you can ever imagine, business plan you can ever imagine, and went to our first investor and he ripped us apart. And we took as many notes as we could, in our heads, in our diaries, and we went back and redefined our business plan based on what he said. Went to our next meet and got ripped apart by the next guy, and went back and referred to our notes, and we ended up with this document about 78 pages long.

Basically on just constant editing of it based on feedback we gained from investors as to why they didn't [think it was] feasible, or why our plan wasn't detailed enough, or where it was too wordy, or where they wanted more tables. Things that would really make it clear what we're trying to do. Eventually we had it to a point where someone believed and saw the value in what we were trying to put on the table, and they actually came up with the money for us.

MB: Was it difficult for you personally to get involved in another business, given the previous liquidation?

BT: The liquidation of my business was incredibly hard. It was probably the hardest time of my life, and I had had a few businesses up to that point. But no, the idea of going into the corporate world was probably scarier for me.

The idea of starting a new business is one I find incredibly exciting. It's one I'm passionate about. It's making ideas happen and get them off the ground.

MB: Without a background in hospitality, how did you start Sauced?

BT: We got a food consultant that came in, and he helped us essentially turn our idea into a commercial reality. And then from there we applied his advice, a skeleton is what he gave us essentially, to our initial undertakings of the business.

But then, to be honest mate, from there it was really learning as we went. And I suppose that the biggest learning from that is that you need to be prepared to quickly adjust to your mistakes, because you're going to make a lot of them.

We made a lot of mistakes, even for the first two years. We still do. We were just always very quick to adjust, put pride aside. You've made a mistake, you just cop it on the chin and move on, and not beat yourself up about it.

MB: In the space of just four years, you have gone from one store to six. How many employees do you now have?

Sylvan Spatarel and Ben Thompson, Sauced Pasta BarBT: We're at 30 at the moment, but we're about to on-board another 25 in the next [few] weeks, which is going to be an absolutely enormous undertaking. So then we'll be up near 50, 60 staff by then.

MB: How do you manage such rapid growth to ensure it is sustainable?

BT: It's not always easy. I wouldn't necessarily say that our rapid growth has always been the best solution. I think this year we've opened two additional restaurants and … also a cafe.

The rapid growth process is an absolutely enormous amount of pressure on the business, but it's on you personally. I think if I had my time again I'd probably try to slow that growth somewhat. Especially in regards to ... the strain that it puts on people financially and the company financially.

You've got to have a business established enough that you've got people in it that know areas of the business and their jobs well enough that you can rely on them.

MB: In terms of managing your cash flow, how do you fundamentally prioritise what you’re going to pay now and what can be held off?

BT: Every supplier will hate me the same, but you've really got to ascertain who your key suppliers are. And that might not necessarily be the people you're giving the most money to. They might be, who are the people who hold it down? Like obviously … we've got to have those key source ingredients; those are the people that we can't go without.

MB: Why do you think so many hospitality businesses fail?

BT: We see all too many people these days going into restaurants and cafes, that's sort of a fad industry, I suppose you could call it; I hate calling it that. But, and they go in with this absolutely fantastic, beautiful passion for what they're doing and they go, 'I want to create this amazing beautiful idea in my head, or this brand in my head that I really want to get off the ground', but they sort of lose the commercial aspect of that along the way.

So in trying to make that passion a reality they forget to commercialise it, which is a really sad thing to say because it takes a lot of the romance out of restaurants and hospitality, which is what this industry's really built on. I think in this day and age and the way profits are, you have to be quite realistic. You have to think about the back end first before you start thinking about all these fantastic ideas.

Fast facts:

Business: Sauced Pasta Bar

Industry: Food retailing

Location: Melbourne

No. of employees: Approx. 60

Established: 2012

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