This Crazy Yet Beautiful Store and Where It’s All At
Firstly let me say that if I don’t sit down and write a newsletter as well as walk soil on a good farm soon, I am going to lose my cotton picking mind.
There are so many valid reasons as to why I’ve had to focus on other very necessary aspects of this business and whilst it has been necessary, there comes a time when I can’t manage the rising tension if I don’t go back to the heart of this business and remember why I’m here in the first place.
These newsletters have been a vital component of our relationship for the past 8 years and if there is one thing that will never change, it’s this. They remind me why I’m here, what I’m here to serve, what I want for you and what I want you to know about the farmers we connect you to.
I’m here to always bring us back to the pivotal figures that shape our access to health, nutrition and clean food and the re-generation of nature these types of farmers stand for. We work for nature primarily – her – my ultimate boss.
So we are here merely to serve as a connection piece between the best farmers that serve as her custodians and to make your life better by helping you get access to their produce. Because a good farmer is at the gate-way of that connection to nature.
The better I am able to do this, the more we can help keep good farmers on fertile soil. To get better at this though and to function as a solid connection piece, I have had to endlessly grow and evolve, the journey from food activist and food writer to business woman and more recently accepting that I have to do retail well. Never the way it’s been done typically, yet, the lack of time for newsletters has been handed over to a very intense time of needing to understand the nuts and bolts of retail to get ready for our next evolvement and I’ll spend most of the chatter part later talking about that.
I need to again reiterate that these newsletters are never about ‘marketing’ or about promoting product. I’ve never used them as that, never wanted that for them or for you.
They are always just a conversation that I want to bring to you. They’re not for everyone and whilst they aren’t for the majority, the people who they do mean something to – I always notice, have been loyal customers for years so it’s for them I write. I get that I could appeal more to the masses with more savvy newsletters aiming to sell but I’m not motivated to do that, this is just a real conversation where I need to be unedited and inefficient.
For those that don’t enjoy the words and get frustrated that they don’t give you a quick snippet of store information, we have tried to address that by making sure we keep you up to date with key products in and out that you may want to know about on Instagram @the_organic_emporium and on our Facebook page.
As ever – if you want to know whether something is or isn’t in store – please call us on 011 514 0958.
Alright so this needs to be focused on our plans forward. So many of you are asking – are we moving, aren’t we moving, where are we moving, are we opening the eatery or aren’t we, the bakery and then where, will we stay in Bryanston or move and then the other pressing question, when will we be re-opening the online store? I need to focus on that and bring you to up to speed with all that has happened there.
Just know that even if it looks like (on busy days when I’m frowning a lot and short – caught between the pressure of too many hats) I may not be listening – I always am. I take everything you say in our store chats home with me, I re-play all our conversations over and over in my mind in the traffic, everywhere really, I never really ‘rest’ from Organic Emporium because it isn’t a job for me with start and end times, it’s what I want to be doing for the rest of my life as an expression of the values I believe worth living for. It’s with me all the time.
I’ve been listening and thinking about the things you say from every angle and trying to blend that with the realities of how to give you what you want in a way that is sustainable for us and right for farmers.
Before I unpack that more deeply – the most important store news for now is that Jan’s Heritage Chickens and his lamb are being un-packed onto the shelves as we speak.
Together with all those extra treasures made on his farm that you love, the chicken and lamb sausages made with organic ingredients he sources from us – he now also brings a new glorious chicken ready-made pie. This is his heritage chicken used as the pie filling and topped with a pastry made with the Lowerland organic heritage wheat flour. It’s unctuous – and such a joyful pleasure for me. To see two incredible farmers who serve as revolutionary figures in this space joined in a meal like this, makes me too happy. Simply pop into an oven with grill fan assisted to crisp the pastry and heat the chicken underneath. Easy. Done. All the lamb cuts are in – those incredibly large chicken wings and the chicken breast packs too.
The Tori-Raine delivery is in – the thick 1 litre new tubs of Friesian cream – as thick as clotted cream – are in – her gorgeous 2 litre bottles of Dexter creamy milk, from Limpopo, yoghurt, the amazi and almost the 1 litre kefir tubs you love – but Sam has just told me that somebody came and took all of them!
