Anyone that loves a food pun is awesome in my books. But that wasn’t the only thing that interested me about entrepreneurs Sarah Holloway and Nic Davidson.
A few weeks ago, I attended a breakfast event run by wellness collective Wellineux, which featured Sarah and Nic. They founded organic green tea brand Matcha Maiden and recently opened St Kilda vegan cafe Matcha Mylkbar.
The theme was “growth”, and they talked about how they grew Matcha Maiden from a hobby to a successful business (in less than a year-and-a-half!), and their personal growth along the way.
I loved their story so much that I wanted to share a bit about it.
I also wrote up a story which focuses more on Matcha Mylkbar for a couple of Leader papers, and the story is also online. Read it here. I haven’t had a chance to actually get there yet to check it out – it’s on my list. It’s a trek for me from the outer ‘burbs!
First up, for those who want to know – what is matcha?
Matcha is a green tea leaf powder, ground instead of throwing the leaf out.
Sarah says you get 137 times the antioxidants than normal green tea and 10 times the nutritional value, but less than half the amount of caffeine than coffee, and it’s slower release.
The tea has been around for centuries as a meditation aid in Japanese tea ceremonies, but has more recently morphed into a “superfood”, being used in everything from drinks, to pancakes, bread and donuts.
In 2014, Sarah moved to Hong Kong for her work with a corporate law firm and started drinking matcha smoothies. A previous bout of illness stopped her drinking coffee but she still needed a caffeine hit.
“When I came home, matcha was my thing – it was the only way I could get energy to get through days but I couldn’t find it anywhere,” she said.
It was only in one tea chain store, but was super-expensive for everyday use, and in Asian grocery stores, but the quality was questionable.
So after finding a gap in the market, about 15 months ago she and Nic, a self-described “entrepreneur since I was 12”, started their own organic matcha green tea brand, Matcha Maiden, as a hobby.
They imported 10kg of the powder, used their own legal, website and creative skills, bought packing bags from eBay, printed labels out at Officeworks and worked out of a friend’s commercial kitchen.
Sarah said “it was very DIY and non-glamorous”.
They had a “two-week social media hype not knowing what would happen” and a week after going live, they’d sold all the stock.
“I don’t think we even had our suppliers details as we I didn’t think we’d have to order again,” Sarah said.
So they ordered another 20kg and wrote a wishlist of places they wanted to sell it in. Within six months they’d pretty much completed the list.
And in that time, they got a random email from US retail giant Urban Outfitters – which Sarah first thought was a scam and ignored. Hey, I probably would have done the same!
The company asked for a supply and haven’t looked back.
Matcha Maiden now imports half a tonne of powder a month. It’s stocked in more than 1000 stores in Australia, Hong Kong and the US. And they have some very famous customers, including the Victoria’s Secret angels. Major cred!
They now outsource the packing to a sheltered workshop in Heidelberg.
On the back of Matcha Maiden’s success, they collaborated with business partners and long-time friends Mark and Attil Filippelli (of Il Fornaio, The Last Piece and Brighton Schoolhouse) on Matcha Mylkbar.
“Nic and I had never planned to expand our Matcha Maiden adventures into a physical venue, but sometimes opportunities just turn up on your doorstep,” Sarah said.
And when the “perfect space” came up on the corner of Acland and Carlisle streets in St Kilda, they jumped at the chance.
Sarah said the cafe’s matcha theme “made sense” because of their following and the product’s increasing popularity in the health and wellness community.
And while they aren’t strictly vegan, they made the “bold” decision to stick to a plant-based menu.
“The focus is not on any particular political or value-based factors, but simply on the statistics surrounding sustainability,” she said.
She pointed to the world’s “blue zones” where people lived longest, with a factor being a primarily plant-based diet.
“One of those zones is Okinawa, Japan, which boasts the highest number of centenarians in the world whose longevity is also attributable to high consumption levels of matcha,” she said.
“We wanted to make these longevity benefits available to vegans and non-vegans by bringing these stats to people’s attention and crafting an amazing menu around ‘blue zone’ dining principles that can satisfy any palate regardless of whether or not you eat meat.”
At a time when Melbourne’s food scene is being overtaken by freakshakes, cronuts, croissant burgers and other crazy food hybrids, the cafe’s menu stands out for a completely different reason.
At the top of that list is an egg which is not really an egg. The trademarked vegan eggs have the same consistency and similar protein levels to a regular egg, but are made of coconut, sweet potato and turmeric.
Sarah said the eggs are “very similar in texture and experience to a poached egg” and were a “labour of love”. So much so the recipe is top secret.
Other popular dishes are the “chicken” burger on a matcha bun, matcha pancakes, and pumpkin gnocchi with eggplant bolognese.
And the drinks menu features lattes – including matcha, turmeric, mushroom and beetroot – and smoothies served in skull-shaped glasses.
The food isn’t just designed to taste good – it’s deliberately made to look good.
Think Instagram photogenic, so people take photos and share on social media.
“Everything has to be photogenic if you want to encourage people to share their experiences and spread the word as quickly and widely as possible in a short amount of time,” Sarah said.
“There’s a big ‘food share’ culture in Melbourne so you have to be able to capitalise on that.”
And capitalise they have – they are consistently packed, and Sarah said even after the novelty had worn off, they had repeat customers and were “growing a beautiful little community”.
Puns feature heavily on the menu – Sarah said it was partly to “inject some of our own personality to differentiate us from the increasingly crowded Melbourne cafe scene”.
“Our (cafe) concept lends itself to so many points of differentiation and so much of our menu hasn’t been done elsewhere before,” she said.
“It hasn’t been difficult for us to find that factor that distinguishes us from the rest.”
The punny menu includes the “if you know any vegetable puns, lettuce know” smoothie, with coconut, avocado, spinach, matcha, organic coconut oil, dates and coconut water. And the “orange you glad to see me?” orange juice.
So on the back of a whirlwind year-and-a-half, Sarah said the biggest thing was going from a job she was qualified in, with a structured career path, to “the complete opposite”.
“I have no idea what I’m doing at any one time but you go with it – it was a very difficult transition but also the best transition I’ve ever made,” she said.
“I’ve gone from dreaming my life to living my dream.”
And she said working with Nic was “amazing… now we’re working towards the same goal and it makes the successes so much more rewarding”.
But they did have to put in boundaries to separate the work and the personal – they divided the business into departments so they had their own responsibilities and didn’t overlap.
And she shared some of her own tips for personal growth:
- nothing great ever came from comfort zones – stepping out of your comfort zone is where you can learn the most
- but on the other hand, don’t reinvent the wheel – focus on what you’re doing and do it properly
- you never leave where you are until you decide where you want to be – setting goals is important so you know where you’re going
- the grass is greener where you water it – don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, focus on you
- doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will – change your mind frame and believe in yourself; and
- look after your body, it’s the only place you have to live – take time to look after yourself and get a work/life balance.
Some great advice!