On episode 10 of the Your SocialChef Show, Mark Khoder talked with Anton Levine, founder of Sweethearts Cakes. And discussed:
How To Successfully Market and Pivot During Covid-19
1:48 – How Sweethearts Cakes started
5:29 – The unexpected challenges during Covid-19
7:25 – Marketing in the midst of a pandemic
10:55 – The importance of a healthy mindset
13:10 – How to successfully market during Covid-19
17:00 – Emergence of the new market
Mark: Anton, thank you for coming live. Anton is a certified success coach and has been in the food wholesaling industry for nearly over 20 years now, operating and managing a multimillion-dollar business.
I have Anton here with us today because I believe Anton has massive value to provide today and share with us. He’s doing some really good stuff market, his business during Covid-19. Anton, can you please tell us a bit more about your business just to get us started?
Anton: Yeah, sure. Thank you, Mark. And first of all, I really appreciate your time and attention all the time, but especially this time in the industry. I think people now are going through a lot of perhaps fear and anxiety and doubts and, you know, to have this modern technology and the access to the support and information that wasn’t around as much before and certainly in 2008 with the GFC and in the 80s and 90s. You know, if you couldn’t speak to someone near you, you felt alone. So, gratitude to you. I’ve really been focusing on gratitude lately. And thank you very much.
Mark: Not a problem.
How Sweethearts Cakes Started
Anton: And look, I’m still young. I feel better. I started in the 90s in business. I was a success coach and entrepreneur. I wanted to try my hand at business. In 1996 in Melbourne, I, myself and a business partner, a friend of mine. We started it at home making a few slices, brownies and things like that and supplying some cafes. And back then you probably recall that the cafe market wasn’t like it is today. So mum and dad or aunt and uncle who were really good cooks would set up a coffee shop and people would come for their food, and they would make everything themselves.
And in those days, people started to buy a couple of cookies. A couple of things. And it grew very slowly from there. And it wasn’t a get rich quick scheme and absolutely not. And we eventually, from a kitchen at home, we got a little small bakery and our first employee, not trained chefs at all. We didn’t have a clue. But what we did is we turned up to these cafes, actually. We used to go door to door with a bow tie and carrying a basket-like Red Riding Hood with samples.
And cafe owners were very happy to try a few things that they put on their counter. And, you know, fast-forward, ten years and another ten years, we, I mean, this is a long time. But we went through the 90s and the next millennium. It’s weird to say it like that. And, yeah, we had, we eventually got a big factory, and we’re supplying cafes and distributors, and we got hyssop, which a lot of your listeners will know about the health certifications and lots of products.
And now we’re filling up trucks and going into state. That was unimaginable. Actually, we did imagine it. But we didn’t know if we believed it. But certainly, I remember one day standing at the front of my little shop and seeing this truck drive past. I was in York, straight South Melbourne, tiny little place. And I imagined our stuff filling up that truck one day. I tried to convince myself, and in truth, it probably took fifteen years after that day.
And my business partner, I must say, was my greatest asset. And because he often says death by a thousand cuts in this type of business, very lots of mud, poor management. And I think part of the reason we’re still around, and we’re now one of the market leaders is probably because of only our determination, our commitment and certainly not our skill in making the best brownie or running the best kitchen. Absolutely we’ve learned a lot about that, and we’ve learned to hire people better than us.
I think that’s a big lesson for an entrepreneur. You need to look and hire people better than you. And once you get over that, you can grow. And so we put in systems and still growing and learning and improving. But again, success has nothing to do with individual skill. As I say, McDonald’s, they don’t have the best burger, but they have the best burger delivery system in the world. And we certainly focused on that.
And these days we certainly move. And so a lot of slices, lemon slices, things like that around the country. And they’re very good. They’re really nice. The brand is amazing, but it’s the systems behind it. And a lot of our learnings and trials and tribulations have been around systems and absolutely backend systems with marketing and sales, which we’ll touch on later, sir. Yeah, that brings us to the present day and now a challenge we haven’t seen before.