We’re definitely going to get her to do more of those as you love them, the price is good, the size right and we’re finding that for most of you the Dexter milk is starting to creep up as a favourite. The price is more expensive and we’re working on ways to get that down for you. The issue is that it’s low volume and includes transport from Bela-Belaget the price down is for us to cut out the packaging so we’re working on a store tank where you can fill your own bottles. It’ll help the farmer, help us both to get it to you at a better price and cut out all the packaging costs. If anybody can help us source a stainless-steel urn that is refrigerated – yell – I’m currently looking at getting one built. Then it’s just a case of buying a good glass milk bottle and filling it up each time you come in.
To make a perfect real ice-cream that I believe tastes better than anything you’ll ever buy from a store – take 2 litres of the Tori Raine Friesian cream – blend it with 4 TB’s sweet thorn raw honey (or any honey of choice) and 2 tsps of Fatima’s vanilla seeds (in-store now) – beat together – then simply pop the whole bowl in the freezer. Ready within 3 hours. Easiest and healthiest ice-cream you’ll ever eat.
Brenaissance Boran Beef – only reared on veldt – all cuts are in. The carcass this week was exceptional. I wouldn’t wait for Summer to braai the steaks and forgo the quality of this beef and the incredible pleasure of a good steak. Just do them on a griddle pan on a stove top. Rub in olive oil, salt and pepper and leave out to come to room temperature. Heat a griddle pan until smoking hot – sear one side of the steak – 2 minutes – turn sear on the other side 2 minutes – turn again – 3 minutes then rub over a bit of butter, rub over a clove of garlic and some rosemary if you have, turn again, another 3 minutes – same drill, then remove from the pan, rub over one last bit of butter, a squeeze of lemon juice and leave the garlic clove and rosemary resting on the steaks. Let rest for 5 minutes. Then serve with the rested juice that have blended with the butter, lemon, garlic & rosemary. I challenge you to eat a better tasting steak out than what you’re going to get cooking the Boran at home. With the thickness of these cuts, this is the method that’ll give you a good medium done steak.
If you’re wanting a slow beef stew – take the brisket, beef stew on bone or short-rib packs. Simply heat some olive oil or beef tallow in a large heavy bottomed pot – add chopped onions, celery and carrots, cook gently until onions are translucent – then turn up the heat and throw in the beef pieces to brown on either side. Throw in 2 cups of organic red wine, 2 tins of organic tinned Italian tomatoes and herbs of choice, then put the lid on and pop it into the oven at 100 degrees and leave it in the oven for a minimum of 4 hours. I had it in the oven all day Tuesday so it ended up just slow cooking like that for 8 hours, the longer, the more tender it becomes. Or just do the above and leave it in the slow cooker in the morning and come home to something you’ve been looking forward to all day.
Heirloom varietal organic veggies keep delighting us from Jacques Damhuis from Growing Healthy Farms – in right now, the sort of horned yellow & purple cauliflowers, broccoli, aragula and turnips.
Siphiwe from African Marmalade is on a mission at the moment sourcing wild grown produce from Swaziland and driving me half-crazy with the treasure she keeps bringing in. Her large wild avocados right now together with her legumes and mung beans of late make me so happy. She brought in one of the most incredulous pumpkins from Swaziland the other day and I couldn’t quite believe what I was tasting. Deep, dark orange flesh that cooks as if you had put sugar all over it, it’s so sweet, the depth of pumpkin flavour not something I have ever experienced. I ordered plenty of them and they’re due in tomorrow, you don’t want to miss those.
Another new joy which tastes like nothing I’ve ever tasted is a toffee made with the Friesian cream, organic jaggery, Mooberry butter and real vanilla seeds. It’s uncivil. It sort of tastes like the old Toffee-Lux except it doesn’t have any junk in. Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar – so basically has all the minerals and fibre still intact which makes it a far lower GI sugar than refined – and the flavour very mollassey. Once you add that to a good thick high quality clotted cream like the Friesian and a good butter and real vanilla – you have a great tasting toffee with nutrition which is kind of crazy.
Toffee by Ash, he aptly tags as ‘junk free sweet’s – when you want a treat without the lecture. When your kids are hating you for not allowing sweets in the house – try these as a compromise.
One more update about something topical – the journey with our baker and his journey with James and Bertie’s organic heritage wheat evolves. He is going back to the farm style loaves that you loved and the pocket breads and will re-introduce different shapes including the artisanal round he has been doing lately as soon as we find just the right oven to do all in. We apologize for the lapse in the pocket breads – they will make a re-appearance this Saturday.
