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The world on its doorstep: Brisbane startup Kehoe’s Kitchen eyes America

As the creators of a startup family business in Brisbane now focusing on international expansion, Katrina and Brenden Kehoe know all about the challenges – and satisfaction – of developing a brand and product range for multiple markets.

The couple set up Kehoe’s Kitchen in Brisbane in 2013, Australia’s first certified organic producer of probiotic cashew dips, sauerkraut, kimchi and fermented vegetables. The venture started out as a food blog and social media page “for families like ours who had health issues and food intolerances”. Now it is a full-time passion with a factory in Brisbane where a team of eight, which stretches to 20 during the peak production season when the company processes fresh produce from Queensland’s Lockyer Valley.

Kehoe’s Kitchen is just the sort of business the Brisbane Economic Development Agency (BEDA) is looking to foster through its Future Food Initiative, a platform that works to develop industries in the city in partnership with key industry agencies and experts to help companies build capability, improve readiness and create connection pathways to new markets, customers and investors – both locally and globally. BEDA is a subsidiary of the Brisbane City Council, charged with enhancing and promoting the city’s reputation globally to drive business growth and attract investment and talent to the city by working closely with government and private sector organisations.

The Kehoes’ company has developed a core range of 30 SKUs packaged for retail sale under its own brand along with larger volumes for the food service sector and ‘white-label’ products for other brands.

Kehoe’s Kitchen’s current retail product range.

It sells its products across the Woolworths network, in some Coles stores and more than 1500 independent stores, including small format grocers, produce stores, butchers, delis, cafes and health food stores across Australia. Around 2 per cent of its sales are direct to consumers online, but the company does not actively promote direct purchases because selling through stores uses less carbon logistically to get products to the end consumer – and it means the Kehoe’s Kitchen team can focus more on production rather than selling.

Recently, the company began exporting to Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia and this year will be targeting further expansion at home and abroad, explains Katrina.

This year – with the world opening back up – we are focussing on export growth of Kehoe’s Kitchen brand products to new markets including Malaysia and the US. Domestically we are working on white label growth and also working on filling in the supply gaps in Australia for Kehoe’s range.”

Kehoe’s Kitchen has worked with BEDA’s Future Food program since 2020 when the company reached out for help during the Covid-19 crisis.

“We had just moved into our current facility in August 2019 with plans for export growth to justify the capital expense. Covid stifled those export plans and for the first time since conception, we were worried about there being insufficient demand to cover our overheads.

“Before the move, we were turning down export sales because we didn’t have sufficient space and then Covid reduced that demand to zero. Our books have taken a hit, but we are very lucky to have survived.”

Since then, Kehoe’s Kitchen was worked with BEDA on pitching to the Malaysian market through the agency’s ‘Exporting for Scale’ initiative and BEDA has assisted with potential export connections.

The Future Food Initiatives’ Exporting for Scale is described by BEDA as an intensive virtual program syllabus to provide the capability building, market intelligence, and buyer connections pathways for food, agribusinesses, and health and wellness companies to successfully enter and grow in export markets.

Katrina – a proud Wiradjuri descendant – says Queensland will always will home. Having the Lockyer Valley at her doorstep makes Brisbane an ideal location for the business by saving on freight costs – and carbon emissions – in the course of producing its products.

“We have been working with the same Queensland organic farmers since the first year, working with the seasons to benefit the land and the taste and nutrients in our finished products. We have also recently partnered with organic farms in Victoria which means we now have a year-round supply of sauerkraut cabbage.

“We plan to keep growing and to continue buying directly from our farmers at fixed prices so they don’t have to worry about fluctuating market pricing.”

She says a Victorian grower is currently trialling wombok – used to make kimchi – which she hopes will be a success as it will allow the company to increase its organic kimchi production season from eight weeks, which is the annual window in Queensland.

Katrina says year-to-date growth is running at 120 per cent over this time last year.

“We are currently processing about 2-2.5 tonnes per day, but we have the capacity to easily triple that with more staff and no capital expenditure.”

That’s an ambition BEDA hopes it can help Kehoe’s Kitchen achieve by working alongside Katrina and Brenden and their team.

With unrivalled economic growth, perfectly positioned at the centre of a 360-degree food bowl with access to world-class ingredients, Brisbane is a destination full of opportunities for business, investors and talent. Brisbane Economic Development Agency champions businesses to connect, grow and thrive. Find out more about BEDA and the Future Food Initiative here.

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