Written by Cynthia Ho, December 13 2022
Cohort 7’s Gayithri Sridhar founded her business Gaia Tree in an unlikely moment of self-reflection. Find out how she went from humble beginnings to being featured in the ‘Flavours of New South Wales’ catalogue of Fine Food Australia.
Fine Food Australia is the biggest trade show in the Australian food and hospitality industry, attracting over 25,000 visitors from over 50 countries each year. The event showcases everything from the broad diversity of Aussie speciality food products to the latest in eco-packaging solutions. Fine Food Australia showcases some of the best chefs, artisans and talent in the foodservice industry.
It became a pretty special moment for Gayithri Sridhar, founder of Gaia Tree, when the Flavours of NSW small business grant opportunity was awarded to her in July 2022. Her business was offered a spot in the show amidst a small circle of 13 unique New South Wales food businesses.
I sat down with her to chat about Gaia Tree, the journey from the beginning, what she learned from the experience and why aspiring food business owners of any stage should consider attending these bustling trade shows.
Jumping into whole food chocolate making
The Gaia Tree business idea was born in 2018 in the Himalayan wilderness. Hiking at the base of Mount Everest with her husband Dinesh, Gayithri was questioning her future. Dismayed and disillusioned with her day job, she dreamed about having more control and creativity in her work life.
Paring her love of nature, raw chocolate, and the constant challenge of finding indulgent yet healthy sweet treats that fit with her plant-based lifestyle, she thought to herself ‘I love chocolates, why don’t I do something with chocolate?’
After returning home, Gayithri began her own small business from ground one, creating a business name that would reflect both her own name and her love of nature. With zero experience, she started with the baby steps.
“I started enrolling in raw chocolate making classes and began to sell a basic range of chocolates at my local weekend markets. It was a real journey of constant mistakes and improvements.’
'I find cooking to be a very therapeutic and meditative process. When I'm cooking I really don't have a plan - I like to collect a bunch of ingredients that go well together and allow them to guide me to make something special'
Over the course of a few years Gayithri watched her business grow. Coming out of COVID-19, however, she couldn’t help but notice how busy and competitive the vegan sweet treat market is becoming.
‘Before I started my business, even 5-10 years ago, there weren’t many confectionery options that combined gluten-free and vegan options. However, by the time I launched my business, the market became saturated quickly and I wondered if I had missed the mark and joined too late.’
Gayithri knew that in order to stand out as a food business, she would need to do what many would not do, to adapt. She found FoodLab Sydney at the beginning of 2022 and was accepted into the incubator program to support her through that journey.
‘Through their workshops and help with getting me in touch with food industry experts, FoodLab has definitely helped me to identify my unique value proposition, which is something you must have to stand out in a highly saturated market.’
Gayithri identified that her brand could lean further into her Fijian heritage. Many of her products already feature tropical island flavours and ingredients, perhaps even as a natural expression of her own self, but she saw an opportunity to ‘hone in’ and share the beauty of Fiji and its flavours with those who live a plant-based and healthy lifestyle.
‘I grew up in the luscious pristine Fiji. I come from a long line of food lovers with most of my inspiration coming from my Paati (grandma), mum and aunt.’
‘My great-grandfather was so famous for his cooking in his small seaside village Drasa that he was appointed as the head chef to the president of Fiji. It is something I am really proud of and I think it speaks into the generations of knowledge that goes into my cooking.’
Winning the Flavours of NSW Grant
In June, Gayithri came across the opportunity to deliver a 60 second video pitch to receive a Flavours of NSW government grant . The grant offers a subsidised spot in the exclusive ‘Flavours of NSW’ zone of the Fine Food Australia Expo, a full day marketing and exhibiting workshop and ongoing support from Investment NSW and the Department of Regional NSW through business support and export specialists.
Upon acceptance, she had six weeks to prepare a stall space that would cut above the noise of over a thousand stallholders in the Melbourne Convention Centre.
‘The experience is a bit of a metaphor for the food industry. There are so many products and artisan brands grabbing your attention, so you really have to think about how yours is going to make people stop.’
‘You want people to stop at your stall and immediately get your message and what you stand for. This is harder to achieve than you think.’
Gayithri felt grateful to tap into the FoodLab network to help bring her stall to life during what she recalls to be a ‘testing’ period. All FoodLab participants are encouraged to support each other’s businesses and opportunities, both within Cohorts and across the alumni network.
Cohort 7’s Alick Matewa (African Food Feasts) and Cohort 6’s Sarah Qian (Compassion Creamery) supporting Gayithri’s stall at the Fine Food Australia Expo.
‘You have to think about so many things here; samples, sign-ups, shelf-life conversations, how you’re going to adapt your business pitch to people from all parts of the industry…’
‘One highlight was meeting Anna Polyviou and getting her to taste my pineapple macadamia slice - which she loved. Now that I have been part of this show, it feels like people acknowledge and recognise my brand.’
Gayithri’s 5 quick tips for Stallholders at Trade Shows
Ensure that you’ve taken enough samples and think about how you will present them to your audience.
Plan out your stall. A 3m x 3m space is a large space, so each part should be carefully thought out. Your stall should be visible from a distance and attractive enough to capture people’s attention as they walk by.
Be ready to answer basic questions such as: 'what is the shelf life of your product?' 'Where are you currently stocked?' 'Where is your product manufactured?'
Prepare a pitch deck beforehand that you can send to those who you meet with each day - then follow up a week later.
Have a game plan for who you want to prioritise your time with - some people are not your primary audience and that is okay!
‘Having a stall at an expo can be expensive if you don’t have a grant to support you. I encourage food business owners to look into alternatives such as stall sharing, applying for a sponsorship or offering to help another vendor at a stall to learn the ropes. If all else fails, I think it’s really important just to check out the expo and have your business card ready to hand out!’
Gayithri also reminds food business owners how easy it is to compare yourself and your business to others who might be more resourced or more connected in the industry.
‘I’ve found my own pace to run at whilst I feel as though so many around me are trying to sprint to some final destination. But it’s not all about the destination, you have to come to enjoy the journey - and the only way you can enjoy that is if you slow down a little.’