Also please look out for the Juice 4 Joy and Soup 4 Soul new range in from Lynda. Her juice and soups mixes are inspired – nutrient dense and as corny as this sounds – it’s too true – filled with love.
Something about this lady, she’s a natural healer and her energy is very definitely in this juice range as well as the soup. The juices are all focused on vegetables, low fruit, blend in teas and herbs and make you feel strong. The soups are so clever, served in glass and only designed to heat gently, served with sourdough toast they are so deeply comforting. Honoured to have met this beautiful lady who is on a mission of heart and soul. I highly recommend these juices as well as the soups.
The Retail Beast and A Calculator
Alright back to the topic about where we’re at and why it is taking so long to define and re-define our next move.
We know that we have been constrained by the size of this store for some time and that moving to a larger store is a necessity. We also indicated that we hoped to open up a bakery and eatery within a larger store model and spoke to so many of you about how you felt about that and you all wanted it.
We also then did extensive surveys about whether you wanted us to stay in Bryanston at this venue or move and had to weigh up so many considerations in this regard. So many. Never have I had such an intense period of retail 101 and financial management for dummies. I have new frown lines.
It’s been a tall learning time considering saturation in the area, foot traffic, trading densities, margins, understanding clever versus entirely foolish risk taking in a rapidly changing retail world and ongoing negotiations with store planners and landlords and boy have we explored it all.
Whilst this was all going on I also took a decision to take over full management of my accounts and become my own mgt. accountant for a spell. Me and the store calculator are one. Pastel and I are now intimate.
This was necessary as it has been a weakness for me that got me to a place of such severe frustration that I wanted to understood every aspect of the finances of this business.
I got rid of all accounting support and have been doing everything myself to get to a place where I understand every last nuance of the finances, every last nuance of food costing and running a business, every last process I need going forward to ensure I have my fingers on the right financial pulses and know every last freaking icon on Pastel as well as the reports I need for an accurate picture of the business at any point.
Growing in any way larger without doing this crash course in accounts and financial mgt. was too risky and this was a very necessary part of my growth while wading knee deep through the financial implications of going larger. I’m starting to lift my head out of that slowly now but admit to not being the most charming of people through-out this knuckle down rite of passage I needed to put myself through. There is a reason why accountants are sometimes quiet and moody. Their brains are exhausted with all the detail!
I became consumed and obsessed with understanding the mechanics and psychology of accounting as much as retail – with as much intensity as I want to understand farming and food.
Once I got stuck into seeing the story of the numbers and into all that detail and having to analyse other businesses, I became obsessed with understanding everything about food retail. I was blessed with support offered by one of our customers to a financial guru to help mentor me through it all and help me with understanding financial models, financial mgt. and how to stay on top of it all. Support for which I am eternally grateful, thank you.
Which is a place I could never have anticipated I’d end up. I remember several arguments with a close friend of mine some time back who happened to own a restaurant. How many times he’d say ‘Deborah you need to start thinking like a retailer’ and how many times I’d snap back at him ‘I am not a retailer and never will be’. What I do is not retail and I don’t ever want to replicate any part of that way of buying and selling. That resistance and blatant stubbornness was borne out of a distaste for the inherent exploitation I have always felt was a part of traditional capitalist food retail models.
But it became a liability and point of weakness when I needed to start addressing the very real dynamics of growth in this business.
I do need to grow in size. If I don’t, I can’t do what I need to do to adequately support good farmers.
If I want to grow and prove a different model of retail, it has become necessary for me to get up close and personal with the current paradigm of it and understand it. I can’t change it and do it differently if I don’t understand every nuance of the premise upon which the old model has been built. I want to do it differently, I want a form of sustainable food retail that enables farmers, that pays them the right price for their produce, one that enables them to be strong and to grow and be sustainable – and a model where the retail piece only serves as a connection piece, not the main star of the show.
It still drives me donkey that when people talk about food they talk about the retailer they buy it from instead of the farm it comes from. The retailer became the symbol of the disconnect between the consumer and the farmer and all success is attributed to the fat retailer – instead of the farmers – it’s just crazy. Instead of saying I went to the shops to buy Farmer Jan’s chickens and Tom’s beef and Jacques vegetables, Siphiwes avo’s – people say they went to x retailer or y retailer and whether or not they got good food or service is all attributed to the success or failings of the retailer. Like they’re some demi-God in the middle and it’s utter nonsense. In the old paradigm the retailer too takes out the lion’s share of the shelf price and farmers are hidden from view and de-valued – and exploited at that, very often bullied – to hell with that – it’s utterly all backward. The farmer is the hero of the whole story of food as are you the supporter of them – not the retailer and retail needs to climb off its pedestal and accept that its rightful job is to serve as a strong connection piece between farmer and consumer, not the central piece. There is a growing intolerance for that type of retailing narcissism and it’s on point.