The Unexpected Challenges During Covid-19</strong
Mark: So how does the challenge look like today? How would you look right now in terms of challenges, in terms of size? Was it anything that you expected or, you know. What do you feel? And what do you have to say about that?
Anton: Mark, that’s a very good question. How would you rate it? And there are aspects of this challenge which we have faced before and aspects of it. One thing that was to our advantage, rather than having and we did try a hand in. We supply lots of cafés around the country. But I did try my hand in building and owning and operating a cafe of my own. And because I thought, well, we supply so many. So surely we can own and operate one.
And I did look beautiful and set it up in a shopping centre and will also supply our retail outlet. It was small but nice. Was that one of the hardest? I found that much harder than running the massive wholesale business. Extremely difficult. And we did some good things. And we also stuffed up a few things as all business owners know. But if you get stuff up, stuff up, big, bright, eager for it.
Yeah. So we faced lots of challenges. And I’m talking staff challenges, cash flow challenges, logistical challenges, learning challenges, lots. This one. Did we see it coming? No. No. But I don’t think many people did. But what we, I think there were a lot of businesses that we supply to – cafes and restaurants specifically, and bakeries who were already on edge living week to week. And certainly, we’ve had our challenges in that regard.
Marketing In The Midst Of Pandemic
Anton: We probably had a sense of the downturn that was coming around. I can’t pick the date, but let’s call it early February. We had no sense that lockdowns were going to come on to our industry. But we made it. And I think my business partner, again, for these same strategic plays, we built up our stock to get it ready. We made sure we had strong ties with all our suppliers and our landlord. We made sure that the marketing that was already in play and running and not going into that later was redoubled.
So we reached out to our clients. We just hit the phones and hit our methods and made sure that the lifeblood of the business is the customer. I know everyone says that you’ve got to. We already had systems which could be improved where we have customer contact and customer contact management and follow up and offers that can always be improved. By no means we are perfect, and so we had resources in play that was already exercising that topic.
And so I have never identified as a cake maker. In fact, I’m not a chef. I’ve been doing it for 24 years and have had my hand in designing a product or mop floors. I’ve done all that. The chefs these days don’t know that I used to mop the floors and sometimes it’s important that they and say me in an ivory tower and I get in there and do that. But the marketing and the sales and of course, as long as the other systems and the product is good, the most vital.
So we redouble that. But then when the lockdown came, it’s pretty hard to market to somebody that’s close. We market to somebody that says, yeah, that’s a great offer. But, you know, I’ve got to shut my business. And so we’ll go into what we had to do there. But that was an extremely difficult time because, over the years, we’ve saved ourselves every time through marketing. Every time we needed cash flow or money or sales.
Most people find that hard; that was our strength. And production issues, logistics issues, probably —- and we’ve solved them along the way. But sales and marketing and having a good connection with the customer probably saved us, but this time, as you said, did it surprise you? Oh yeah. So we’ve ramped it out, and we found out ways, and we’re trying things. This is not a prophecy, but we hope and feel that between 3-6 months the market’s coming back.
And absolutely knew things were going to spring out of this. And because we feel the market’s coming back and we are still doing more of what we were doing in the hope that all those seeds are being planted and then nice sprouts will come out of the bushfires. You know, you see those classic pictures of after this, these green sprouts. And of course, you’ve got to hang on along the way. Otherwise, you won’t be there to see those sprouts. So, you know, we’re not in dreamland.
We’re not in dreamland. We’ve had to do a lot of things to what I would call active hibernation. So we’re certainly not closed. We’re actually trading, even though we have had, regrettably, to set aside some stuff at this time that we’re keeping in touch with everyone.
The Importance Of A Healthy Mindset
Anton: So I would say our initial well, my personal issue reaction would have been like any human being on the planet, I would have had a bit of shock. I would have had I would have questioned myself, my business, my future, my family.
