Charlie’s Fine Food Co: saving the day
Former lawyer Jacky Magid managed to turn a bankrupt wholesale biscuit bakery into the hugely successful Charlie’s Fine Food Co. It’s now a $10-million-a-year business. But when COVID hit and foodservice orders dried up, she executed a master pivot, which saved her employee’s jobs and her company from going under.
In 2004, Magid was juggling a high-pressure career in commercial litigation with new motherhood. Obviously quite distracted at the time, when her husband came home one day with a rather surprising announcement, she didn’t really pay much attention.
“I was working three days a week at that time, and we’d had our first child,” she says. “But when you’re a lawyer and you’re in litigation, there’s no such thing as three days a week.
“Ken wandered in one day and said to me, ‘I think I’ve just bought a bankrupt cookie business’. And I was like, ‘That’s nice darling’, and went back to my affidavit.”
Although she didn’t realise it at the time, this was the beginning of Charlie’s Fine Food Co, a business that Magid would help turn from insolvency into a $10-million-a-year operation.
While the business that Magid’s husband had purchased had gone bankrupt, the biscuits it had produced were of the highest quality – all handmade using premium ingredients. These were sold to high-end operations like the Melbourne Convention Centre and Crown Casino, as well as into pastry kitchens where the pastry chef didn’t have time to make biscuits but wanted something that looked like it had been crafted by a professional.
“It was a wonderful offering on which to springboard a company,” Magid says. “But the business – which was predominantly a foodservice business at that time – needed a sales and marketing jumpstart to expand. That was where I came in. Ken had worked with the former owner, and they’d been able to make it commercially viable, but it needed more customers. It needed a brand, it needed a reputation and it needed to be leveraged.”
In 2007, Magid made the switch from the courtroom to the boardroom and became the company’s Sales and Marketing Director. Within three years, she had managed to land the business a massive contract – suppling biscuits to Qantas.
“It took three years, and in those days, Qantas changed their menu every three months,” she says. “So I flew up every three months for three years to pitch to them. I had sheer determination. I believed in what we did, and I just kept going until I got a yes.”
During this period, Magid spent a lot of time speaking with people at Qantas to find out which areas they were looking to for innovation. With hundreds of biscuit companies throwing their sweet cookies at Qantas in hopes of a contract, the answer for Charlie’s Fine Food Co was ultimately a simple one: go savoury. The business began making cheese biscuit snack boxes – the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon flight glass of wine.
Of course, this success was duly noted by every other biscuit business in town. And so in 2016, once the space had become highly competitive, Magid had to innovate once again.
“That was when we launched our cause-related snack boxes,” she says. “We wanted to stay in that space, so we had to offer something different. We created our Proud to Call Australia Home snack box, which donated five cents from every box to selected charities.”
Every six months, a new charity was chosen. Over the years, Qantas and Charlie’s have helped raise more than $100,000 in donations for organisations such as the Children’s Cancer Institute, Ovarian Cancer Australia, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Eat Up Australia, the Prostate Cancer Foundation and the Yothu Yindi Foundation.
From sky high to skyfall
Charlie’s Fine Food Co was flying high – literally. But then, in 2020, COVID came calling.
“Early 2020 was a really difficult time for our company,” Magid says. “Being predominately foodservice, when lockdown came and airlines stopped flying, pretty much everyone that we sold to was closed. We had hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock sitting in warehouses, and trucks with Qantas stock were being turned back.”
Magid was determined to save her family’s company and to save the jobs of her 40 employees, many of whom had mortgages and families of their own. But when turnover dropped to almost nothing, there was no choice but to stand staff down.
“But when JobKeeper was announced, we brought them all back,” she says. “Those who worked in the bakery stayed home because there was no baking to be done. But the executive team started working as hard as we could to work out where we could go.
“We were fortunate that I’d been working on a deal with a major US retailer in China, and their purchase orders started coming through in April 2020, which is completely uncanny. So we knew that we had that. Then we had a couple of other contract manufacturing jobs for brands that were going into supermarkets, and that helped us to reopen.”
The business began making private label products for Coles and Woolworths, and then, in August 2020, Woolworths came to the table to discuss Charlie’s cheese biscuits.
“Obviously, as part of the fallout from Qantas, we had a million cheese biscuits,” Magid says. “I asked Woolworths if there was anything they might be able to do with the product. They said there wasn’t in the Qantas pack format, but there was an opportunity in premium crackers in the entertaining/snacking area to launch them as a bite size.”
Charlie’s Mini Cheese Bites are now sold at Woolworths and Coles supermarkets nationally. Out of a dark time that had threatened the survival of the business, Magid and her team had managed to find a new path that could help the company grow once again.
“We called it a silver lining, because we were a business that had grown by opportunity,” Magid says. “When I joined, we were thinking strategically about where we wanted to go. We wanted to land Qantas, we wanted to do this, we wanted to do that.
“Then things just started to happen organically. But before you know, it, you’re being pushed from pillar to post, agreeing to do all types of things. We’d become this amorphous business with lots of products. COVID gave us that chance to say, ‘Hold on a second. Is this an opportunity to take a breath and think about where we really want to be?’”
Moving forward, Charlie’s will continue to supply foodservice, but has also redoubled its focus on retail. The business has now partnered with a national distributor who’s taken the products into independent supermarkets, and Charlie’s also recently launched a crazy-delicious vegan cookie dough, which you can eat raw as well as bake with.
“The reality is, we’re still a family business,” Magid says. “We’ve got 40 staff who are like family, and they have kids and mortgages. So during that lockdown, especially when JobKeeper came out, we felt we had a job to do. To say, ‘Thanks government for this help. We’ll repay you by making sure we look after our staff’. It really was a silver lining in that sense. It gave us the opportunity to refocus, and we came out better because of it.”
To find out more about Charlie’s Fine Food Co, head to charliesfinefoodco.com