Q&A: High mark for brothers offering comfort food in challenging times

This week we chat to Todd Gawn, co-founder of comfort-food jaffle shop, The Bearded Jaffle. Together with Max – his co-founder, brother, and Melbourne Demons AFL player – Todd has taken the business from its humble beginnings as a part-time food truck and side hustle to being a multi-channel business venture with a bricks-and-mortar Ascot Vale location that’s bringing in customers in droves despite the challenges posed by COVID-19.

ISB: What was the motivation behind you setting up The Bearded Jaffle?

TG: We started as a food truck in 2019 as a bit of a side project, it was something to do on weekends, while sharing our love of jaffles with people all around Melbourne. It grew organically, but quickly, from there. We did lots of different food and music festivals, then we started to get booking requests for private events and weddings. Before we knew it, we were fully booked every weekend and had picked up catering contracts for events such as iMax.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in transitioning the business from a side hustle into a fully-fledged business?

TG: To be honest, we never envisaged a multi-location operation. We were so booked up with events and fulfilling our catering contracts that we needed another location to use as a prep kitchen. We found a spot in Ascot Vale in January this year, and customers just started showing up. Starting any business has its challenges, though. Moving from a mobile operation to a bricks-and-mortar store involves a lot more work on marketing to your local area, rather than just moving from event to event. I thought I had hospitality mastered after working in the industry for 15 years, but how wrong I was! Starting your own business is a whole different ball game and it can be a minefield navigating what you do and don’t need to do.

ISB: What was the immediate impact on the business when COVID hit, and how did you pivot the business to keep it going?

TG: We have definitely seen a big impact on the events side of the business, we were booked up for a full year of events in 2020 and now that’s all been postponed or cancelled. We essentially lost our entire income in the space of one week and it was looking pretty dire. Fortunately, we had taken over our Ascot Vale shopfront just before COVID-19 hit. We started a takeaway service from there, so we’ve been able to keep our takeaway operations functioning out of both our food truck and the shopfront.

We initially parked the food truck out front of the shop and had been running a coffee service out of that, then using the shop for walk-in orders and delivery. As restrictions across Melbourne look to remain in place for the foreseeable future, we’ve focused more on the shopfront. We renovated to better accommodate delivery and takeaway, and we turned our carpark into an outdoor garden dining space with a permanent coffee bar. We’ve also extended our menu and operating hours to capture the lunch and dinner crowds, and added a range of order ahead and delivery partners, expanding our audience massively. To be honest, the shop has never been busier.

ISB: Please tell us briefly how you have leveraged technology to grow the business.

TG: At the moment, we’re relying heavily on order ahead and delivery apps to drive sales, and it can be a nightmare running multiple tablets, each for a different app (we currently have five!). So, we’ve optimised the apps we’re using to try to streamline some of this. We use Square for payments, and they’ve partnered with an app-aggregator platform Doshii, which has been a big time saver. The integration enables all our orders coming through from order-ahead apps such as Mr Yum and Deliveroo to sync directly with our point-of-sale. It saves us around two minutes an order and reduces the amount of errors that can occur when having to copy across orders from individual apps to our point-of-sale system. These apps also integrate with Drive Yello which we use to manage our delivery staff and enables customers to track their orders. Tech has been a game changer for us.

ISB: What is your vision for the development of The Bearded Jaffle in the next couple of years?

TG: Our original plans are entirely out the window now, and I think that would be the case for just about every business owner in hospitality. It’s been really interesting to see the growth in our new takeaway and delivery model, so the focus is on continuing to streamline that as much as possible for now. We’re in the early stages of planning another location on the south side of Melbourne as well. Beyond that, it could all change at the drop of a hat, COVID-19 has been a giant wrecking ball so the ability to adapt and change plans is paramount. At the end of the day, I’m really thankful that we’ve got a brilliant tight-knit team that we’ve managed to keep employed. Together we have kept operating and navigated our way through one of the most challenging times in decades. I couldn’t be more thrilled with what we’ve achieved.