As any business owner will know, the road to success is guaranteed to have plenty of roadblocks along the way.
But Diem Fuggersberger, CEO and co-founder of Berger Ingredients and creator of the Coco & Lucas brand, seems to have faced more sizeable obstacles than most.
Diem came to Australia as a refugee when she was eight years old, having fled Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon.
Despite a turbulent start to her life in Australia, a love of food was instilled in her from a young age and has been the foundation of her most precious family memories. Her mother and grandmother often shared the joy of creating a home-cooked meal for family and friends, planting the seed for Diem’s career in food.
But in 2009, it seemed as though her career was over before it began, when the $27 million food business that Diem owned with her husband collapsed. The global financial crisis knocked some of their biggest clients and the debts couldn’t be paid.
“We lost the business, we were homeless. The only way to clear the debt was to start a new business,” Diem said.
Berger Ingredients was established “out of necessity” with the help of a few family members, making marinades and mixes for the small business industry.
They were working on a much smaller scale and while it progressed well, Diem knew there was something missing.
“That was our bread and butter, but I just knew there was something missing. I wanted to do something that I really loved.”
In 2016, spurred on by an eagerness to return to home cooking, Diem discovered a gap in the ready meals market.
“[Consumers] can find food for kids between six months and three years old, and an abundance of adults’ meals but there wasn’t any food for kids between three and 12 years old.”
Diem saw an opportunity and was the first person to branch into the “junior foodie” market, creating 220 g freshly prepared meals for fussy eaters and kids with food allergies or intolerances.
Coco & Lucas’ Kitchen was inspired by Diem’s daughter Coco, a “fussy, discerning eater” and nephew Lucas, who suffered with a variety of food allergies. Diem spent almost a year developing nutritionally balanced recipes, and while she was determined to make it work, it took a lot of convincing to get her first supermarket, Woolworths, on board.
“It took Woolworths eight months to consider what I proposed to them … but I’ve proven myself. I started with 200 stores in Victoria, then I went into 80 stores in Perth, and it took me a year to go national, into 919 stores.”
Seal of approval
The range has been a hit, not only with parents, but also paediatricians and Aussie coeliacs, as every meal is completely lactose and gluten free and doesn’t contain any chemicals. Thanks to the quality of the product and the many satisfied customers, Diem hasn’t spent a cent on marketing.
“I’m funding the whole project myself. I’m doing all social media, all the marketing, development … I can’t possibly pay someone to do it. If someone is coming back to buy my meal and endorsing me organically, I must be doing something right.”
Struggling to meet demand
While Diem may have had more significant downs than ups at the start of her career, she is now on an upward trajectory with no sign of slowing down. In fact, her biggest concern now is meeting demand.
“I didn’t think that I would do that well. When I built the commercial kitchen it was supposed to make a maximum of 200 meals a year; I have exceeded that and I’m running out of space. I’m at a bottleneck now. I’ve reached capacity. It is a problem, but I’m doing something about it.”
Diem’s operation is semi-automated at the moment because of capacity, and while it costs her much more to make the meals in comparison to the big players, she doesn’t ever plan to go fully automated.
“Even if I grow I don’t want it to be fully automated, because kids like the meals the way I make them. The big players can’t copy the way I do that. That’s my point of difference.”
Diem is planning to move Berger Ingredients to another site to free up space so that Coco & Lucas’ Kitchen can accept new clients and expand into Coles, Aldi, Costco, independent stores and the export market.
But it’s not just about sales for Diem; she now has her sights set on educating young people about food through partnerships with Sharp and Woolworths. She will be teaching hands-on cooking skills and showing kids how to make healthy three-course meals.
“Parents will never say no to education, they will never say no to their kids, and they will never say no to seniors (their parents).”
Looking to the future, Diem wants to better cover these three areas. She discovered through customer feedback that 20 per cent of the range is bought by seniors, as the portion size is more manageable for them.
She plans to make her meals available through vending machines in hospitals, schools and universities, to provide nutritious meals outside cafeteria hours.
Coco & Lucas’ Kitchen will be launching a toddlers’ range later this year, and Diem even hinted at plans for a kid-friendly meal kit down the track.
“That will be part of the range down the line but I need more space for that. I’ve done all the artwork already, I just need the capacity to launch something like that. I have big dreams for my brand, but right now I’m working on capacity for the long run.”
This article first appeared in the April issue of Inside FMCG’s quarterly magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.