Friday, July 1, 2022

Turning a passion into a business

A Southland farmer and mum has been taking Gore by storm, with her selection of delectable baking. A passion founded from hours of watching Jamie Oliver and honing her skills in her parents’ kitchen is now a fully-fledged business, which has grown exponentially in just two years.

A Southland farmer and mum has been taking Gore by storm, with her selection of delectable baking.

A passion founded from hours of watching Jamie Oliver and honing her skills in her parents’ kitchen is now a fully-fledged business, which has grown exponentially in just two years.

Kate Burgess and her husband Scott milk 600 cows on the Gore farm they lease from her parents and on top of that, she runs Sweet Belle Kitchen.

When it comes to her passion for cooking and baking, she says it all stems back to a childhood spent watching cooking programmes on TV and a mother who let her have full reign in the kitchen.

“Mum had this rule that I could bake to my heart’s content, but I had to clean up,” Kate says.

“My grandmother was a really good baker and I’ve just always loved learning about different foods from different cultures. I have two older brothers and a father with a sweet tooth, so they really enjoyed my passion for baking”.

The idea to turn her passion into a business only really started to ‘preheat’ when she was pregnant with their son. She knew going back to her job wasn’t a high priority for her due to the amount of travel involved and wanted a change from the corporate world. She also wanted to make the most of her son’s early years and become self-employed.

Sweet Belle Kitchen was officially launched in 2019, starting out with custom cakes.

“It was scary to put myself out there. You wonder if what you’re providing is good enough, if it’s what people want but at the same time it felt right. The timing was good for us with the farm and Ted coming. I wasn’t sure to start with how I’d work it all out with a newborn, but luckily he’s pretty cruisy,” she says.

In the beginning she had a goal of baking one cake a fortnight. This rapidly grew and now her orders can be anything from three to five cakes a week and has reached the point of having to turn down business. She has grown her offerings to include an assortment of baked goods, platter boxes, cupcakes, cookies and more, all in just two years.

“I think sometimes as a wife in a farming operation, you kind of feel on the outside a wee bit if you’re not overly hands-on on the farm. It’s important to have your own things, follow your own passions and make sure they get priority once in a while, otherwise you get stuck in the grind of farming. I didn’t want to be in my 60s wishing I had started this business when I was 30,” she says.

Speaking on her rapid business growth, she says while social media has been vital, word of mouth has been key.

A pink decorated cake on a table

Sweet Belle Kitchen was launched in 2019, with a focus on custom-made cakes. Kate’s goal was to do one cake a fortnight, but now can do up to five.

“Southland is a bit of a special place in that word-of-mouth is worth more than any marketing budget. It’s just how things work down here. I have customers who I hardly know out there supporting me and recommending my business and it’s such a great feeling,” she says.

Gore is a hot bed of foodies, with a number of food creation businesses out there. While it would be easy to think this means a lot of competition, she says it’s far from it.

“Everyone has a point of difference and are incredibly supportive of everyone else. If someone can’t fulfil an order, they point them in the direction of someone else and vice versa; it’s a really nice community to be part of and is a real testament to the sense of community here in Southland.”

Her point of difference sits within her uniquely minimalist style and focus on flavours. She makes everything she can from scratch, using the best local ingredients. Fondant doesn’t feature heavily in her creations, but flavour will always be at the forefront.

Like so many other farming mums and wives, striking the right balance between everything in life has been one of the biggest challenges for her. Although there are many resources available to assist with the admin side of starting a business, there is no manual for how to create balance between children, farms, new businesses and everything else.

“I get asked a lot how I get it all done. My answer is always if you are passionate about it, you’ll figure it out,” she says.

“Things are constantly changing as Ted gets older, so the times at which I tend to do work changes. Lately I’ve been doing the bulk of things in the evenings after he goes to bed. Scott is really supportive and he’ll take Ted out on the farm with him if I have things I need to do and I have a lot of support from friends and family as well.

“I call my friends my marketing team. I value their input so much and I really encourage other business owners to surround yourselves with people who encourage and facilitate your dreams.”

Belle Kitchen cupcakes, decorated pink.

Cakes, cupcakes and biscuits baked in Sweet Belle Kitchen have a strong focus on flavours, using the best local ingredients available.

During the interview, Kate was multitasking on the go and it is apparent she is a dab hand at it. The busy mum, farmer, farm business administrator and business owner is always on the go and says that while it’s taken a bit to figure out how to balance everything, two years into her business venture, she thinks she might have cracked the code, for now anyway.

Kate grew up on a sheep and beef farm in Te Anau, then her parents purchased a sheep and beef farm at Waipahi, Gore, which was converted to an 800-cow dairy farm in 2010. After finishing school she headed to Lincoln University and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce (Agriculture).

“After that I headed overseas for a bit, which was an ‘out there’ move for me – my first trip out of New Zealand and I went straight to Ireland. I worked on a dairy farm milking 120 cows and loved it. I came home from that with fairly light pockets but landed a job with what was RD1 at the time,” she says.

Through her job, she met Scott who worked on one of the farms she looked after. Moving from rural merchants to animal health, she landed a job as a territory manager for Elanco in 2016.

“My role with Elanco was focused in the sheep industry and had me covering a fairly large area so I was doing a lot of travel. In 2019, Scott and I got married and our son Ted arrived not long after.”

They are currently leasing one of her parent’s farms on the outskirts of Gore. A neighbouring property was purchased and converted four years ago, meaning there are two dairy farms side-by-side, milking about 1200 cows in total. They milk 600 cows on a twice-a-day spring calving system.

Last season they produced 478kg MS/cow and hope to improve on that this season. They also have a big focus on wetland development and planting as many trees as possible each year. Her parents recently opened the ‘Waipahi wetland’, a 9ha area of their dairy farm, which has been planted with 16,000 native species to return the land to its natural state. This will become a QEII protected area and is an awesome project to see develop, she says.

A selection of platter food on a long table

Sweet Belle Kitchen has been expanded to include an assortment of baked goods, nibbles and platters for events.

Scott works full-time on the farm alongside their two full time employees, with Kate tending to the calf rearing and looking after the administration side of the business for both their farm and her parents’ farm.

“Our son Ted is 20 months old, which is quite a full-time job in itself between him, the farm admin and running my own business. I don’t get out on-farm quite as often, but I feel like I have a good balance and I really enjoy the variety my days bring.”

Kate is also part of a Dairy Women’s Network Business Group, which has been fundamental in helping with her journey both on the farm and Sweet Belle Kitchen. Business groups provide members with a small group environment to connect with like-minded dairy women to build knowledge and networks.

A woman standing next to a three level cake decorated with flowers

Southland dairy farmer Kate Burgess’ love of baking was the catalyst for her business Sweet Belle Kitchen.

“The business group has given me a place to connect and learn with other women, we’ve had some amazing learning in our first year and I especially learnt a lot about resilience and strength from hearing stories from other women in the industry,” she says.

Kate has big plans for her business in the future, having her own premises in town or a café is her “big goal” that she’s working towards each day.

“It all comes down to loving making food for people. Food is one of those things that really brings people together and that’s what I really love about it,” she says.

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