Karen Lebsanft and her husband Ben never dreamed their foods would be consumed by thousands of households every day. But a simple $3,500 gamble made Kurrajong Kitchen an Aussie icon.
Savoury foods manufacturer Kurrajong Kitchen’s success is something of an accident for the couple, who originally operated a different business together — a small restaurant on the outskirts of Sydney.
“Ben was the chef, I ran front of house, and we were serving lavosh flatbread on our cheese platters,” Ms Lebsanft recalled.
“We didn’t invent lavosh, we were just serving [our own version of] it on the cheese platters... and somewhere in between there, we found a niche, an opportunity.”
She said that the product, not well known in Australia at the time, was a real hit with restaurant customers, who increasingly asked for more of it that they could take home with them.
“They were wanting to take it away to entertain and impress their friends. So we would bag it in little cellophane bags, pop it in a basket, and at the end of service every week, the basket was always empty. So, it inspired us to go, ‘Ooh, there’s an opportunity here. How do we move to that?”
Ms Lebsanft said they initially treated the lavosh as “a second job”, particularly given that in the mid-1990s, the internet was not widely used, farmers markets were also not as popular as in the present day and popular TV shows like MasterChef did not exist.
The $3,500 gamble that paid off big-time
Yet it was a calculated risk to part ways with their savings that really helped cement the business as a viable, ongoing operation in its own right.
The Lebsanfts invested $3,500 — a considerable sum of money for the young couple at the time — in attending a major food show in 1997. And it was a connection they made here which opened up a whole new realm of sales potential.
“It was last minute, and I remember we had no money to do anything big except spend the $3,500,” Ms Lebsanft said.
“And it was dressed in coloured cloth and printed signs. Really, it was cheap, printed signs.”
But the gamble paid off, with a representative of Coles Supermarkets taking a keen interest in their product despite telling them “your packaging won’t work”. So, new branding and packaging were developed, and their signature lavosh product made its way onto supermarket shelves.
Juggling the business with family
At the same time, the couple had begun their family, meaning Ms Lebsanft began a delicate juggling act of balancing the burgeoning business and her children.
“I was literally pushing the child in pram and back then having meetings with that Coles store manager out in the front of their little café,” she said.
While confessing the situation was highly intimidating, her philosophy has been to “always grab the bull by the horns”.
“I was a [new] mum, but I was an older mum. So, it’s like trying to balance your position in this picture and in society, in a business society,” Ms Lebsanft said.
“I’m trying to be a mum in the late ‘90s, look after this baby, but present myself as a businesswoman at the same time. You know, this is a husband-and-wife business growing up.”
Today, Kurrajong Kitchen manufactures and wholesales products, as well as sells under its own brand, with a workforce of around 40 people. And Ms Lebsanft said that it has been a core priority for the couple that their business always kept production here in Australia.
And, she insisted, their lavosh recipe has not changed from their restaurant days.
“No, the recipe basically hasn’t changed, but to manufacture it on scale as if it was being home-baked is a bit challenging,” the business owner said.
“What I’m really very, very proud to say [is] that we are supporting the Australian farmers and farmers [who] have been in drought for four years. So, us staying true to ourselves is actually supporting them in doing that.
“We’ve had challenges galore, in terms of pricing flour, that we’ve had to overcome in the last 12 months. And it’s just out there as a real threat, but we stay true.”
For Ms Lebsanft, the ultimate lesson she has taken from her journey in business is the importance of backing yourself — something she said can be particularly challenging for female entrepreneurs.
“I think it is about back[ing] yourself and personally — this is probably a woman thing — I think men do it better than what women do. I think women question themselves a lot more than what men do, in terms of the market and what they do,” she said.
“It’s a generalistic comment, I really do recognise that, but I’d say my great expression is, ‘Stay true to your knitting, whatever you are’.”
She added: “I think the biggest takeout is stay true to your knitting, stay strong, back yourself, and get your support network in place.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.