The best ingredients

The best ingredients

Posted 18 November 2013

Although she’s more accustomed to working behind the scenes at a gala dinner, proud Dhanggati woman Jo Donovan was enjoying being waited on at the recent ACT NAIDOC Business of the Year Awards. Her relatively new family company Bandu Catering (Bandu) was nominated alongside several more established businesses, and Jo did not expect to make an acceptance speech. She was wrong.

‘I stood there, and for the first time in my life I was lost for words’, said Jo, describing her surprise when Bandu took out the inaugural ACT Government (Economic Development Directorate) Indigenous business award.

It was only two years ago that Jo took the leap to turn her hobby into a business. She left a 36-year career in administration with the ACT and Commonwealth Government Public Service to form Bandu Catering with son Aaron Devine, a talented and qualified chef.

With daughter Jessica, also a qualified chef, recently joining Bandu (which translates to ‘food’ in the Dhanggati language), Jo is relishing working side-by-side with her children to deliver high-quality food that mixes native ingredients and flavours with innovative, contemporary Australian cuisine.The recent NAIDOC award, she says, has been the icing on the cake.


Family businesses account for approximately 70 per cent of all Australian businesses and employ around 50 per cent of the nation’s workforce¹. A family-owned business can provide economic independence, steady employment, and a platform for expressing a family’s personal vision, culture and values.

However, mixing family and business can be problematic when those same personal values and family relationships push up against commercial processes and objectives.

In navigating their path to success as a family business, Jo and Aaron say they have learnt much about the need for open and honest communication, mutual respect for and trust in the other’s skills, and the importance of keeping their business vision front of mind.

Bandu took shape in 2011 when Jo and Aaron each found themselves at a personal and professional crossroads. Jo was about to leave full-time work to take on caring for her mother, who has dementia. Aaron, meanwhile, was working in the hospitality industry in Queensland. With 14 years experience behind him, including a role as Head Chef at a Canberra restaurant, he was ready to take on a new professional challenge. Each realised there was an opportunity to meld their passion for food, industry experience and networks into a business venture that would also accommodate the needs of family.

‘Everything was lining up’, said Aaron. ’I had finished up in Queensland, and I was ready to move on. We hadn’t decided on the actual name or concept of Bandu at that stage, but we thought “let’s cater”. I said to Mum, “what you do as a hobby and I do professionally, let’s turn that into something”. So with Mum leaving work, Nan being sick and needing more care, and me being ready to make the move back, everything just aligned’.

While Aaron planned his move back to Canberra, Jo attended IBA’s three one-day Into Business™ workshops, which tested both her business idea and resolve to take it forward. ‘There’s a lot of work that IBA requires you to do during the workshops, but I didn’t mind’, said Jo.

'To me, if you are committed and you want it, you will go hard and make it happen. The first part of getting our business together was to do the IBA business course. But then came getting a business plan together, and with both of us catering at the time for Bandu, we didn’t seem to have the time so this part of it really dragged on. Finally we had to stop and say, “OK, we’ve got to commit a week to doing this business plan or we won’t get anywhere”’.

With their plan in place, Jo and Aaron secured a small loan for a customised and branded delivery van (which they have now paid off in full). They also received mentoring and support from a business consultant through IBA’s Business Development and Assistance Program.

The start-up costs for a catering company – which include equipment, marketing, legal and industry registrations – are significant, and required Jo and Aaron to invest some of their savings. For Jo, that included putting her hard-earned superannuation on the line. But trust in their own expertise and shared commitment to making Bandu a success made those investment decisions easier.

‘I had the know-how as far as cooking goes’, said Aaron. ‘And Mum had the administrative know-how as far as the books are concerned. So we threw everything (financially) we had into it for the first six months. But that’s what you do if you are committed; you throw everything you have in knowing it will pay off. There was no reason not to go for it’.

A particular strength of family-owned businesses is the passion, loyalty and deep sense of ownership they can engender among family ‘employees’. However, it is not uncommon for concerns to arise when additional family members join the business at a later, more established stage. This was the case for Bandu when Jessica joined the company in February 2013.

