Chef talk: Straight to the Source with Tawnya Bahr
With growing business Straight To The Source firmly under her belt, Tawnya Bahr continues to uncover new opportunities and ways of providing that all important link between producers and market.
It’s that paddock to plate connection with food’s provenance that has become vital to any decent restaurant these days. Providing that link is her mission, and so life for Tawnya is busy, and never, ever dull.
Tawnya didn’t start out as a chef. Far from it. But her love of food and cooking overtook her IT career and laid the path, albeit a very crooked one, to where she stands now – at the crossroads of produce and chefs. Looking back is interesting, and as she chats, the passion and drive overtake what could have been an ordinary conversation. But Tawnya Bahr is no ordinary person, though she’ll say she is, her story illuminates a serendipitous life that is at the forefront of the culinary industry now. And I go, Straight to the Source.
Tawnya, from IT to food is a big leap. Just how did it all begin?
“For me, in hindsight, I’m so glad I had the career trajectory I did, because those business skills that I brought to the table literally, laid the foundation for building some innovative food businesses.
From sales & marketing in San Francisco for a software company, I moved to Australia in January 1995. Wanderlust was a big driver, and here I worked for a software company again. But I was a die-hard foodie. I always wanted to be a chef for as long as I can remember, and in a way I guess my work in IT funded my foodie habit.
With a burning desire to be in the food industry, and seeing a niche in the market, I worked on some recipes, applied my skills in sales and marketing and created a company called The Condiment Connoisseur starting with 2 products. These were American style seafood sauces that I developed using Australian ingredients.”
The Condiment Connoisseur became much more than a tiny cottage business. How?
“That business began with a question: Could I expand on the condiment niche market? My instinct said yes, and I secured exclusive distribution rights for Australia from Napa Valley Mustards, and Christopher Ranch products – a large garlic company.
Then serendipitously, in Sydney, I met a chef called Victor Pisapia, who had the amazing Rattle Snake Grill, a popular Santa Fe style restaurant, and he’d developed a product line with Margherita mix, fire roasted salsa, barbecue sauce – they were wonderful, so my range grew. At the time, I was selling my products directly to retailers, and knew that if I wanted to grow – to scale up – I had to either find a distributor or set up a distribution company myself. As a small business, I couldn’t afford to select the wrong distributor so, I wrote a business plan and set up a nationwide distribution company.
Looking back, I can’t believe how it all unfolded. I knew I now had a full range of quality products but just needed some customers.”
What was that turning point for you and your business?
“For me, my first big break came through Blackwattle Deli at the Sydney Fish Markets. I nervously walked up to the owner of this busy gourmet deli with my condiments all neatly displayed in a custom box I had made and the owner Michael said he liked the look of them and asked me to come back with more.
That was a pivotal moment and the real beginning of The Condiment Connoisseur. I now had the chance to meet other producers like myself and conduct public tastings on the weekends. This was critical to the development of the range –that live feedback from the public about my seafood sauces allowed me to tweak the formula until I had it right for the Australian audience. I found out the American palate and Australian palate can be very different.
Once I had the formulas right, I was selling well. We were motoring! The next challenge was finding a contract manufacturer and switching over from a fresh product with a six week shelf life to a hot-filled product with a 2 year shelf life. It was complex, working with a food technologist, designing labels, tamper seals, nutritional labels, packaging and so much more.
It was a huge learning curve but one I was determined to master. As I was a small team of one with a baby on my hip I basically had to be strategic about how to distribute my products.”
Was it hard? Family, business?
“Was it all plain sailing? Far from it! There were days that I doubted my abilities, wailed and wondered if I was on the right track. I remember feeling sick and shaking when I was going up the lift into the buying office at David Jones to give my elevator pitch. It was intimidating as hell. I had left the babysitter with my daughter in the pram walking around the makeup section whilst I went into the meeting. Juggling motherhood and business was so tough, but I was determined as I felt I had something to contribute.
I had a range of products that were innovative, preservative free, delicious and not available on the shelves in Australia.
Then my customer base started to grow nationwide which included David Jones, Coles, BBQ Galore and gourmet delis and things started to look up.