And I definitely went through that time. And the emotion of fear. As Tony Robbins calls it, false evidence appears real. Well, this case, it didn’t appear to be false evidence. And, you know, you’re glued to the media. But then you think, well, oh, no. What can I do? No longer does it matter if I’m the best marketer of lemon slices if no one’s open. What is it gonna do?
How do I pay my bills? All these questions that everyone’s asking themselves. What’s going to happen? You know, what about my personal financial situation? Yes, I had my house in order. I can always be better, but, you know, you don’t expect that rug to be pulled out. So I think that reacting to fear is, people, do it in their own way. Some people curl up. Some people brace themselves. Some people go away and come back
Certainly me, I had to go away, and I felt like I had to upgrade myself, and I had to make myself better because I can’t, only what I can control is myself. So if I can’t control the market, I can’t control the government, the situation, but I can make myself better. So probably like lots of people have done, I did some personal work, including meditation and resting, and I was going off-topic that I feel like as a leader or an entrepreneur, as a father of three and a business person, the only way to face this is with confidence, courage in this in spite of what’s going on.
Mark: Mindset. Managing mindset and managing the mind.
Anton: Exactly. Yes. Yes. So I feel like that started. And again, having good people around you, like yourself and your friends and your family is key. Because success is a team sport. You know, that’s a good one to use
How To Successfully Market During Covid-19
Mark: That’s right. So tell us a little bit more about the stuff that you guys are doing today to make business happen?
Anton: Sure. So what we already had in play, because we are our main customer base is cafes, restaurants, food distributors, bakeries. Now, as we all know, the laws today, some version of takeaway only, home delivery only. And of course, those that could pivot towards that or who were already sniffing around that are making a go of that. Some bakeries are still busy. So what we do, what we have done is because we supply bakeries with a knock on the door of more bakeries, but more importantly, making offers because we’re the manufacturer.
I mean, first of all, the product has to be great and sell. And it does. It’s established. But we make such a lot of our food distributors that we support some of them who are struggling and perhaps couldn’t order very big. So we offer to support them because they’re our customers. So we make offers to their customers on behalf of them. Really great deals sometimes break-even or but just to be break-even or better.
And we’re doing that more and more, and more and unbelievably, we have new customers coming on. I’m still surprised, and I love it when I hear new customers come. But it didn’t come necessarily because they handed us them. It may have, but more than likely it’s coming because we feel like we’re here. I know everyone on the news and TV is saying we’re all in this together and that’s nice. But what does that really mean?
What that really means is you reach out to your customers and your suppliers, and you actually do something together. Some companies who sell milk and fruit and veg, we’re looking to form alliances with them and help them go to the home delivery market because we understand that people at home that don’t want to buy one delivery from this guy, one from that guy, one from this store, just like cafes. They want to consolidate, and they don’t want to pay for all these delivery fees.
Mark: That’s right.
Anton: And as you know, and I think you recently promoted a new service that doesn’t have that hefty cut like some other companies that we wouldn’t need to say. And so all of that is actually genuinely helping. And, of course, it’s business that you’re actually helping customers get what they need. So that’s been in play. The new stuff, spin in play now for a month or so. And it’s starting to prove results. And we’ll see, you know, the proof is in the pudding in the next several months as we go through this lockdown.
But the same old marketing systems. And thanks again to my business partner for laying those tracks in those systems. They were already in place months prior, and we just have to ramp that effort up. And if I think if I was a bakery or a cafe and I could get much cheaper stuff, I already want to make it not something I don’t need. This is great. Absolutely. I want to get that. I don’t want to buy from a distributor and pay extra. I can’t afford it right now. I’ve got to put my stuff off. I know a lot of operators are probably working themselves where perhaps they didn’t. And, you know, they used to have it under management. And we all want to keep these people onside. What the job keeper in this is so that when it comes back, we’re back. So I think let’s see what results come on. I’m happy with what I’m seeing. And you have to look forward to what I feel is a forecast of three to six months that the industry is coming back, but I also look forward to a new market emerging. And what we can do in that space, which is the home delivery market.
