Small Business Success Stories With Crumpets by Merna
Work| By Kate Barracosa | February 19, 2021
In this ongoing series, we speak to entrepreneurs about their small business success stories. Discover how Crumpets by Merna pivoted in a time of crisis.
Although she had never made a gourmet crumpet in her life, chef Merna Taouk had a feeling there was something about this childhood breakfast staple that would strike a chord. In 2017, she was already running a successful business selling gourmet frozen desserts and decided to mix up her offering at her weekly store at Carriageworks Farmers Markets in Sydney – and Crumpets by Merna was born. They were a hit almost immediately, with her products soon on offer at restaurants and hotels across Australia. But when COVID-19 struck, the business had to pivot and focus on a different way of getting the crumpets to breakfast tables. Merna shares her small business success story, and the best lessons she’s learnt along the way about responding to customer needs, embracing the unknown and trusting your gut instincts.
Build on the Skills You Have
After I finished working as a chef in an à la carte kitchen, I started a dessert business. We had a store at Carriageworks [Farmers Markets, in Sydney], but it was hard to sell desserts in the morning so we always had a sweet breakfast offering, too, such as buttermilk pancakes to order. I was on a plane back from San Francisco in March 2017, thinking about what I was going to do when I got home that was new and fresh, and I decided to make crumpets for my breakfast offering for that year. And they were a hit – I had chefs approaching me asking me to sell to them, and that was how it all began.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New
I had never made crumpets from scratch in my life, so the recipe testing phase was pretty intense. I’d dabbled in making bread at home, but out of everything I’d ever made, there was a real science behind making crumpets. It took around three months to get it right. I had to break each ingredient down to understand what it was doing to figure out how to achieve the result I wanted. It was definitely exciting; I was pumped – although there were some daunting moments! Coming from working as a chef in kitchens where there was a lot of pressure, doing things like covers for 700 people in two hours, I enjoyed the time I had to think. It was my project and each day I’d try something else – fermenting for longer, or for less time, or at this temperature, or using a different flour.
Trust Your Instincts
I would go home and make crumpets, I would go to work and make crumpets – just constantly making crumpets! But there was one day when I was in the kitchen on my own and I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to take off”. Out of everything I’ve done in my life, I had this gut feeling that this was going to be received well. They always say listen to your gut and I really had nothing to lose. I was so adamant that people were going to love it – I had never felt that sure about something before and within 12 months I stopped making desserts because we just had no time to do it.
Never Underestimate the Power of Nostalgia
I loved eating supermarket crumpets as a kid – and it takes people back to their childhoods, to those after-school snacks and eating them with just butter and honey. I think part of the reason they were so successful is that people remember how they felt back then. They’re a comfort food that puts a smile on people’s faces. In the early days I just wanted everyone to try my crumpets and [let the experience] take them back to their childhoods. And that’s still my aim – to take over the world, one crumpet at a time.
Know When It’s Time to Let Things Go
Stopping the desserts was something I never thought I would do, but I had to look at the business and focus on what was doing well. The crumpets had become a full-time job – there were some weeks we were making crumpets seven days a week, and at least five days a week with two shifts, sometimes three. We were supplying restaurants, hotels, cafes, airlines including Qantas and Virgin – anyone that did that breakfast trade. It was the right time, too. If I was to launch it now, in 2021, would people have responded that well? I don’t know. The timing was right and, when I started, there was no-one else making this kind of crumpet.
Stay on Top of Changes in the Industry – and the World
We were hit by COVID like everyone else. Our business was 80% supplying food service, and overnight we saw that just stop. We were getting constant updates about what was going on, and about two weeks prior to everything going into lockdown, we had decided to get ready for it. We were always available online but never really pushed it, but once we knew we were going into lockdown, we came up with a plan to give people that breakfast offering at home.
Collaboration Is Key in Times of Crisis
The whole team worked together to come up with breakfast boxes. People could buy a box that had coffee in it, and butter and jam and crumpets – all people needed to do was supply their own egg if they wanted it. We collaborated with other companies, like Pepe Saya butter, which we share a factory with, and local tea companies, and in the beginning I was making jam, stewed rhubarb – anything that you could serve up for breakfast. We were lucky with the timing, too, because we had Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, so many different events that we were able to come up with bespoke boxes for. People were still having babies in COVID, and getting engaged, so there were a lot of gifts going out as well.
Invest in the Parts of the Business You Need in the Moment
We had to completely update our website. It was previously geared for business to business, but that had to change when we focused on business to consumer. [We needed] things like having better photography. We put all our marketing dollars for 2020 into advertising these packs online. We made sure we had the right offerings, because if we didn’t have that and were advertising, people weren’t going to buy it. The power of social media is amazing. It’s grown our business.
Always Respond to Customer Needs and Wants
While this year feels pretty unknown, and we are getting a lot of our food service back, we’re still finding that online ordering is continuing, even though we’re not advertising as much. We’ve done Christmas tree-shaped crumpets for the past few years and we sold the most we ever have in 2020. I’m finding more and more people are buying online, and we have a lot of return visitors. Customer mindset has shifted with online buying, especially with food products – COVID has pushed us in the right direction for that. We don’t have to go into a shop to buy our food, we can buy it online straight from the grower or the maker. We’ve really changed the way we shop.
Be Prepared to Adapt
Every day is a new day. You can’t plan for everything that’s going to happen – we’re living it now. It’s really important to move with the times, to move with demand and be open to offering new and different things at different times. At Easter, we did Easter bunny hot cross crumpets and people loved them. They are a lot harder for us to make – there’s a lot more involved, the ears fall off – but it’s giving our customers what they want.