Serendipity Ice Cream - a David among the industry Goliaths - has grabbed a sizeable market share and won the battle for distribution in supermarkets. Fiona Stewart tells the story.
Described as an overnight success, Serendipity Ice Cream, run by Sarah Mandelson and husband Richard Single, actually started manufacture more than 34 years ago.
In true serendipity fashion, it started rather like a fairy tale...
Once upon a time, Sarah's mother, an American diplomat, arrived in Australia to take up a posting. She met her future husband and they married - but the happily-ever-after phase took some time to eventuate.
At the time, Mrs Mandelson was deemed to have married an alien - her husband being an Australian citizen - so she found herself unemployed, bored and missing some of the finer things of American life, in particular, ice cream.
According to Sarah, the most exotic form of ice cream available in Sydney at that time was Neapolitan (a bland combination of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry). So her mother started to make the flavours she remembered to serve at dinner parties. They proved very popular, she was written up in a newspaper article, and she found herself making ice cream as a business.
It started off very much a cottage industry with a couple of machines and a small walk-in freezer producing about 200 litres a day, supplying local delicatessens, restaurants and the occasional cinema. The workforce was mostly mothers with school-age children clocking in between 9am and 2pm on weekdays.
So it went on until Sarah and Richard, both disenchanted with their career choices, approached Mrs Mandelson in 1988 to expand the business into Victoria. Instead, they ended up buying the company.
This was a quantum leap for the couple whose backgrounds included science and Marxist history studies. Despite few conventional qualifications, the couple took the business from strength to strength.
"We tend to operate on a lot of gut feeling," said Richard. "And we come up with interesting approaches . It took a while to work out our strengths and weaknesses but we finally decided my area was marketing and logistics while Sarah's was accounting and administration."
Richard claims their other talent is to be particularly good at brainstorming. "We come up with great ideas," he said. "At the moment we have two patent applications in development.
"The other thing which stands us in good stead is that we both enjoy what we do, we never find work a chore."
When the couple took over Serendipity, it was producing a range of some 50 flavours. They gradually pared the number down to a regular retail range of 20 ice creams and 15 sorbets, with a stock of around 100 flavours for exclusive sale to restaurants requiring variety and flexibility.
Changes have also taken place in the type of flavours and ingredients offered as the demand for a more natural product took hold.
As the business grew, Serendipity ran into the inevitable hurdle for small food producers - getting product on to supermarket shelves. After a number of fruitless attempts, they were approached by a current affairs program researching a television program on the subject.
"No other supplier was prepared to go on air to talk about it for the risk of upsetting the supermarket chains," said Sarah. "However, we were getting nowhere anyway, so I thought what the heck!
"After the program went to air, I had a call from the general manager of the Coles frozen food department. He couldn't have been nicer and we achieved, what we had always wanted, to be able choose the supermarkets which would stock our product to meet what we thought was our right demographic."
Serendipity now produces 1500 litres of product a day with 14 staff. The Singles don't want it to be a huge company, being more interested in quality in medium quantities.
But they have no intention of taking life easy. In 1997 they were approached by a Chinese couple with an interesting business proposition.
"They told us that Chinese people just love ice cream and they saw a market opening," said Sarah. "Again, their background were in marketing and accounting, but we formed a partnership and the result was Passionflower."
The couple turned their hand to designing a cafe, something they had never done before. Two Passionflower Cafes are now open, one at Sydney's Darling Harbour and one in Chinatown, employing 40 people and selling a range of specially designed ice creams including jackfruit, Japanese green tea and taro. Export enquiries started coming through a week after the first venue opened.
The pair know from experience that exporting doesn't happen quickly so they are working slowly towards it while planning a third Passionflower outlet at the same time.
Although this might seem quite enough to keep a couple with two young children busy, they also have another project taking shape.
Richard's family owned a property north of Sydney at Myall Lakes which he is currently turning into a permaculture farm with restaurant and guesthouse. A further project, still under wraps, looks promising.
"Its all about being passionate about what you do," said Richard. "It is important to remember that you work to live, you don't live to work."
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