To get the pricing right, I am adamant that large scale models with centralized distribution and large overheads are not right for the future. Once you’re in that paradigm the retailer needs to make too much in order to pay for the scale of what he has made in order to present a ‘look good’ model to customers. The customer ends up paying a larger price for the illusion of gloss and abundance and the bulk of the shelf price goes to the retailer not the farmer and this is backward.
To understand every assumption that traditional retail models are built upon and then challenge them has been my obsessive work for a while and I think I’m finally clear on what not to do, what not to emulate, how to make up better models and also that most of the assumptions upon which retail models have been made – aren’t relevant anymore.
Size and scale was assumed to meet the needs of people at a time who wanted choice and variety and also shopping experiences that were social. That’s not where the world is headed now – people are time constrained – the very last thing they want is a confused array of choice – they want something of clear value and they want to get it without fuss, drama and they want it to be easily accessible. To ignore this very real move and to build large models of retail based on what people needed, valued and wanted 20 years ago is a mistake I think.
While drawing up new store plans, costings and menu plans and all the projections that go into that to justify the capital required to get to this next leap – we hit a very real retail recession that I believe is going to be here to stay for some time.
The context from six months ago – changed once again – and as far as I’m concerned this is the very adaptation that is a part of the now – and a part of the future. It seemed to hit us out of the blue, it came at us like a draft blowing in from the back door, a gust of wind that blew everything off the table and remains for now. We are in a time of economic and financial uncertainty, there is no denying this.
It is a critical time for business because it’s the time when every business needs to clean up, tidy up – focus – and be utterly clear about the value they bring and do it efficiently – without frills – because if you don’t, the threat of going out of business is right now a vivid reality for many.
Change is going to be an ongoing feature of our lives and the longevity of businesses going forward will depend on the ability to continually adapt and evolve to a fast paced rapidly evolving context.
The interconnectedness of the world due to technological advances as well as the connection to information and community that social media brings added to the fact that people are now time poor – means a rapidly changing, ever shifting environment.
That said, large businesses that do things one way and that are built on outdated paradigms are going to be under real threat. Your trading environment in any field right now is going to be continually and swiftly changing. Whatever assumptions you make on a business case – if not revisited in six months could be outdated in the next. Gone are the days when you would forward forecast for five years. These are the days when you need to be revisiting your plan – every five months – and very definitely making alterations.
It wasn’t long ago that we had to call a cab if we wanted a taxi and within a very short space of time we were all suddenly clicking a button on an app to have a car appear out of the blue to take us anywhere we wanted to go. This happened so swiftly and it seems change is going to continue at this kind of rate going into the future.
Businesses can crop up as quickly as they can fall and large outdated businesses that have not adapted or listened to their market are falling over all over the world.
I have become as obsessed with understanding businesses that are successful as I have with learning about why businesses fail because whilst I’m prepared to make many mistakes for the sake of learning and growth and boy have I – I am not prepared to make this one.
To over capitalize or take a certain risk with Organic Emporium in the midst of a recession.
We need to be very careful about how we proceed. Right now, I feel this business to be recession proof, in that with every constraint you could put around a food store – not enough space, not enough foot traffic, not enough customers, not enough supply, slap bang in a densely saturated area – we have head above water. Much also due to making some errors that led me to having to get intimate with my calculator.
Because we’re lean, we’re focused, our pricing is right, our overheads low and our mission clear.
There is no confusion when you enter here about what we’re selling. You know well what Organic Emporium stands for and so the value of what you’re getting is clear. This is imperative for businesses to survive a recession. You had best be certain that your customers are very clear about who you are and what you sell, otherwise they’re just going to price compare with similar offerings and then the winner is your competitor who has the best buying power. A fools game that can get nasty.
You had best shave off your ‘looking good and glossy overheads’, the customers that matter and that will be loyal to what you’re offering don’t much value it or need it. They value authenticity more and right now that is what they crave, respect and need.
They want crystal clear – no nonsense clarity – and that old game of retail manipulation – making out that you’re selling something to be more valuable than it is, those days are over. Add real value or go home.
