Six months ago Mama Bongi the brand did not exist. Fast-forward to the end of 2020 and the artisanal chocolate biscuit bakery is reportedly supplying hundreds of bags of cookies to deli’s, food stores, and cafes all around the country, while large retailers are banging on their door to stock them. And this all happened while the country went into hard lockdown.
Millions of small businesses have been at the coal face of this pandemic. And many have not only survived but thrived. So says Karl Westvig, CEO of Retail Capital, whose company has published the book, Unlocked, a journey of struggle and survival to overcome lockdown as a business owner in South Africa.
The book features Mama Bongi’s story, which began in Julia Finnis-Bedford’s kitchen where Mama would make lunches for people on set with Amazing Spaces – Julia’s film location agency.
Mama would also make batches of cookies that proved very popular not only on film sets but also as client gifting. It was a small business in the making and then lockdown happened. There were no more film shoots and no more client gifting. Fortunately, a local deli agreed to stock the cookies, which paid off in a big way.
Here are Julia and Mama Bongi’s top five tips for overcoming the pandemic:
Stick to the recipe
When everything is going right, and something like a pandemic comes along that is out of your control, the best thing to do is focus on what you can still control. Many entrepreneurs who were on the brink of closure, had to dig deep to remember just what it was that made them successful in the first place.
For us, it was not deviating from a classic recipe that we knew people loved. We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we focused on making what we do, that much better, and then looked at ways to increase our popularity using our newly built website and Instagram.
Tap into your connections
Crises are interpreted differently for all of us and while some thrived in the online environment, others suffered in isolation. It’s about looking around at who you know, firstly in your inner circle, then in your working environment, to make recommendations or come to your aid when the chips are down.
We all know someone who has a car, or a computer, or even an essential driving permit during level 5. If there is a will there is a way, just don’t be shy to ask for help.
We needed to get a website set up, but didn’t have the spare money to pay for it. So we asked a designer friend to assist. Kate created the Mama Bongi website for free, just in time for Mother’s Day in May. Product literally flew off the virtual shelves.
The deli we approached also continued to place larger and larger orders as consumers turned to comfort foods during lockdown. Then within weeks, we ran out of the packaging, and thanks to the national shut down was unable to order more. Another friend came to our aid, gifting us with 200 bags, and without any access to stickers, labels were written by hand, adding to the product’s authenticity.
Mama’s cookies quickly caught on, and more cafes approached us to stock them, increasing production from 45 bags to up to 400 bags a week within just 3 months.
Embrace social media
Not being able to connect in person with people, we realised just how powerful social media could be for us. Using Instagram really paid off and catapulted Mama into the foodie sphere and soon we had big foodie bloggers following us saying they had tasted our cookies and loved them. They shared our photos and rave reviews about our product, thus exposing us to a much wider audience. Having a good product is what will distinguish you from the next guy, so stick to your winning recipe and it can’t hurt to take good photos too. Our own @mama.bongi page now has over 4000 followers.
To prove just how powerful social media can be, Mama Bongi got the attention of uCook’s Catherine Cartwright. She initially asked for two samples, which – after the cookie recipe was tweaked following Catherine’s advice, ended up being stocked by them. They also shared photos of the cookies with their 72 000 followers Instagram page. Stories by FoodSA and Woolworth’s Taste Magazine followed which lead to national inquiries, one being from a family-run Pick n Pay store in Pietermaritzburg, which is now a regular stockist.
Local is lekker
With borders being shut and imports and exports either forbidden or delayed, many industries found they couldn’t trade because of a part of the product they needed from overseas. The lockdown has taught us all to consider trading locally. We after all have so much talent and quality products right here to maintain our livelihoods.
While Mama is now stocked in stores countrywide, and online sales continue to boom, we’ve decided to keep our production line small, so we can focus on quality and maintain the brand’s artisanal feel. Investing in Mama’s entrepreneurial journey has caught the attention of many influencers and retailers because it’s a good local story, and we owe much of her early success to their support.
No matter how bleak the future may look, especially with there is a very real threat of a second wave, one needs to continue forging ahead. Planning is as essential as maintaining a positive outlook.
Our plan with Mama Bongi is to increase the size of the team so she gets help in the kitchen, thereby creating employment opportunities. I am also teaching Mama how to run a business, manage the costs, and overheads while producing a profitable product. With major retailers now knocking on the door, the challenge now is how to maintain our local bakery feel, while meeting demand from national stockists who all want a taste of Mama’s magic.
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