After growing the business and having a warehouse, participating at tradeshows like the Fine Food Show and increasing the network, I was bought out by another gourmet food business and given some time to reflect and work out what my next steps would be.”
How did it feel, letting go of something you had worked so hard to build?
“Hmm, it was simply a case of, what next could I challenge myself with? I had another child, did some catering, and consulted to other small producers who were developing products. Then I took myself off to culinary school for some formal training. It was through Le Cordon Bleu that I solidified my desire for commercial cooking, made life long friends and honed my cooking skills.
Whilst studying I started taking friends on foodie tours and then was approached to run farmers’ market tours, which I still do today and absolutely love it. It’s in my heart and soul to support farmers’ markets and it’s how I feed my family.”
You know, I think my path into the food industry may not have been a conventional one but as a result my skillset is diverse and well rounded.
Straight To The Source is maverick, and exciting. What was the genesis of that?
“I’ve been a professional food consultant operating under my own name since I sold The Condiment Connoisseur and I continue running it today. My tag line for Tawnya Bahr Food Consulting was “Taking you straight to the source”.
Then I turned Straight To The Source into another separate business in 2012. Lucy Allon joined me in Straight To The Source in 2014 and we now focus on creating behind-the-scenes regional food tours for chefs and hospitality professionals to showcase producers, regions, and support professional development for hospitality professionals.
Lucy is an award winning restaurateur & experienced sommelier and front-of-house professional so we complement each other’s skills.
Lucy also heads up the Delicious Magazine Produce Awards. I now work for large organisations, consulting and working on developing relationships with producers. So what we both focus on across all our projects, is opening up opportunities to bridge that divide from paddock to plate.”
We scratch well below the surface
How do your tours roll?
A typical Straight To The Source tour might go like this: we go into a region that might not be well known, work with the producers, and industry bodies, then go back 2 or 4 times for reconnaissance. We design the touch points, focusing on that all important information exchange. We are a kind of conduit on a technical level that all parties get what they need and want out of it.
It’s very real, so the chefs tend to come again and again, or send their teams to experience the holistic approach that has big takeaway. We don’t have room for error – it has to be at the best level we can deliver. We do our due diligence, to make sure we are offering an authentic, well delivered experience.
Our ultimate goal is to create a price point that is accessible to anyone in the food industry who wants to join one of our tours. We offer something different from the moment of pick up to set down.
What do the chefs get out of it? It’s precious time away from the kitchen.
For the chefs, it helps their mental state, their approach to the ingredients they work with. It offers something in the professional space – we take an initiative, and we make it happen. We’re creating relationships, and we’re also helping agri-tourism and food & beverage tourism as we raise brand and regional awareness to consumers through the chefs and influencers that come on our tours. It’s like lifting the lid on all these hidden jewels.
Not all farmers are interested of course on a consumer level – they are always so busy. But some embrace it and expand their offerings. We figure out what ticks everybody’s box. We have a formula we work through, and once we do that, we push the go button and make it happen.
Collaboration underpins it all. Life is relationship based, the soul of any business.
It looks like amazing experiences, so what’s coming up?
Working on a 2019 and 2020 schedule, we find we’re doing it more with larger bodies to deliver on a bespoke level. But we always want to offer a few that we curate for smaller players, our goal is to encourage big partners to bring the price down on our ticketed ones. That’s what we’re working on.
Our motto is that we go straight to the source of Australia’s finest ingredients and it’s professional development that hasn’t happened before. And we bring in those industry experts who have a deep understanding of the industry and its needs.
We bring in scientists, masters of their crafts, masters of wine, in fact we’re working with 3 different indigenous communities at the moment.
You know what? Collaboration underpins it all. Life is relationship based, the soul of any business. Lucy and I work together perfectly – she’s the spread sheet guru, I work on an intuitive level. It’s not an easy space we’re in. The feedback from the chefs and the producers is positive, so we just have to keep staying true to our core and make it sustainable as a business so it can grow and reach more people.”
Tawnya Bahr must go, some planning and tours to prepare, and logistics to sort, relationships to build, details to work out. It’s busy, complex, but suits her skill set – and her business partner’s skill set – perfectly. They absolutely walk their talk. And I am sure many chefs and industry players are grateful for that.
Check the latest morsels offered at www.straighttothesource.com.au