Marion Grasby admits there were some perks to being well known from the second series of Masterchef when it came to getting her business, Marion’s Kitchen, off the ground.
“In some ways it (celebrity) did help with the launch of the product, because we were able to generate PR that we would otherwise have had to pay for if I was an unknown person,” she says.
However, when it came to the nitty-gritty of developing her line of Asian cook-at-home products, such as finding manufacturers in Thailand, developing a supply chain and securing local distributors, fame did little.
“In terms of getting the business started we actually had to convince people that we were able to do it because, (they thought) I’m a reality TV show contestant, what do you know about business?” she says.
Grasby was a journalist with the ABC in Adelaide for three years before she plucked up the courage to leave and pursue a career in food. In 2008 she began a Masters of Gastronomy, before taking a break in 2010 to take part in mega hit television cooking competition Masterchef.
Grasby was born in Darwin, but she developed a passion for Asian food thanks to her mother’s Thai background. This became her signature style on Masterchef.
In 2011, rather than taking the path of hosting a cooking show or cooking on breakfast television as other Masterchef alumni have done, Grasby decided to delve into business.
Her then fiancé, now husband, Tim Althaus, decided to leave his job as a marketing manager for a South Australian winery, and join her in getting the concept off the ground.
“It was just going out there and making it happen, which was really hard at the time, because we put everything we had, everything our family had, everything that we could borrow, into this one idea that we hoped was going to work.”
They ventured to Asia to source ingredients, and began perfecting recipes such as Thai green curry, or basil and chili stir fry, for which all of the ingredients are measured out and put into a take-home kit for people to make themselves.
“The idea was that we would make it foolproof – so we would put the exact amount of fish sauce, the exact herbs that you needed, the exact amount of curry paste, and make it so that each time someone cooked it, whether you were a novice or an experienced cook, each time you got the same great result.”
There are now seven products in the range, but Grasby says more are in development. It’s a long way from the initial days, when retailers weren’t too keen to take a punt on an unknown product and inexperienced business people.
“For a lot of the big retailers, there hadn’t been a celebrity chef or cook who had started their own range of food, there had been a lot of endorsements of food, and apart from Maggie Beer there wasn’t really anyone doing that.”
To give retailers no reason to say no, she and Althaus put in the groundwork, finding the best manufacturers in Asia to create the products.
“We also had to work out our national distributors, so with our distributors, together we took our products to the major retailers, and it was then that we made significant investment in buying the product and having it manufactured.
“In that respect the risk was a calculated one because we knew that we would have an order, but we didn’t know how much we would be able to sell.”
On the phone from her new home in Bangkok, she explains that the company now sells 150,000 products every month, across 3000 stores in Australia including major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths.
The range is also available in selected stores in South Africa, and her next goal is to get on shelves in the UK and Europe.
“That fear of having container loads of curry and no one wanting to buy it, and then now having 150,000 products sold every month, it is just phenomenal,” she says.
There are currently seven products in the range and Grasby says sales have grown 15% over the past 12 months.
“You get so caught up in it every day that you have to stop and say, holy cow! Getting the company built to where it is at has been one of the most challenging, and also one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done.”
To ensure smooth production, the couple relocated to Thailand late last year, and they live a short drive from the factory, which helps with recipe creation.
“I can drive out to my producers and we can test a new product straight away, we can get samples done, we can change a minute amount of cardamom powder all together, rather than sending samples back and forth.”
Outsourcing tasks has been key to the company’s growth, with Grasby explaining they prefer to hire freelance experts for different tasks, rather than doing everything themselves.
“We can’t afford to have a digital marketing manager full time that handles everything, but we can afford to outsource and have a company that can design our website and do some maintenance on it.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you cannot do everything, and there are people that do things much better than you.”
One aspect Grasby has down to a fine art is being the face of the business, which comes naturally after being on Masterchef.
She says the most important thing is to get out and show how passionate she is about the products.
“In Australia I need to be out there talking to journalists, doing photo shoots to promote it.”
However, Grasby thinks it’s vital for business owners to have a strategy for how they want their business to be represented.
“Rather than going out there and blagging about everything you do, you have to sit down and go, what are my core brand values, what are my core company values and how is it that I can communicate that to the world?” she says.
In her spare time, Grasby confesses that she is always cooking.
“I never stop cooking. I am either testing products, or testing recipes for my cookbook. I like cooking; my days are filled with cooking or doing emails.”
She recently took the time to write a cookbook, Marion: Recipes and Stories from a Hungry Cook.
Of her own product range, one steals her heart.
“The Thai green curry is my absolute favourite. It is a dish I ate growing up and I love the fact that it tastes just like it did when I was growing up.”