Eat your veggies! Helen Waterworth, regional food guru, promotes old fave vegetables as new ‘heroes’ on the dinner table!

Helen Waterworth has always had a passion for Australia’s regional food producers. Her brilliant career as a food consultant has been on an upward trajectory, ever since she left teaching and jumped on board the King Island Cheese bandwagon and became their chief marketer soon after launch back in the late-1980s.

Circa December 2012, Helen began a collaboration with Perfection Fresh, the Sydney fresh produce company owned by the Simonetta family – the brief was to rediscover old-fashioned vegetables, give them some groove, and find a way to make them popular on our dining tables again.

As I describe in my ‘Enterprising Women” column in the Australian Financial Review – the campaign is underway and features Livingstone R. Rabbit, Maitre des Legumes (vegetable expert) – recipes and vegetables all in a lovely website at www.hatters.com.au  *It’s supported by Coles and the campaign begins in earnest in March 2014.

Here’s the whole story:

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It has been a project 12 months in the making and Helen Waterworth is counting down to the start, in March, of a campaign which she hopes will launch the new stars of the food industry for 2014, beyond the likes of Oliver, Preston and Calombaris.

A consultant to regional food producers for 20 years, Waterworth has been working with Perfection Fresh, “one of Australia’s leading fresh produce businesses”, in a joint venture with Coles to bring a range of specialist seasonal vegetables to market which, she says: “Puts a different focus on vegetables and gives them a bit of personality.”

“I expect it could become a $10 million category,” says Waterworth, who says the goal is to make the range of little-known vegetables the “heroes on the dinner table.”

The Sydney-based Simonetta family, owners of Perfection Fresh, engaged Waterworth as their marketing manager which evolved into a collaboration with growers all over Australia, to produce commercial quantities of vegetables often found only at farmers’ markets or boutique greengrocers. She has been based at their offices at the Footscray Wholesale Markets for the past 15 months. This summer season range of 11 vegetables, includes French breakfast radishes, red witlof, European baby turnip and Italian runner beans.

Called “Hatters Vegetables”, it is described as an adventure in vegetables and is accompanied by a Mad-Hatter-style website whose main character is the fictional Livingstone R Rabbit, the Maitre des Legumes (vegetable expert) who tells stories of old-fashioned vegetables alongside the requisite recipes – all part of the “soft launch” in selected Coles stores just before Christmas last year. The big advertising campaign begins early March. www.hatters.com.au

“This will raise the profile of vegetables and engage customers,” Waterworth says. “We all know they are good for us but people don’t love them. It is the proud-to-serve factor that I’m after.”

It is also fits with Waterworth’s long-held passion for regional and fresh food producers. The former physical education teacher could earn between $50,000 and $300,000 per consultancy, some for longer terms than others. She is paid hourly or daily rates, or per project, or takes a retainer. Clients over the years include King Island Cheese, Jindi Cheese, Western Plains Pork, Somercotes Cherries and Chatham Island Food, among a host of others.

Waterworth says she will consult only to a maximum three or four clients at any time: “I need to work side-by-side with them. It means getting to know the business from the bottom up, before you can give considered advice.”

She proudly recounts a five-year project with the family-owned Houston’s Farm, who produce salad leaves near Cambridge, Tasmania: “They wanted to turn their business into the new King Island. They grew from about $4 million turnover in 2003 to about $30 million by 2007.”

King Island Cheese has a special place in Waterworth’s heart – it was where she launched her new career in food consulting, after leaving teaching, doing a Prue Leith cooking course in London, and returning to Melbourne without a job in 1986. Tasmanian born and raised, Waterworth remembers her ophthalmologist father expressing his displeasure: “One did not leave a worthy profession, were his exact words!”

A great raconteur and wit, with a keen eye for the upside, Waterworth jumped at the opportunity to drive a truck around Melbourne, doing deliveries for her friend Dan O’Brien, who had bought King Island Dairy the year before.

“It’s one of the best things I ever did, because I got to understand the entire supply chain,” she says. Doing deliveries evolved into Waterworth becoming the director of marketing for a business which was worth about $300,000 at the time and was sold to National Foods in 2000 for about $90million.

“The cheese was the hero. We seized on free press coverage, we took chefs to King Island, we gave people the true regional production experience. We wanted to develop the confidence in production in our own backyards.”

Waterworth says she was the first to introduce what became popular cheese and beer-matching classes for Dairy Australia and Carlton United Breweries in 1994, helping others discover that “beer is a friend of cheese.” “Women would come with their partners, declaring they didn’t drink beer. We served it in a wine glass and it tasted and looked completely different.”

She wrote a cheese manifesto for Dairy Australia, developed a training manual for service of cheese and became a registered judge of specialty cheese at Royal Shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, even at the British Cheese Show in London.

A turning point was a meeting with New York Mayor Rudi Guilliani about 1993, when Waterworth seized a chance to introduce him to King Island Cheese at the New York Food fair: “We had a little trestle table among the huge, fancy stands and the crowd was 10 deep at ours.”

The pride in quality regional Australian produce has always been the driver for Waterworth, who says she threw out the marketing textbooks in her King Island days and decided to become a “disruptive marketer and an innovative and creative opportunist.” “Remember that 20 years ago we were laying the foundations for the specialty cheese industry in this country and we had to educate a new market.”

After the King Island sale, she took the chance to launch out on her own: “I listened to too many people being given the wrong advice about packaging or branding, or ramping up a style or product that didn’t have any market acceptance. I felt I had a good sense of market activity in the food industry.”

Recently she has worked with Jindi Cheese to reposition a range of cheese for executive chefs, while Western Plains Pork used Waterworth to review their marketing and supply channels. She introduced Somercote Cherries to Harris Farm markets, which led to them becoming the premium supplier to 22 of its stores in New South Wales.

“All I want to do is ensure that we as Australians appreciate our regional producers, we better understand what it takes to put food on the plate, and we serve our food and enjoy it as a story with origins and connections.”

Livingstone R. Rabbit, vegetable expert, with his cravat firmly in place, would be most impressed and appreciative.

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