Emergence Of The New Market
Mark: I think I can tell you from now, from what we’re seeing, a lot of our clients opened up a brand new source of income that wasn’t activated in the past.
Anton:Yeah, that’s great.
Mark: And it’s going beyond their expectations only because of the current situation. When things are back to normal, maybe the numbers might look a little bit different, but this is a business model that never had before, and they’ve activated today. You know, when things are back to normal, you’re like, you know what, dine-in is coming back, and you’ve got this source of income that you’ve activated. You put a lot of energy into it. A lot of effort, and you’re keeping up to date with times. And you’re not just sticking to one thing in your business, which is the dine-in. Doesn’t really matter what size or what class your restaurant is at, from fine dining to casual or quick service. All of them today are offering something they’ve never, ever thought they will be offering in their lifetime, and it’s working for some of them.
Anton: It’s fantastic. And in delivery, I’m just curious about a lot of them.
Mark:Most of them, themselves solve them, and they employed their own staff that used to do waitering or kitchen. They are actually hired to do delivery. So, trying to support their own staff.
Anton: That’s right.
Mark: And obviously, if they don’t have that option, then you can always look into a third party. But yeah. So this is what’s happening today. And you know how this is because you’re a wholesaler, sometimes you might see something somewhere else. You might suggest that to someone else within your network of your own customers. And sometimes they look at you blank like, that doesn’t apply for my business.
Anton: Well, I felt the same about us.
Anton: Because I’ve had a wholesale mindset, but I hadn’t succeeded in the retail space, including when I opened our own cafe. Because, well, it’s a mindset, but also it has to be an ongoing focus. And after the next three to six months, I think some people will forget about it and go back to how they were. That’s human nature. But the ones who have created another income source, as you say that is, that’s fantastic.
Mark: Yes, keep nurturing it. You know, why not? It saved you today, and it will save you again.
Anton: Yeah. And what I like about that too, is that is it, you can reach out to your customer and look after your customer directly. I think I see on social media, the energy that the customers are loving, having this direct contact with the restaurant cafe, bakery, there’s really good energy there. Let’s see how it washes out in the future, but people seem to be liking it. And of course, Uber had already set up this mentality already in the last couple of years. And you know, everyone was getting lazy and getting an ice cream sent home and said going for a walk.
Mark: That’s right. And I reckon that’s one of the, you know, as much as we hide how much it reads is expensive for restaurants to have it as an option. Again, it’s kind of a blessing that it is this technology it is today. And you don’t even have to go with it, but you can have your own systems similar to what Uber does and go and do it. You know? It definitely opened up our eyes, opened up the mind to, Hey, you know, a business does not have to be done in one way, and that’s it, there are other ways of doing business.
Anton: But we all got forced to get our fair, lazy and have a go
Mark: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. Any strategies, any other strategies that you would like to share or maybe one really good one?
Anton: Look, I feel like in any business, cause I speak to other business people in other industries, and what’s great is sales and marketing, it had always been there centuries ago. And in the future the methods obviously then technological advancement. I was saying earlier in the nineties, we used to do mail-outs and emails and then, you know, that worked, we had some, and that actually worked at the time, but what worked was that backend and what worked at the start is we physically went door-knocking nowadays. No one wants to be a door to door person at all. But in those days we did it, and now we’re happy to see us. And of course, it’s changed. And so I think what the most effective method of the day is “Just do that and measure the result”.
These days people are on social media and texting. So we use that because people are responsive to that and they like that. And they don’t mind that. And, and there’s no more nine to five anymore, and used to be a bit embarrassing, but now you, you can send a message at midnight or 2:00 AM, and no one says, what are you, what are you doing? You can put it on silent. And so I just encourage anyone to do first, just do anything, but you’ve got to have your, you’ve got to collect your database. That’s your asset. Your customer is your asset. And everything else is second to that. And once you’ve got your asset and your database, if we’re talking: a cafe-restaurant classic example and the bakery industry, that thinking is very old school in those industries.