We don’t play in that league, our mission is diamond clear.
I haven’t taken on outlandish overheads to kit out a huge store and I never will – true organic produce in philosophy can never fill a huge store. The size has to be right because I’m sure as hell not ever interested in selling anything that isn’t really good for you for the sake of fluffing up margins or slaving to repay back a loan that keeps me awake at night.
Making that type of mistake right now isn’t an option for me. We need to grow but it must be done sensibly.
Our first model for a larger store with a bakery and kitchen ended up being too large. It was beautiful and was an 80 seater with a bakery, harvest table and larger retail but once we started really analysing the cost versus the rent, versus how many times you’d need to turn 80 seats it became too risky. This isn’t a high foot traffic centre and this store isn’t a mainstream attraction, it’s for the security of eating food you trust from farmers we know and valued by a very specific conscious person.
That said, I think we can do food that is going to appeal to a broader market while still being organic but I’m not prepared to give up my soul for capex that’ll put us under strain. That wouldn’t be right for us, for you or for the farmers I need to do right by.
Our mission is too important.
So the long and the short of it is that we’re still planning, building up new models that will be less capital intensive and exploring a partnership that will enable us to do more with support. If I’m ever in a place where I’m so tied down with running this that I can’t find new farms, visit existing farms and focused on my core mission – there is no point for me in taking on the risk.
Any risk I take needs to be taken for the very real need to connect more people to the produce from good farms and I’m clear on this.
We need to grow yes but I’m going to need to be very circumspect about how. I want trusted people around me who have proved over time that they care about this business and that can come on board. I want to go for models that allow me to spend more time helping to develop farms.
It’s been such a long road but it’s changing to a point where I can actually start developing farms, sourcing the right feed for them, helping them with models as I’ve worked with so many, I need to wear many hats but I need trusted partners to help me get Organic Emporium to the next level without compromising who we are or what we stand for.
I am blessed to have the support of some incredible people. I am blessed to have the support of people with solid hearts and souls and who really get us – so I trust the path ahead. Just be patient with me while I’m sorting out the next best right step.
Whether or not that will be in Bryanston is still under discussion. There are still more t’s to cross and I’s to dot before we know whether this is right or not. It’ll all come to a head very shortly so just bear with us.
For now, the store is small and full and tightly packed and not great for trolleys or queues but I had to get it right on this small space first – and make every mistake you can make in retail – first – and then get it perfect in this small model – first – and we’re there – next step is to get to a larger store that I can better serve you in. I’m ready for that. I just need the right deal taking only risk that I find sensible, not one that is going to put me under strain that may pervert my mission to connect you to the country’s best farmers.
We also will be bringing you a new online service again shortly. I have been so loathe to go back to doing this as we did it non-stop for 6 years before we closed it to focus on this store and the idea of going back made me frown a lot.
The time to do it though is now.
I’m hearing so many ask for it – I know the online space has evolved and we’re working on a new online service to re-open in the near future too. We’ll build it better this time based on not repeating mistakes we made with the old – but making this food more accessible to you is good to do now – there are even better more efficient models for e-commerce than we had available when we first built the online store, better payment portals and better online ordering processes so I know we need to bring this back for you.
We have to acknowledge that we are in a context where most people are time poor and that making it easier to access this food is mission critical.
Alright, so that’s why I’ve been short and ratty of late. Not really unhappy – just consumed with analysing things and getting into very detailed work and planning.
I shall make it all right shortly by scheduling a new spate of farm trips. I am never confused or unclear about anything when I’m on farms – it’s when I remember why I need to do all the rest of this. I always come back with renewed purpose once I’ve spent time with the people I really consider my boss. I work for them primarily.
We have a series of farm visits and new articles to do over the next 3 months which is a juggle between dealing with the store growth plans, keeping this store ticking but also travelling and writing.
I have help with the articles now in the form of my son who is a photo journalist and this is such a beautiful curve in the Organic Emporium journey that he now comes with me on my travels – I write the story – he photographs it. It’s very special and I’m very blessed.
Thank you for you and for caring about the nuances of our every step and supporting great farmers who are worth it.
What a pleasure to have put down the calculator and to see that the writer in me hasn’t been killed by it.
My mission is always to serve connection in every aspect of my life. In our context, I’m here to connect your support to the country’s most sustainable farmers. I just serve as a conduit between the hearts and shared values of both of you because you need these farmers and they need you.
I’m just here to facilitate that connection.
Much love as always,