Recently, I interviewed Brisbane-based entrepreneur Angela Hirst for an upcoming story in the Collective magazine. Angela has worn many hats over her diverse career – student, architect, PhD candidate, cook, caterer, blogger, restaurant reviewer, and businesswoman. And she’s got plenty of tales to tell.
At the end of 2013, Angela started one of Australia’s first food incubators, Wandering Cooks. Great name, right? Situated in an airy warehouse in inner-city Brisbane, Wandering Cooks has the stated aim of providing “kitchens and community to budding entrepreneurs”. It’s a place where start-ups can refine and produce their product, as well as meet like-minded businesspeople, attend workshops and tradeshows, and receive support from the broader community.
It’s such a fantastic idea, and Angela’s enthusiasm and passion shine through everything she does. With the rise of market stalls, food trucks, and TV programs like Recipe to Riches, there seem to be more budding food businesses than ever before. The support Angela and Wandering Cooks provide are already doing wonders for Brisbane’s food scene – aren’t we lucky?
S: Have you always known that you wanted to work with food?
A: Since I was at uni, I’ve done this movement between study and writing and food. I started in architecture, but I was more interested in the landscape around buildings, particularly why the whole city was full of things we couldn’t eat. I have always been obsessed by food. I ended up doing a PhD in philosophy in the ethics of eating. That’s always been a driver behind what I do – really thinking about the consequences of our food and thinking about our relationship to producers.
S: What did you do after you finished your PhD?
A: I ended up finding this amazing school in Ireland called Ballymaloe. From there I learnt a lot and I also really fell in love with cooking, and wanted to keep doing it. Then I got some work as a stage in London with Skye Gyngell’s Petersham Nursery. And then I went to Paris and I worked at the Rose Bakery. It fully established that I wanted to stay working in kitchens.
S: Tell me about your first forays into starting a food business.
A: I realised I really wanted to do my own thing. So I just started throwing myself into various ventures. I started running cooking classes, and doing a lot more catering. I did some amazing classes but I would end up almost paying people to eat my food. I had no idea what I was doing. I was making really delicious food, but just burning out big time. And then I got to this point where I realised – maybe it’s because I know absolutely nothing about business. And so I just started learning.
S: What gave you the idea for Wandering Cooks?
A: The kinds of things I was trying to get off the ground, I couldn’t do. I couldn’t spend that much money on a kitchen. I started realising I mustn’t be the only person in this situation. So I just put an ad in Gumtree saying, “I’m thinking of starting this shared space, if anyone’s interested, write to me”, and I got lots of interest. And I became more interested in that as a project, rather than my own food business. I started to recognise it as something that could be fun and that no one else was doing.
S: Who is using Wandering Cooks?
A: We really do have quite a diversity. There are a lot of people who are or are intending to sell their products to cafes. They range from people who have gluten-free cakes, to paleo snacks, to general cake and biscuit makers. There are quite a few sweet makers. Chocolate makers.
We’ve got some stall holders, particularly people who have big demands. We had Mamak and Longrain here for the Night Noodle market. We had someone who is the executive chef of a new hotel in town – he needed to test all his recipes. We’ve got Jamie Oliver’s restaurant doing all their recruitment here, so we get some fun things!
S: You’ve been open for a year now. What have been the biggest challenges?
A: The learning curve. Learning what it means to have dived so deeply into business. And not skirting the edges. Finding the balance between my absolute terror and enjoyment, and embracing the possibilities and thinking through new ideas. Finding the space to be able to balance those two very different emotional states is a challenge.
S: And highlights?
A: All the events that have brought the customers together. It’s just felt like a real community. Someone who used the space for an event said to me that Wandering Cooks feels like a bit of a clubhouse. It’s been amazing seeing the ownership that customers have over the space. And also seeing people’s businesses grow.
S: How do you balance your time?
A: There is no balance. My partner is incredibly supportive. He’s the not-so-silent partner of the business. He leaves it to my creative discretion, but he’s always there. And I think my son is just learning what it’s like to have very busy parents who love him and spend so much of our spare time with him. He likes it here, luckily. There are always treats. I say to him, “We need to go to Wandering Cooks”, and he says, “OK!”
But I find a bit of balance with the garden. It’s there for other reasons but its my sanity, it’s the thing that keeps me sane.
S: What advice would you give to someone starting a food business?
A: You need to stick at something. You need to keep moving it and changing it and adapting it so it is being as responsive as it needs to be to the market to be able to survive. That’s been the biggest lesson – responsiveness.
Find the big picture of your food business: what desire or need (however big or small) are you satisfying? Staying focused on the ‘why’ will help you stay on track when diversions turn up. And they always do. Look to people who have more experience in business than you to help you with issues and questions that arise along your journey. Take time to do things that help you remember who you are and refresh your inspiration and passion levels.
S: What’s next for Wandering Cooks?
A: Trade shows are a big one. I’m really excited about food trucks and the various market opportunities. I’d like to do more truck nights – they’re a really delicious, relaxed eating experience.
1 Fish Lane