And often, but not always, it’s not a business operator that’s started that. It’s someone who’s very good in the industry in some way, they’ve got high skill. But and so, therefore, they’re awesome at setting up and organizing and running food costs, or an excellent chef, or very good at branding. And these are all critical. But to me, marketing is the top. It’s the goal. It’s the beginning, it’s the end. And so I would encourage anyone to reach out.
Most people can’t do it themselves, but to reach out to some of your Mark, Your SocialChef. Getting your food on the plate in front of your customer is step one and making them an offer, but if they don’t know about you and how good it is, or there is all the noise about a thousand other places who were doing it, well, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to get left behind.
Anton: The message. Yeah. And so I think what you’ve been doing and what you are doing is more important than anything. And you know, what, your paddling analogy, what you’re serving up in front of the market is a success. And the reason it’s a success is there’s so much noise. There’s so much going on. You know, people are scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, that’s the attention, attention is also an asset. And so I’m still learning, and you’re still learning. I’ll still be learning, but you don’t have to be the best. You just have to do it and make it better, and get it in front of your customer. Your customer has a need. And in this industry they’re hungry. That’s not the only need sometimes when we’re allowed to, there’s a need to socialize, and there’s a need to, sometimes to put on an event or a party and celebrate. So there are other customer needs, and they need to know that you’re the one who can help them do that. And so what you do Mark is unbelievable in that bar. I spread that around as much as possible.
Mark: Thank you. I reckon that was a brief conversation today. We went through where we were, how you got started, where you took the business to how you’re dealing and managing current challenges, how looking at collaborating with other suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, looking outside of your market, who could possibly be that person or this customer. It’s again like there’s no rule today. There is no rule as long, you’re not doing anything illegal.
Anton: There’s no rules in the wild West, but it’s not, we’ll write your own rules.
Mark: Yeah, write your own rules. You go out there, and you just stop until you put your hands on something that works wonderfully. Then you keep testing, testing, and what we call them, mock marketing test, test, test, repeat, rinse and repeat. So that was a brilliant interview. Thank you for your time. Is there anything else that you would like to add before we wrap it up?
Anton: No, thank you very much. I just would encourage all your viewers and listeners to not only get in touch with you but to make a commitment to reach out to their market. And as you said, test market, get your stuff out in front of the customer. See what works and repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. I really encourage that. And, that’s how you become a brilliant marketer is you just keep refining, and you keep getting it out there. So when things go back to normal, make sure you’ve got that match. You’ve got a chef, and you’ve got your social media, which is the strong marketing of the day at the moment. Have that in play so that when you have to go back and focus on running the back end and the other parts of your business, that’s looking after you.
Mark: Anton, I would like to add one more thing. Can you tell us, what is your business name? What is the product that you sell and how, if anybody watching this video now, or later on, how do, what if they want to buy something or they need it for their and operations or a wholesaler that wants to collaborate or retail? How, how do they get in contact with you, and what, what is your business?
Anton: Thank you. Yeah, the company is Cakes by Sweethearts, but we’re known as Sweethearts Cakes. We’re based in Melbourne, but we deliver nationally. The website is cakesandcookies.com.au, so you’ll see all the things there. And we do desserts and slices and muffins and donuts, and banana bread and, all portion control and we have hyssop and all that. And, so people can reach us through the website and the phone numbers on there. That’s not a problem. And what’s great is as the owner and the manufacturer, we do deals and offers, and that’s our focus, and our customers love it. And so we’re not just another cake business as it were we.
Mark: That’s right.
Anton: Yeah. So please get in touch with us. We would love to work with you.
Mark: Wonderful, Anton. Anton, thank you very much for your time until the next one.
Anton: All the best.