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The Dukes of Sandwich

We caught up with Rob and Laura of The Dukes of Sandwich to understand a little bit more about their unique approach to business in one of NZ’s most difficult business environments.

The Dukes of Sandwich is a fitting name for a food truck that is brightening Christchurch’s barren central city landscape. The Duke and Duchess themselves, Robert Gilbert and Laura Sisson, are both discerning chefs with an absolute passion for delicious food made from “real” ingredients. They source only the best free range, sustainable, or certified organic food.

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The produce they source locally from farmers who know how to do it right, and the vegetables they grow themselves at Lincoln University, where Rob and Laura studied organic horticulture.

Firstly, what a fantastic idea! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your inspiration for The Dukes of Sandwich? How did it all start?

Laura and I both trained as chefs completing our training in 2004 and 2000 respectively, with the similar goal of using our skills to travel the world. My first serious goal in life! We met in Melbourne in 2006 and ended up eating our way around the world for most of the next 5 years. While we were gone we delved into permaculture while living on a community land project in Devon where we helped build an oak roundhouse and worked on an earth bag dome in the south of Spain. Did I mention gardening? Lots of gardening! It was then that the idea of having a food business that could supply its own produce took shape in our minds, but being transient meant we had no time to put down ‘roots’ of our own.

On our return to NZ we still weren’t one hundred percent sure where we would end up and after our gypsy lifestyle it only made sense to put our first business on wheels!

What were some of the challenges you faced when getting your idea off the ground?

There were three main challenges for us. Firstly, gaining the extra knowledge and confidence to put what we’d learnt about growing into practice.  Next, was learning how to run a business effectively – there’s a lot to know! We both know how to run a kitchen but had a shallow knowledge of how the behind the scenes stuff worked. The final challenge was money. Turns out you need some of this to start even the most modest of businesses.

After traveling for five years we were rich in experience but not much else.

How did you overcome or work with those challenges?

Laura did a lot of research and found a free organic horticulture course at the Biological Husbandry Unit (BHU) based in Lincoln. The BHU gave us the extra knowledge we needed and a safe environment to gain experience. We picked up a network of growers, tutors and likeminded people.

Initially, we skimmed over the holes in our business knowledge so we could get the venture off the ground. Luckily there’s a lot of help out there for small and start-up businesses. We’re currently enrolled in a small business course at Te Wananga O Aotearoa that’s free! The tutors are veteran business people who’re passionate about helping small business. We also found an accountant who deals mainly in small business and is keen to share his knowledge about the wonderful world of tax!

As for the money, we managed to save half of what we needed in our first two years in Christchurch. We were lucky enough to have family that could help us with the rest but if you’re not so fortunate, ANZ are really keen to help new businesses.

Do you have any advice for others who’re thinking of starting their own business?

Talk to other business owners! They don’t necessarily have to be in your exact line of business. Their knowledge and experience could help you avoid costly mistakes.

Make a business plan. Even if you think you have the best idea ever, going through steps can point out things you never thought of, or weaknesses in your plan. Do some market research. Find out who your potential customers are and what they want. Are they interested in your product?

Starting even the smallest business can be expensive and there’ll be expenses you never thought of when starting up. To keep costs down, use the resources available to you. Do you have friends and family with relevant skills? Maybe someone who can design a website, or a young designer who’s keen on their first project for a portfolio?

Talk to a business specialist. ANZ have loads of useful resources to help you make your idea a reality including a start-up guide that helps you create a business plan to make sure you have covered all your bases before your business goes live.

Find the right accountant for you. Big names often aren’t the best for small business. Larger firms are tailored to bigger business and you may find you’re charged the same rates for little help. Find an accountant who deals with small or start-up businesses that can give you advice on how best to set up.

Lastly, be patient. Try to get as much of this done before your business goes live as you’ll have very little time to fit it in later.

How have ANZ supported you to make your business happen?

Our wonderful bank manager, Sara Leith at ANZ, helped us set up our business accounts, put us in contact with our Eftpos provider, accountant and a business insurance broker who was also really helpful.

Sara also let us know when relevant ANZ business workshops were on so we could attend – these were all really informative and entertaining. Laura found the “Women in Business” workshop to be particularly valuable as an opportunity to do some networking with other business owners and glean some insights from their experience. The “Internet and social media” workshop has helped us build a Facebook audience and reach out to our customers.

Now that you’ve been in business a little while, what are your future plans for The Dukes of Sandwich?

That’s the million-dollar question. Eventually we’d like to have a shop front somewhere, where we can once again turn our own and others great produce into epicurean delights. I don’t think we would be able to get rid of the sandwich cart as it’s our first baby so expect to see it setting up shop in food deserts around Christchurch for some time.

Finally, what gets you out of the bed in the morning? What drives you?

Laura’s knee is usually what gets me out of bed in the morning. But feeding people good food and supporting local providers feels pretty rewarding. At some point in our journey we’d love to own our own piece of land for growing and living!

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