How Victoria’s Co-Lab Pantry is bringing together the state’s restaurants to sell their gourmet products to a new audience

Co-Lab Pantry founders

Co-Lab Pantry founders (L-R) Alvin Chadee, Natasha Buttigieg and Danielle Lebon. Source: supplied

Co-Lab Pantry co-founders Danielle Lebon and Natasha Buttigieg say their two-month-old business started out as an “emotional project” to help local restaurants find a much-needed source of revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. 

But now, with 65 restaurant partners on board and new products being added every day, the founders have global goals in mind. 

Co-Lab Pantry is essentially an online pantry, or one-stop-shop, selling gourmet food products from Victorian restaurants, bars, local makers and producers. 

The e-commerce platform offers buyers a growing choice of specialty products, from ready-to-eat meals to condiments made in restaurant kitchens.

The product list includes Korean BBQ sauce made by Melbourne restaurant Gingerboy, jalapeno and peach hot sauce from Fancy Hank’s, negroni marmalade by gin maker Four Pillars, and cheeseburger dumplings from Drumplings. 

The idea was to create a “universal platform” for consumers to buy locally made products, and in turn, help develop a sustainable source of income for restaurants and producers. 

Lebon and Buttigieg first started working on the business in April, along with co-founder Avin Chadee. 

The trio combined their previous experience in hospitality and events, e-commerce and digital marketing to soft-launch the business at the end of June, before officially launching two weeks later. 

Despite only being in operation for a little over two months, Co-Lab Pantry has sold more than 13,000 items from a range that now includes about 800 products. 

New products are being added daily, Buttigieg tells SmartCompany, with some vendors who first joined two months ago now adding additional products to their listings. 

Many of these vendors are also redesigning their packaging and making long-term plans to continue producing their pantry items, says Buttigieg, as it is becoming clear they can continue to increase volumes and build new revenue streams. 

Co-Lap Pantry products

A selection of products available from Co-Lab Pantry. Source: supplied.

An influx of interest

Apart from its founders, Co-Lab Pantry doesn’t have any employees yet, but Lebon says the business has needed to bring on extra resources to manage growth that has happened “a lot more rapidly than anticipated”. 

The founders had initially thought they might see “one order here and there” when they first went live, says Lebon, but instead the interest from shoppers was “instantaneous”. 

“Right from the get-go we had orders every day,” she says. 

In those early days, the vendors on the platform were ones that Lebon and Buttigieg had been able to connect with because of their previous experience in the hospitality industry. 

From there, she says the founders built out a “big list of brands we wanted to work with” and went on a “mission” to contact them all.

But those initial conversations didn’t necessarily lead to new vendors coming on board straight away. 

“It was tricky to explain what we were trying to do because it was a new concept,” she says. 

“We decided to roll out what we had, and it was easier [for potential vendors] to understand how it works.”

After seeing the Co-Lab Pantry concept in action, many of those vendors got back in touch. 

“We had an influx of people coming back and chatting to us; they could understand the brand,” adds Lebon. 

Co-Lab Pantry products

Co-Lab Pantry sells gourmet products made by Victorian restaurant and producers. Source: supplied.

‘Intentional’ purchasing

Co-Lab Pantry currently delivers to most Australian states and territories (except for Tasmania and the Northern Territory) and a national approach was always part of the vision, say Lebon and Buttigieg. 

But, having refined the concept since launch, the founders are now also thinking about the global possibilities for their platform, including by stocking products from international producers and suppliers. 

Already, Co-Lab Pantry has held a number of workshops that have attracted people from Japan and London, says Buttigieg, who says platforms such as theirs can be one way the “foodie community” can connect. 

Part of refining the concept has involved developing different models for vendors to have their products listed, including a commission-based model and a wholesale option, as well as recognising the potential for a corporate arm of the business. 

“We’ve had a lot of corporate enquiries, which is a real testament to them wanting to support local,” says Lebon. 

“In their messaging to staff and clients, they always talk about wanting to send a care package, while also supporting local.”

This interest from corporates is matched by the interest from consumers, with both Lebon and Buttigieg saying it’s clear how much more aware shoppers are now of shopping locally.

“I think consumers are a lot more aware of what they’re purchasing,” says Lebon. 

“The pandemic has brought across this need to stick together and support each other. 

“People are struggling themselves and this creates a different sense of awareness and empathy towards others. They are trying to be more intentional with their purchases.”

This is also the case with the Co-Lab Pantry’s vendors too. Buttgieg says they’ve noticed vendors purchasing products from the other businesses on the platform to gift to family and friends. 

“They’re not competing, just supporting,” she says. 

This sense of community is also why Lebon, Buttgieg and Chadee have launched a new campaign encouraging people to ‘nominate a mate’ to receive a hamper of Co-Lab Pantry items.

The business will be sending out a few hampers each week as a way to help support people who are doing it tough and to continue the sense of “togetherness” that has been fostered in recent weeks. 

Lessons learnt

Lebon and Buttgieg are passionate about their quest to help support local hospitality businesses, and say holding true to your mission is key to getting a new business off the ground quickly.

“Co-Lab started as an emotional project, with us just wanting to help vendors,” says Buttgieg.

“Having authentic conversations with our partners, I think, has kept us going. Even when you are only sleeping two hours every three days, it pushes you along.”

“We’ve been ourselves and stuck to the original reasons for why we started this, and I think people have appreciated that, and have wanted to work with us because of that.”

Entrepreneurs also need to be willing to embrace opportunities that come their way, even if they do so earlier than your original plans, adds Lebon. 

“You know you’ve got to work hard when starting a business, but some businesses are unpredictable and you can’t plan,” she says. 

“You’ve got to run with it and take the opportunities when they arrive.”

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