In the 1990’s, while Australians were still entertaining with simple items such as Jatz or water crackers, Kurrajong Kitchen founder Karen Lebsanft and husband Ben begun educating people on a more delicious option. We gain insight from Karen, who started making Lavosh (Lavash*, Armenian) flatbread in 1993 and describes the start of the company as a sheer accident. “We starting making them for a client, about 30 packets a week, which rolled on into what is now 350,000 pieces a week. We grew hugely and had a lot of ups and downs along the way.” Explains Karen.
“In 1997 we were subleasing and baking out of a downtown local bake-house. A key moment in our history, was when we took a stand at the Fine Foods Australia trade fair. We were juggling too many things at the time, from a restaurant to catering function centres.” States Karen. With a background in hospitality and Ben being a chef, Karen was running front of house. So in regards to producing the flatbreads, Karen states, “It became an additional job. We didn’t have internet in any strength, we didn’t have food markets or emails. We had to decide whether we seriously wanted to get in this business, as it was really hobby based and was taking up a lot of time.”
“At that show, we spent $3500 on the stand, but the reason we are here today is because we took that stand at that show.” Says Karen. “It found us a buyer and an intro into the supermarket where we worked with them to establish packaging to survive in the supermarket.” She continues. “Back then we were one company, we learnt from many along the way and outsourced what we didn’t know.”
“These days our overall growth is structured completely differently. Our brand ownership, manufacturing and wholesale distribution are all separate entities. As of recently, we also have a private label entity as well.” Explains Karen.
Kurrajong Kitchen offers an array of products and primarily specializes in flatbread manufacturing in Australia. “It was an active decision and choice to not go offshore and stay an Australian manufacturer.” States Karen. “Our whole goal is to become an Australian iconic brand. Ben and I had to invest in equipment to maintain our quality as we’ve grown. We’re a batch plant producer, starting with Lavosh as our main product. We also have an extension of flavors, slight variations in shapes and have been starting to bring in different subtle flavoring.” She explains. Being an accompaniment with cheese or antipasto, their product is meant to accompany what’s on the plate without overpowering it. In addition to their flatbread, Kurrajong also offers LavoshBites™ and LavoshThins™.
Kurrajong Kitchen offers snacks that use an unleavened yeast free bread, no artificial flavorings or preservatives and use all natural ingredients. Developed with love and care using an ago old Armenian recipe. “That’s how we operate.” States Karen. For example, their main line of Lavosh Poppy and Sesame Seed, has a shelf life based on the process they use to manufacture and bake it and doesn’t require any type of additives at all. “This was a purpose decision made as we bring on new lines. If we are required to add something, we look into it very carefully. We aren’t a health line, but we are a good for you, make you feel good, process baked line. Advises Karen.
“Working on an Australian grown brand, originality becomes the issue. The brand tries to only use ingredients that are grown within Australia and in most cases we are already at 98%. Of course there’s the odd time where we do have to import, reason being Australia cannot provide everything.” Explains Karen. “We are coming up with a line that will use all Australian grown ingredients and we’ll focus on the origins of that ingredient. It’s a very exciting project for Kurrajong Kitchen.”
Winning local business awards over the last couple years, Kurrajong Kitchen is also SQF (Safe Quality Food) Accredited. “This shows that our QA (Quality Assurance) processes are very highly managed and monitored.” States Karen. From a product standpoint, all of their products that entered into the Fine Foods Award for Sydney Royal Foods, were all winners. “Every one of our products came up with a bronze, silver or gold award.” She says proudly.
“We typically try to source whenever possible, locally. We work with a local packaging manufacturer, who looks after us by looking after our local supplier. We work with businesses from local chambers and sit down with them to ensure the values of the companies we’re working with match the values that we are delivering back to our customers. Price is not always the key, it’s the relationships that are more important than the price.” Explains Karen.
As with any industry, the food industry faces constant challenges. Karen explains, “Our greatest challenge stems from being a product sitting where we’re well admired and supported by the Australian consumer. If there are changes in the Australian dollar, it will affect products being imported into Australia. We’ve been through challenges when there are imported food products that don’t necessarily have to meet the same hurdles that an Australian food product does. This allows it to be more competitively priced on the shelf. It may not be a direct competitor with my product, but picking up a product that lands in the country at a better price than what I can produce it for as an Australian manufacturer is a concern. In addition, Australian manufacturers have a lot of compliance issues that we must agree to meet. This is part of what we do here and have to manage these challenges.”
We all know that Mother Nature also creates challenges for the food industry. Kurrajong Kitchen sometimes face certain seasonality issues. “With butter being a tradable commodity on the global market, it has sometimes made obtaining it difficult. Also, if a poppy seed crop has failed, it has to be outsourced.” States Karen.
Their specific backgrounds have created a company that has a desire and passion to deliver products to tables which meet a certain standard, something that they are proud to put their name on. “We supply retail consumers, home chefs, as well as to food service chefs. We are getting on some wonderful tables and are well supported as a brand. Sometimes this delays our progress because we won’t go forward without ensuring to take every quality step to make sure we are looking after our end user and our customers. This could be at any point, even if it’s a supply chain issue, to ensure the product that’s sitting on the table, is as good as it can get, equal to when it was freshly baked.” Advises Karen.
“One of our greatest milestones of the past 22 years, was educating the Australian consumers to choose Lavosh, to choose flatbreads. Only in the last few years have television shows helped Australian consumers to become familiar with global foods. We’ve now allowed people to add Kurrajong Kitchen Lavosh on their shopping lists and we say that evidentially. The interesting thing is that we didn’t expect to go in this direction. The brand was heading into high end usage, which we started and still maintain. However, now we are getting into lunchboxes belonging to all ages. Usage is expanding as a product and a brand way beyond what we intended. Having consumers start to look for something better was done through education, market expansion and listening to what our consumers have to say, so we can better deliver. We have made investments in the company to ensure we can deliver while maintaining the value set that’s true to us as a family owned business.” Says Karen.
Karen leaves us with a personal statement, saying “Our journey has been long and we have questioned ourselves. When would we know when we are at a maturity level? Since 1998 we have been supplying supermarkets and facing the challenges that come from a changing market. This is something we didn’t set out to do but we had to educate ourselves and our team. We had to bring in people to ensure we are travelling in the right direction.” With the insight Karen has provided us, we can ensure Australian consumers that Kurrajong will continue to head in this direction and is sure to become an iconic brand throughout Australia.