News Article

Meet the Member - Gippsland Pearls


   Thursday 12th September, 2019

When a Gippsland start up was encouraged to find a kilogram of gourmet mushrooms to be showcased at the 2018 East Gippsland Spring Table event, they didn't imagine that their product would be such an instant hit.

But it was, and this one event started interest, buyers and conversation that is still helping with business growth today.

Gippsland Pearls Co-Founders Cheryl Jakobi and Sara Bailey

Founders Cheryl Jakobi and Sara Bailey formed Gippsland Pearls in May 2018 and started trading in November 2018 - with two premium product lines in the business model ; gourmet mushrooms and escargot caviar ( snail eggs ).

Given it was such early days in their production volumes, even though it took Cheryl and Sara several days to come up with that precious one kilo - they remain forever thankful to the insistance of Dr Nicola Watts that they must include their produce at the Spring Table event!

"We are still getting sales from that event, with people buying Gippsland Pearl Mushrooms from the markets, ( or now also available direct from the farm gate on certain days ) saying that they had first tried them and loved them at the Spring Table event.

We were definitely springboarded by Spring Table" said Cheryl with a smile.

Cheryl and Sara had spent a lot of time in early 2018 researching the right varieties, and with their careful planning and selection definitely paying off judging by the popularity of their product, they are now working on another element of the business.

"Our plan is to create our own sub strates for production so that we are not relying on suppliers for that product, and it contributes to us driving more sustainability in our business

We want to create a compostable product and do away with any reliance on single use plastics, which is currently the case with our supplied sub strates".

The mushrooms have always been categorised as the local hero product in the Gippsland Pearls model, and they plan to keep it that way.

"We definitely always want them to be our "grow local and sell local" product that creates very little food miles, but a whole lot of consumer and eating satisfaction".

And the proof is certainly in the eating, with the mushrooms now a regular feature on the menus of a growing number of Gippsland restaurants, whether it be in breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner creations.

Chefs are embracing the opportunity to show off yet another quality product and their front of house staff are delighting in telling the story of where the mushrooms come from, how they are grown, and how far that is from the restaurant location.

With the power of story telling continuing to play such an important role of how consumers are connecting with food, the personal knowledge that a restaurant team member can share with their diners is such important element in engaging visitors and locals alike in the provenance of the food they are enjoying, and giving them a deeper layer of connection to the region.

For this reason ( and many more ), Cheryl and Sara are an end to end business process - they grow it, harvest it, pack it and hand deliver it to their restaurant customers, meaning that chefs and their "ingredient ambassador" front of house staff get the opportunity to meet the grower on a regular basis.

Approaching their first year anniversary in a few months, Cheryl shares some insights into their seasonal learnings in year one, particularly in addressing the drop in demand across the community as people hibernate through the colder months, as well as a little known fact that mushrooms are exciteable !

"We will be doing some work on refining our process so that we address the slow down in buying habits over the winter, whilst not letting it affect our natural production schedule - we are in the middle of researching ways to maintain production and find other avenues to move the product on so it maintains our cash flow in winter"

As with any start up, the first year has been a mixture of highs and lows, and some funny moments along the way, including an unknown reaction that mushrooms have when their environment undergoes has any significant changes, as Cheryl found out when there was a power outage throughout the evening or overnight a few months ago.

In this particular case when the power went off, it meant the mushrooms were in the dark for a period of time, and when Cheryl went to check on them in the morning, there were two growing blocks of mushrooms that had gone crazy in the dark, spored everywhere and grew exponentially in a very compressed period of time.

"Mushrooms are very excitable so we now know that when anything goes awry, or their environment has any dramatic changes, they literally spore everywhere, leaving me a very big mess to clean up !"

Escargot caviar bottled and in soil before harvesting

With the mushrooms now established with enough momentum to now be able to take on one employee, Cheryl describes the snails that are producers of the escargot caviar as a long term project.

"The snails are hard work - they make the mushrooms look easy, but they are definitely the media stars in the family

If we just had mushrooms, we believe the interest in the Gippsland Pearls brand would be much smaller, but because we have the grand plans for escargot caviar, they definitely generate lots of exposure for us"

For Cheryl and Sara, there is a strong current of social enterprise underpinning all of the labour intensive nature of growing mushrooms and building an escargot caviar business.

Their aim is for the escargot caviar is that it will be the product that they sell outside of Gippsland.

Whether that is into fine dining restaurants in Melbourne or to private chefs in Europe, it is the delicate, labour intensive needs of every stage of producing the escargot caviar that gives it the potential to drive the growth for Gippsland Pearls be able to create more jobs.

"We want to make a difference, and be a driver of change in our Gippsland community

We want to improve our Gippsland economy and society by creating employment opportunities, particularly for those who may have found it difficult to fit into a lot of bigger organisations or more mainstream jobs..

It is our goal to create on-going employment for a minimum of 20 people"

Gippsland Pearls Founder Cheryl and Sara at the Excellence in Agribusiness Awards Gala Dinner with Food & Fibre Gippsland Communications and Engagement Manager Jody O'Brien

Their innovative approach is already being recognised, with a place in the finalists list at the inaugural Food and Fibre Gippsland Excellence in Agribuisness Awards, held in Sale in mid August.

Gippsland Pearls were amongst established larger businesses Flavorite, Hussey & Co and Johnson Poultry in the Excellence in Innovation Award, and whilst they didn't take the trophy home this year, just to have reached that list was a big win in their eyes.

"When we found out we were finalists, we were absolutely overjoyed - that in itself was a huge accolade for us

We were up on the big screen and visual to 200 people associated with the food sector from around Gippsland, and to be a finalist amongst those other businesses was absolutely mind blowing for us

And that we were sitting at the same table amongst all those other businesses - we felt really proud to be invited, and to be accepted and listened to in that diverse crowd - well...it was pretty awesome !"

As members of Food & Fibre Gippsland, right from the start of their membership, Gippsland Pearls has felt supported and encouraged at every step of the way and describe their connection to the industry body as playing an important role in their marketing and awareness activity.

"It really does give us exposure to a very broad cross section of the community that wouldn't otherwise even know that we even existed, and the knowledge sharing opportunities are great"

And from that spring board back in November 2018, they truly believe that anything is possible.