Innovation and quality give food company the edge

Tracy Foulkes, co-founder of NOMU, has always had a passion for different flavours, which she ultimately turned into a business. (Picture: Supplied)
Tracy Foulkes, co-founder of NOMU, has always had a passion for different flavours, which she ultimately turned into a business. (Picture: Supplied)

The NOMU food and lifestyle brand was created 16 years ago, when Tracy Foulkes became frustrated with the stress and seasonality of the catering industry in Cape Town.

Foulkes had always had a passion for flavour and with the encouragement of her partner, Paul Raphaely, whom she married in 2006, she decided to commercialise some of her homemade seasoning solutions. NOMU, which started in Tracy’s small kitchen in Oranjezicht, has since developed into a leading food innovator designed to inspire creativity in the kitchen – not only in South Africa but across the globe.

Paul, the director and co-founder of NOMU, talked to finweek about the development of the brand.

Why did you decide to start a company?

Tracy was looking for something more reliable and stable than what she was getting from the catering business. At first, she wanted to open an upmarket “destination” food emporium, which may still happen one day, but instead decided first to trial some of her homemade seasoning solutions at a handful of speciality outlets in Cape Town.

It took almost three months before we unexpectedly received our first export order, which resulted in the idea of a food emporium being placed on hold in favour of a food innovation manufacturing business. 

How do you fit into the business?

Tracy and I are equal partners in NOMU. She is largely responsible for new product development, creative direction and visual execution, supported by an amazing team. I try to get to the rest, ranging from sales, marketing and advertising to brand champion, delivery boy and tea lady. It’s a mixed bag, but it works, most of the time.

Why spices and flavours?

Tracy has always loved flavour, as a concept. She had always kept literally dozens of different homemade seasoning solutions and sauces in her own home or available to her professionally for the catering business, so in a way converting these to commercial product was relatively easy. Spices are a passion too. It’s so much easier to make a success when pursuing a passion, something you love. 

There is a lot of competition in the spice industry. How does NOMU differentiate itself from other products?

NOMU’s role has always been to innovate in food concepts. We were the first to introduce the concept of a spice “rub” to South Africa. I suppose we managed to stand out from everything else in our relative “newness”. We also paid a lot of close attention to strong and eye-catching packaging, which we have aimed to maintain ever since. 

Our central philosophy, though, has always been to ensure that the actual contents are always highest quality and consistently amazing, and live up to the promise of the packaging. This is what we would want for ourselves in any item we were to go looking for. So the brand carries a measure of personal authenticity and accessibility that larger, more generic brands often might not be able to offer maybe as fluidly. 

Where did you get start-up funding?

Tracy had just under R13 000 left from her last catering event. That event had been such a torment that she decided it was time to get out. That start-up capital was all it took to buy a few ingredients, a bit of design and digital printing and a 5-litre bowl cutter, and with that we were off! 

How has the company grown since starting out?

We only had Tracy and one employee to begin with. After a year it swelled to about five employees, including myself, and by then we were about to move to slightly bigger premises in Woodstock. 

We currently produce over 100 products and employ 65 people directly. There is still ambition and scope to grow significantly and unlike anyone else I know, we are actively, optimistically looking forward to winter 2017. In fact, we can’t wait to get summer over and done with.

How did you start out marketing the product and when did you have your first real break?

In the beginning, we just put the NOMU products in a clapped out, third-hand BMW, which was rattling to pieces, and went out to trade, with products in boxes and baskets, and sold them, plain and simple. One store at a time. 

South Africa itself was our first big break – we absolutely profited from a period in our recent history when hundreds of thousands of foreigners were flocking to SA to enjoy our new democracy, our new rainbow nation, our Madiba Magic. It only took a handful of these visitors to discover NOMU in a few places, take them home and decide to abandon their careers to become food importers. Suddenly we had an export market.

Since then, I think we have been very lucky in a number of ways, but if it weren’t for that very particular period in South Africa, I doubt NOMU would have found traction quite so quickly. 

What have been the biggest challenges and how has the company overcome these?

Distribution, staffing, cash flow, suppliers… None of these are unique to NOMU and all apply to everyone. They are all major challenges and the only way to survive any of them is to maintain a steady sense of humour and to try not to answer emails when you are angry. 

What are your plans for the next three years?

That would be telling. You will have to just wait and see. It’s going to be delicious.

This article originally appeared in the 26 January edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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