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Q&A: How Co-Lab Pantry found a niche in the crowded online grocery sector

Our sister publication Inside Small Business talks with Natasha Buttigieg and Danielle Lebon, co-founders – alongside their colleague Avin Chadee – of Co-Lab Pantry.

An online grocery, Co-Lab Pantry offers exclusive online access to the products of some of Victoria’s most renowned independent restaurants, including Black Pearl, Earl, Entrecote, Gingerboy, King & Godfree, Lake House, Wonderbao and MoVida.

ISB: please tell us briefly about your backgrounds before you launched Co-Lab Pantry and how you came to be business partners.

NB: After running a small sustainable toothbrush company, Got Wood, I joined the hospitality industry for one of Melbourne’s restaurant groups, as head of marketing and events.

DL: I first worked both client-side and agency-side, before running my own businesses, working with over 300 brands including the likes of Mecca, Gradi Group, Nique and Frank Body.

Having worked together previously, Natasha and I sparked up a conversation at the beginning of the pandemic, wanting to utilise our skills and do our bit to help the industry. After a few 3am text messages and some ideas later, Co-Lab Pantry was born.

ISB: What was the inspiration behind you founding Co-Lab Pantry?

NB: Co-Lab Pantry began as an emotional project, wanting to utilise our skills and assist restaurants and producers to bring their ready-made meals, cocktails, pantry goods and more to people’s homes across the nation.

At the time, we weren’t able to get access to anyone delivering these goods to outer suburbs and outside of 15kms of the CBD. Along with Avin, we saw a huge gap in the market between large supermarkets and smaller locally-loved restaurants, cafes and grocers.

ISB: How does the business strengthen the bond between the participating restaurants’ brands and their customers?

DL: We wanted to be able to create a connection between people, creating more than just an e-commerce store, and a community through both our brands and our customers. We do this by providing an experience, telling stories and sharing insights by working closely with our brands and bringing elements from them into a community of foodies.

We’re continuing to grow to bridge the gap between the end-user and local produce. Consumers are able to cross-purchase between 150 of brands such as Entrecote, Messina, Gingerboy, Brunetti, Industry Beans and The Everleigh.

ISB: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting the enterprise off the ground, and how did you overcome it?

NB: Co-Lab Pantry grew so rapidly which was fantastic, however, we didn’t have the time or resources to plan ahead and put processes in place – we were almost working backwards. There are so many moving parts to the business that you need to be able to prioritise tasks, rather than working on everything at once. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the chaos so we had to train our minds to focus so that we could find solutions. We try to surround ourselves with experts in the field which really helps – we ask a million questions and we’re always learning and gaining advice.

ISB: What is the USP of your product in what is a very competitive market?

DL: We’re creating a community of connectedness. We believe that Co-Lab Pantry is more than just an e-commerce platform but an experience. Growing conversations between our brands and the customers through events, engaging articles and cross-purchasing between 150 brands and over 1000 products. We tap into pop up events, too, so, Co-Lab Pantry really is about creating an overall experience.

ISB: What is your vision for the development of the business in the next couple of years?

NB: Strengthening our community is a major focus over the next couple of years. We truly do believe in what we have to offer and we’ve now seen such a want for it from our customers in the short time that we’ve been around. We’re keeping true to who we are and our initial visions in creating for good and working closely with our brands.

ISB: And, finally, what is the number one lesson you’ve learnt on your journey you’d share with others looking to start their own business?

DL: Remember the why and ensure it marries up to your values. This stems from every aspect of our business. From choosing the people and brands we work with to creating partnerships, it keeps us pushing along through the challenging times. Remembering our why and ensuring it all marries up with our values enables us to make better decisions and sit well with them.

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