‘Aaron and I had been running this business, had built it from the ground up for 12 months’, said Jo. ‘But I could see us getting bigger and I didn’t want to open it up to strangers. I wanted the family to be part of this great experience, and we needed someone reliable. So we rang Jessica and talked to her and asked “Do you want to be part of this”. As a mother I didn’t mind her launching straight in. But I suppose as a business person and an original stakeholder, Aaron was a little concerned about it. So he was saying, “Yes, it’s absolutely fine having my sister come and be part of it”, but he wanted assurance that all the money and the sweat he had already put into the business would be appreciated and matched. And of course Jessica is very committed to Bandu and has shown that already with all the extra hours she’s done, and by accepting a little bit less money working for Bandu than she could make working at an established restaurant’.

For Aaron, communicating such concerns was not easy, but provided a valuable lesson in the need to separate family and business. ‘It’s communication that’s key for sure’, he said. ‘And it’s difficult having to tell a family member about concerns like that. But it was about saying, “When we are at work, yes you’re my family, but you’re also my workmates and I need to be able to say these things”’.

Jo and Aaron say that having Jessica join the company has in fact provided a timely opportunity to clearly define previously informal job descriptions within Bandu. ‘It had been an unwritten thing until then’, said Aaron. ‘The clients would call or email Mum via the website and request catering. Mum would complete order forms and I would buy the ingredients and start cooking. We had to define those roles a bit more when Jess joined us because she’s a good, qualified chef as well and has her own ideas. We’ve both quite opinionated, and initially we’d clash. So we’ve agreed that, with my longer experience in the industry, it makes sense for me to run the day-to-day kitchen operations. We all bring our individual strengths to Bandu though, and we’d be lost without each other, there’s no two ways about it.

Jo agrees and says that although as a mother she is sometimes tempted to play her “because I said so” card when it comes to controlling day-to-day operations, she knows that respect for her children’s skills and experience is what gives Bandu its strength. ’It’s our decades of personal, industry and government connections, and what we personally bring to the business that adds strength to that’, she said. ‘My strength is administration, and that’s all I have known my whole adult working life. Being a chef, that’s basically all Aaron has known; and now Jessica is on board with her skills and new ideas. We are running with that knowledge, and we have grown that knowledge’.

Jo and her family know that constantly exploring new ideas in business, food and service delivery are vital to ensure Bandu – with limited human resources – continues to grow, innovate and compete against larger, better resourced catering companies. However, the smaller family structure has its own advantages too. For example, new business ideas and opportunities can be explored and actioned quickly without needing to consult multiple stakeholders.

One business innovation underway for Bandu is developing an online shopping cart, which will streamline its quotation and ordering process, freeing up Jo’s time. ‘We’re working on a new website, and looking at having a shopping cart where people can go online and look at what we have to offer. We’ve got a more extensive range of food coming, and customers will be able to look at an item, choose how many people they are having at their event, see what dollars they will need to spend. The system will automatically add up the order… and the client can send it through to us. That will mean I’m not up at midnight working on menus and costings for jobs, which is just so tiring, especially as I am juggling the business with providing a lot of care for mum’.

The family is also looking at developing an online blog to capture the positive feedback and testimonials received from their extensive list of clients – which includes IBA.

It’s those testimonials, and a reputation for delivering innovative food and high-quality service that has helped turn Bandu into an award-winning business.

Reflecting back on that recent awards night Jo said: ‘I was just so humbled… and what came to mind straightaway when I got up to speak was my kids, Aaron and Jessica, and the long hours they’ve put in; getting up at 1am, working tirelessly in the business'.

'I think it’s really great that we have our patrons out there in the community who support us, who respect us and acknowledge the quality of work, the hard work that we do. We know we work really hard because we are so exhausted at the end of the day; and then we wake up and do it again, and do it again. It was the awards night that brought it all home; just what we have achieved, what we can achieve. And we have some big plans, big ideas for this business…’

How big? ‘If it’s anything to do with food, we can do it’, said Aaron. ‘And the more I think about the business, the better it feels – the position we are in, it’s so cool’.

Find out more about Bandu Catering and IBA's Business Development and Assistance Program.

¹ Family Business Australia