How the dying days of Retail Adventures inspired a raw retail venture

Published 19 February 2015 13:54, Updated 20 February 2015 06:34 Michael Bailey Deputy editor BRW.

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Simply Raw founders Sebastian Rosa and Janine Zappini-Rosa started the business on just $2000.

As a business analyst for Jan Cameron’s Retail Adventures for two years until January 2012, Janine Zappini-Rosa felt her board reports were ignored and her colleagues “treated like numbers” as the giant teetered towards collapse. She channelled all she learnt into a start-up that exceeded $1 million turnover in 2013/14.

Zappini-Rosa co-founded Simply Raw with her husband Sebastian Rosa in October 2011. Then 26, she would spend her weekends baking organic desserts in the couple’s Bondi studio apartment, selling them at local markets and cafes.

A cancer diagnosis for her mother, combined with waning health from putting in “60-to-70-hour weeks” at Retail Adventures, sharpened Zappini-Rosa’s focus on “eating consciously”, and avoiding all but natural ingredients.

Repeat orders from her earliest retail distributors also convinced her there was a gap in the market for organic, gluten-free healthfood bars, where at the time US-made Clif Bars and Australia’s Brookfarm were among the few alternatives.

Her husband Sebastian, a fashion designer and self-described “jack of all trades”, customised a sheet metal fabricator that allowed Zappini-Rosa to produce a consistent, 50-gram bar from home. The pair quit their jobs and a year of testing and refining, and growing distribution through cafes and healthfood stores, ensued.

“We’d both felt the frustration of not working for ourselves, of not having a voice, yet an inner voice saying ‘we can do this’,” Sebastian Rosa says.

“We’re not ‘entrepreneurs’ because we’re committed to Simply Raw only, for the long-term. It’s about our personal growth, not making a quick buck.”

Human element

Her Retail Adventures experience reinforced to Zappini-Rosa the importance of the human element in business. She feels Jan Cameron became too influenced by consultants who put their own interests ahead of the business, and redundancy rounds were conducted without regard for the experience being lost.

“There was no attachment to people, you were just a number,” she says.

Zappini-Rosa sees a correlation between business success and generosity with your time and expertise. Muesli mogul Carolyn Creswell had a coaching conversation with her the week before she spoke to BRW; PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Steven Maarbani is Simply Raw’s legal advisor, but has thrown in mentorship for free.

The Simply Raw founders have now grown to a position where they themselves mentor younger business owners, particularly those keen to participate in health food snack production. The industry has boomed in line with a trend to mindful eating, with $587 million total revenue in 2013/14 representing 7.3 per cent annual growth since 2009, according to IBISWorld.

“There’s virtually a new brand of healthfood bar every week now, many of them trying to copy us,” Zappini-Rosa claims.

She says healthfood is an area where passion often exceeds financial focus, but not in a good way.

“You’ve got to have each batch of product financed before you make it, and be able to supply it on time, every time,” she says.

“We speak to founders who tell us they’ve got orders in but haven’t even bought the ingredients yet. Those distributor relationships will be burned forever.”

Simply Raw still seeks to “disrupt” the healthfood market, she says. In the early days this was done through some natural ingredients rarely seen elsewhere, such as medjool dates, lucuma (a natural sweetener) and Himalayan rock salt.

“Our aim has always been to have a bar for you, no matter your food intolerance or lifestyle preference. Coeliacs, diabetics, people with nut allergies, vegans, paleo – we wanted to have something for everyone because there used to be so little available.”

New foray

This year will see a foray into the so-called ‘meal replacement shake’ market, however Zappini-Rosa claims that unlike competitors, its product will have “distinguishable ingredients rather than a bunch of numbers”.

Last year, Simply Raw shifted its manufacturing to a certified gluten-free factory in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills, however it owns the machines upon which its bars are made, and the founders say they regularly monitor and seek to improve the production process. In line with their transposition of ‘lean’ principles on to a healthfood start-up, the pair have long since ditched their expensive Bondi studio in favour of an home office/warehouse in Sydney’s inner-southern Waterloo.

The major supermarkets now beckon, however Zappini-Rosa says she will never allow one distributor to represent more than 5 to 10 per cent of Simply Raw’s sales.

Started with just $2000 and bootstrapped on a week-to-week basis in its first year, the founders are now seeking $1 million (on top of an existing private external investment) to help fund a rebrand and new packaging which will underpin wider distribution.

“At the moment we kind of look like a health bar. We want packaging that’s simpler, cleaner, a bit more fun – that’s still educative about health but not wanting to make you feel guilty about it,” Sebastian Rosa says.