A conversation over dinner with friends was the kickstarter for Jane Maul, a qualified chef, and her husband Julian, an ex-advertising executive, to turn Scottish-born Jane’s unique family Christmas pudding recipe into a business.
The then-owners of Barossa Valley boutique accommodation Abbotsford Country House were on the lookout for a side venture and, in 2004, the couple’s puddings made their debut at South Australia’s Barossa Farmers Market. And they’ve been a gourmet Christmas staple there ever since.
Today, with the help of their daughter and a couple of trusted friends, the Mauls personally make and market almost 1000 kilos of delicious old-school puddings each year, plus supply corporate clients as well as repeat customers in the Barossa and beyond. “We’ve got intergenerational buyers who say, ‘My kids now eat the pudding that my parents used to buy from you and it still tastes the same’,” says Julian.
With the countdown to last Christmas orders for puddings ticking down on the pudding’s website, we caught up with Julian to find out the secrets to creating a successful seasonal business.
Rejoice in What You Know
Jane and I had very recently opened up our guesthouse here in the Barossa and were reluctant to take money out of the business for holidays with our two kids. Like all new businesses, cash was very short and everything we were making we were basically pouring back in.
We thought: “What else could we do on the side?” A friend of ours from Sydney had moved back to Adelaide and she was going out with a butcher from Adelaide, the late Ken Fox. We were talking over the dinner table and my wife and Foxy started talking about Christmas puddings. They were swapping recipes and he said, “Why don’t you come down to my butcher shop and make a couple of Christmas puddings and sell them at the farmers’ markets?” [Eventually] we reached a point where we’d worn out our welcome at his butcher shop and that’s when we brought everything home and started working from the commercial kitchen in our guesthouse.
Tell Your Christmas Story and Stay True to Your Brand
If you’re selling a product which has a brand, the brand must have a story… and we have a fairly compelling one. Our recipe is an old family recipe on my wife’s side – it’s a bit of a time-capsule recipe because it doesn’t include nuts or peel. In many respects, it’s a very old-fashioned Christmas pudding.
Suet is our binding agent. We had another side hustle as Black Angus producers for many years and a paddock-to-plate business, so we found ourselves with lots of suet. The only ingredient we source from outside of Australia is our spices; everything else is either from the Barossa Valley, South Australia or from Australia.
We’ve always made our puddings and we never thought for one moment of getting someone else to make them – you have to remain authentic and true to your brand. My daughter now helps – she grew up surrounded by Christmas puddings being made. There is so much competition out there and a lot of people have forgotten the art of telling their story. That applies across the board, whether you’re big or small.
Business May Be Seasonal, but Maintain Relationships All Year Long
We start the process of speaking to suppliers [early in the year]. We’ll make sure we’re going to be able to access particular products, so we don’t find ourselves in a situation where we’re running around madly to find a particular product here in South Australia that’s no longer available.
It’s part of having a good relationship with all of your partners – we’ve learned that lesson. A simple phone call part of the way through the year can save you 20 at a time of the year when the last thing you want to be doing is making calls to find a particular product. We start making the puddings in July and go to the markets in September.
Inject Some Flexibility Into Your Planning
We try to produce about three-quarters of our annual production by mid-September. You need to build in some degree of flexibility in terms of your inventory. One year you might have a corporate who’ll come along and say, “This year, we want to buy 100 one-kilo puddings.” The next year, they might come back saying, “We still want your puddings but we’re now going to do them in a hamper, so we want 100 half-kilo puddings.” We always leave some slack in the system so we know what we need to produce at the very back end of the year.
Streamline the Way You Do Things to Improve Your Balance Sheet
It might sound simple, but it’s important you understand how it is that you make what it is you make.
For example, we boil our puddings for six hours. So really it doesn't matter whether or not we've got one pot burning or we've got ten pots burning. At the end of the day, time is what's limiting us there.
We sat down and identified the time that’s involved, what the limiting factors were and what could be done to deal with that – so what equipment or technology we needed to put in place. Also, work out what you can do simultaneously without jeopardising the integrity of what it is you’re producing: what can you do to ensure you have scale?
Take a Whole-Year Approach
[For a seasonal business,] you need an understanding of what and how much you need to make sure you have the funds to do the things you need. And one of them is having sufficient cash flow to set aside and effectively fund your forward operation.
Often, a lot of people don’t think about that. They just think they’ve made X amount of dollars and “I’m rewarding myself with those X amount of dollars now”, not considering you need X plus Y to do it all over again in six months’ time.
Listen to Your Customers – and Stay True to Them
We were always aware there was a market for a gluten-free Christmas pudding. There are people who for serious medical reasons need a gluten-free product and then there are those who have also made that choice for other reasons.
Customers would often say to us, “I only eat this product once a year – but it’s worth it.” We felt really uncomfortable with that, so we spent three years perfecting a gluten-free recipe; we didn’t want to put a product out there that didn’t live up to the expectations people have with our normal pudding. We introduced it two years ago.
Keep Asking the Questions to Improve Your Margins
We’ve always looked for [ways] to make savings without compromising the quality of our product. Many years ago, we bought all our brandy from the local cellar. I’d say to Jane, “This is killing us – it’s costing us a fortune.” And she said, “It’s all made by the one distiller in the Barossa Valley – go and speak to xyz because they’re involved with that company and might be able to give us a discount.”
They did give us a very substantial discount – we were able to make an enormous saving on our costs. I also think it was my wife’s excuse for putting even more brandy into the recipe…
Maintain Your Business at a Scale That Works
Our business is constant but it’s constantly growing. We’ve never been chasing producing enormous quantities and then finding ourselves in a situation where we’ve made twice as much pudding but for less margin. The way Jane and I look at it, if we can be left with nothing at the end of year, then we’re working our business right. After all, there's not much of a demand for Christmas pudding on the first of January!
A Toast to Christmas – and Pudding!
“Does anyone want pudding?” is a longstanding family joke at Christmas time! There are always others at the table who haven’t been part of the process and they all want our pudding. So yes, we do have pudding at Christmas – with brandy butter (more brandy than butter, I might add) and a Barossa sparkling shiraz.