Lean to Kitchen / 42 Derwent Park Road, Hobart TAS 7009 / Ph: 0434 085 346 / http://www.leantokitchen.com.au/
Shayne Lewis has carved his own niche in the hospitality industry. And aren’t we glad he did! His Lean To Kitchen has been my go to brand of sauces ever since I’ve been in Tasmania, but his fingers are in a few other pies.
And he’s learnt some lessons along the way. Like many chefs, Shayne went straight from high school into working as a kitchen hand. Showing promise, he was then offered an apprenticeship. It was the ‘80s in Adelaide, and Shayne tells me, “I knew from day one this was going to be a tough gig – the boss came out and worked every shift behind the pass on the pans.”
Originally from Tassie, Shayne floated between South Australia and his island home, but he stayed when he came back and worked for George McHugh at Red Fox Restaurant in Hobart and later at the Mona Lisa.
Shayne dishes his journey, “I finished my apprenticeship in Hobart – then worked for the Sheraton, then the Casino, but found it hard to find my fit. I’m obsessive with perfection, and chefs want things done their way so often. After 20 years, I wanted to do something myself.
“I worked at Lesley Black’s and got the bug for sauces and relishes, so I decided I wanted to buy my own business, and I was a bit burnt out hitting 40 – so I guess this was an exit plan without having an exit plan…
“Lean to Kitchen was an existing business and I bought it off Henrietta Norris. It was originally set on her farm/orchard, at Neika, and had been on the market for a while. I bought it at a good price, and wanted to get the business basics and it had a name already – she treated it as a hobby. I wanted to make it upmarket, so I shut it down for 3 months, found my own commercial kitchen, re-did all the recipes, outsourced as much Tasmanian produce as I could then re-launched – this was all at the back of a pub – it wasn’t doing food, just a bar. So I leased out the kitchen, and worked like a demon.”
I asked Shayne why buy an existing business? Like many small new business owners, Shayne felt it was, “A business decision to feel more secure about the leap into the unknown. I had to buy commercial blenders, to set it up from scratch, mostly what I got (with the purchase) was the name and a few skeleton recipes. Knowing what I know now, a manufacturing kitchen is so much different to a café or restaurant. It was a steep learning curve.”
“When I bought Lean to Kitchen, I realized I needed a production kitchen, leased the kitchen behind the Homestead Hotel now – it was the Sir William Don then. The business soon outgrew that, so I took over the lease of Lenah Valley RSL kitchen. I was at the Farmgate Market, and they asked me if I was interested in taking it over and running their kitchen.”
“In the beginning, I ran both – then withdrew from the pub and focused on the RSL kitchen. I paid weekly rent – it was open 3 ½ days and we did functions by bookings, and for the rest of time I made sauces.”
I asked Shayne about his thoughts now, and he tells me, “In the 8 years, looking back, the business is vastly different from where I started. I could produce 40 kg of relish in a day, now we can do up to 900kg. How did I scale up? I bought bigger equipment…. I can do 300 litres in steamer kettles.”
“I kept investing and reinvesting – 2 years ago, we moved into Derwent Park, solely for business. Most of the equipment we own. We lease/purchase now for new equipment, so in another 2 years we’ll own it all. We produce 4 sauces, Worcestershire, tomato, tomato chilli and bbq, 2 relishes – old-fashioned tomato and black cherry – and 5 mustards.”
“When we started selling, we did our own distribution, but we now use Exquisite Flavours, who distribute all our products, and their customer list allowed me to get into commercial size products. We haven’t put our prices up in 8 years, as business has grown, we’re able to get better pricing – we buy better. I’ve absorbed the price of the jars to keep prices as reasonable as I can. “
“All our jars come from a Hobart company, which is also now in Derwent Park, and the labels are done locally by a small Tasmanian label maker. I tried a “Go Funding” round to try to raise $10K for marketing and a logo to get a minimum run on new labels, but couldn’t raise funds to do it. Unfortunately, that’s going to have to wait – I pumped $100K into equipment but didn’t have the last $10K to do the marketing – boy was that a Catch 22. “
Shayne continues, “We send our products all around Australia and overseas, so our next step is getting a new modern fresh look so they stand out and pop. First thing customers see is the look. I’ve learnt the hard way that you can have the world’s best tasting sauce but if it’s in a bottle that looks like shit, no one’s gonna buy it.”
“Luckily, our products stand out more than generic ones– they’re made of real ingredients. Everything is natural. No preservatives. And the secret is a combination of two things – what goes in and what is left out. “
“Yes they’re dearer than mass produced products out there, but they’re made with fresh ingredients, made here in Tasmania, no thickeners – so it’s real. We now manufacture for other producers – as in McHenry’s distillers – from sloe gin we make a sloe paste – they drain the berries and we make a master stock, portion it up and reduce – it’s a new, fresh alternative to quince paste to have with cheese. The only thing that thickens it is the natural pectin from the apples.”
And the lessons? Shayne generously shares his with us: “With production be prepared to make mistakes. Don’t expect to be perfect each time. It’s all trial and error, but learn and take as much feedback as you can – good and bad. If you don’t want to hear the bad stuff, you’re a fool, it’s not all about the good stuff. Customers will tell you the truth.”
Shayne’s biggest regret, “Is not spending enough time with my kids as they grew up – it was a typical hospitality career, where you spend more time with work mates than with family. I was always working on weekends, so I missed some really important benchmarks. I can’t get those years back.“
And what for the future? He says, “We want to look at product development as in creating recipes with our base products, looking for new markets. My main wish list is for the company to grow so I can employ more locals and keep it in Tasmania. I won’t ever sell out to a mainland company. I want it to be a local success story, and the more people I can bring along on that journey the better.”
The passion and obsession that’s marked Shayne’s business has been key to his success and growth. And that love of homeland. He has a great deal of wisdom to share, so while I always happily bought his products before I met him just because they’re so damned good, now I feel even better, knowing that what he does will stay here, and grow the community. For us in Tassie, that’s what it’s all about.