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Post-COVID success is brewing
One of Queen Victoria Market’s oldest businesses defied the odds to grow during the pandemic, thanks partly to the Small Business Mentoring Service.
Tarn Evans took over the market’s famous QVM Ferguson Plarre store in September 2020 as Victoria grappled with a four-month COVID-19 lockdown.
Located in the Dairy Hall, the store opened in 1931 as Ferguson’s bakehouse and sells sweet and savoury baked treats with hot and cold drinks. Customers also love its elaborate cakes, which were popular with families celebrating special occasions at home during the pandemic.
Taking over a hospitality business in a time of uncertainty was a bold move for Tarn, but he had spent most of his career in hospitality and was determined to make it work.
He almost purchased the store in 2016 but took a bank manager role instead. That followed time as a barista trainer and management roles at Fergusson Plarre and McDonald’s.
Tarn used his skills as a barista to quickly gain a strong following for his coffee, which helped boost sales and enhance the store’s reputation.
His hard work increased sales by 100 per cent, allowing the business to almost break-even and pay him a wage. The store was already takeaway, so the pandemic mainly hurt when customer travel was restricted, costing an estimated 20 per cent of sales.
Tarn had to watch labour and waste costs while ensuring he had enough stock to maximise available sales. “I also worked hard on the delivery platforms by having a high rating, and also joined QVM Online,” he says.
When he heard about the free Small Business Mentoring Service (SBMS) Victoria Market QVM Trader Connect program, Tarn was slightly sceptical but decided to give it a try.
“Initially, to be honest, it was a tick box exercise … when I was experiencing financial difficulty due to COVID,” he says. “I was, however, open minded that I might be able to pick up at least a couple of ideas or make a couple of improvements.”
Tarn was matched with mentor Sara Pantaleo, a business strategist who is experienced in running family businesses and franchises. Sara’s collaborative style brings people together and creates dynamic business strategies, most recently drawing on her experience with crisis management.
Given Tarn’s experience running a business, their six sessions concentrated on promotion and social media. Sara helped to expand the store’s marketing, improve data base management, and use social media to increase visits.
Intern Jess Vranes was briefed and attended to take video and photographs to use as content. Jess is one of our interns matched by QVM Trader Connect Program Manager Madalen Ross through the SBMS Internship program.
Sara says Tarn believed in the franchise brand and that he could improve the business. She says the mentoring provided an objective voice to help navigate the business challenges, enhance marketing content, and discuss strategy to increase his presence and grow.
“The business has great potential once the market is at regular capacity, as it has been able to grow in this difficult environment,” Sara says.
COVID initially kept staff at two, but Tarn hoped to have 3-4 employees as soon as possible. It’s difficult to quantify the impact of the mentoring due to continued lockdowns, but Tarn was happy with the outcome and more confident than ever of long-term success.
He also noticed that sales did not drop as far in later lockdowns due to increased presence online and through social media.
“Over the past year I have been running the business while in the business, so as we come out of these current times, I will be more equipped to be planning at least 12 months ahead,” he says.
“I’m also having a greater impact on social media as well as corporate contacts to increase customer visits and the average value of transactions.”
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