Building a business from a family recipe

Husband and wife Tom and Jenna Stefanovic launched an almond milk brand from their family’s orchard – meaning they have a support network that features everything from regular family meals to farmers’ market trips.
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When Jenna and Tom Stefanovic returned from their honeymoon five years ago, they came to the conclusion that some family secrets need to be shared. In particular, the almond milk made by Jenna’s mother Annette ‘Tootie’ Dinicola, from the nuts grown on the family’s farm in Griffith, New South Wales. Unable to find anything even close in taste or nutritional value where they were living in Sydney, the pair launched Mandolé Orchard in 2019, producing and distributing Australia’s first fresh, single-origin almond milk.

Mandolé Orchard has carved out a space within the booming plant-based food sector – almost 12.1% of Australians (2.5 million people) are now eating all or a mostly plant-based diet. ‘We wanted an almond milk that not only has the same viscosity and mouthfeel as dairy, but a much better nutritional panel than a lot of the plant drinks out there,’ explains Tom. The almonds are activated in purified water before being crushed, blended, and packaged in one-litre bottles. Unlike some of their counterparts, the milks need no gums or thickeners and have high levels of naturally occurring vitamin E and protein.

The couple are especially proud that their achievements haven’t been to the detriment of their relationship or rapport with their family. As Jenna says, ‘There’s an incredible amount of love, respect and patience for each other – particularly when you share a common goal and your livelihoods depend on that goal.’ Jenna has also gained a deeper understanding of the hardships faced by her grandparents, who fled their home in northern Italy for the Australian outback in the fifties.

Making roles crystal clear

Living and working as one unit, the Dinicola family have welcomed Jenna and Tom’s new venture. Tom jokes that most families would have taken longer to warm up to a son-in-law, but they got him ‘straight to work’. ‘Each of us has an important role to play in ensuring the business operates smoothly and efficiently,’ says Tom. Jenna manages the marketing and financial side of the business. Tom’s father- and brother-in-law, Denis and Dean, who have been running the farm’s operations since 2004, ensure the health and wellbeing of the trees. Alongside five orchard employees, ‘they treat them like their little babies – it’s such a joy to watch them operate and care for them,’ he adds. Tootie, meanwhile, is at the helm in the kitchen, conjuring up not just the almond milk recipes, but dishes using it, whether that’s curried fish pie or torrone di mandorle. The best recipes go on the website. Raised by Italian immigrant parents, Tootie maintains her heritage is an important part of the company ethos, which means there’s always food to try – a welcome perk with such full-on schedules.

For Tom, the first half of the week is dedicated to overseeing the milk manufacture, then on Thursdays, he heads to Sydney to drop off the milk to stockists and oversee customer experience. He then alternates between selling at either The Beaches Market and Northside Produce Market, or Carriageworks Farmers’ Market, returning on Saturday night or Sunday. ‘We’re all free to collaborate and offer opinions but, at the end of the day, whatever role you’re in, you’re holding the decision-making power and everyone respects that,’ explains Jenna. She points out that for any business, but especially a family-run one, the respect and understanding of each other’s roles is a key ingredient for success.

Build in time for togetherness

With busy weekends and even busier weeks, communicating isn’t always straightforward. The family holds a regular monthly meeting – a space and opportunity to review figures and discuss key strategic decisions together. ‘It just keeps us on the same page and communicating,’ says Jenna, which is made much easier by the fact they all live together. Big wins are celebrated with good bottles of wine, while Tootie’s legendary Sunday lunch brings them together weekly. ‘You’re focused on so many different things that you can miss some of those precious moments. Sunday forces us all to stop and be present in each other’s company – and talk about anything but the business,’ says Tom.

Perspective is essential when dealing with rough patches – and 2020 provided a fair few. Unsurprisingly, launching a new brand just before a global pandemic and maintaining it throughout has been a roller coaster. ‘Togetherness can balance out those highs and lows, which you should expect all the time,’ Tom says. ‘One day you’ll be really stoked and the next day something will happen you didn’t see coming, like, “Wow, where did that come from?” Being able to maintain humour within the family and business is what keeps the wheels turning. ‘If you’re not laughing, you’re crying – and I know which one I’d rather be doing,’ says Tom.

Develop a supportive community

Much of what the family have achieved has been borne out of constant dialogue with and support from their customers. Realising that many Sydneysiders weren’t aware where their food was coming from – or of the richness of Australian produce – Jenna and Tom were keen to communicate their sustainable processes. Customers are encouraged to email questions about their farming practices and products. ‘We put the branch [illustration] on the bottle because we couldn’t believe how many people were asking where almonds come from. Now they can put two and two together,’ says Jenna.

Tom attributes much of the connection they have with customers to the farmers’ markets he travels between, with Denis and Dean often joining, too. ‘It was important to get face to face with people and do in-store tasting, especially as ours is so different,’ he says. ‘Humans thrive on connection and it should be no different when you’re a farmer or producer.’ Given that a full third of their stock is sold in the markets, Covid-19 has dealt a heavy blow to distribution and sales, and it’s been a struggle to return to their pre-pandemic momentum. ‘But like everyone, we’re learning to think quickly and adapt to this way of life,’ Tom says. ‘It’s definitely taught us to be more creative and flexible.’ With fresh almond milk having a short shelf life, online sale is something of a challenge, but it’s on the agenda for 2021.

Mandolé Orchard produces two types of milk and, while there are plans in the pipeline for more, they’re keeping progress under wraps. ‘We’ve gone down that path before and got excited by a product and it didn’t work out,’ says Tom. What’s certain, though, is that no new products will be getting signed off until they’ve been fully formulated and approved by Denis and the rest of the family, with early consultations worked on by Jenna and the food technologist. ‘It can be a very nervous time for Jenn and I – and I like the job to be completed before I mention anything.’

This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.

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