Condiments, preserves and general jarred goods have a shared mission — to enhance, elevate and complement food.

They’ve largely existed in the domain of supermarkets, but chefs have honed in on an opportunity to put their own twists on pantry essentials.

Hospitality talks to Via Porta Co-Owner and Chef Simon Cosentino and Tuck Shop Takeaway Co-Owner and Chef Clinton Serex about why they decided to create their own lines, staying true to their brands and the importance of diversification.

Tuck Shop Take Away’s catchphrase is “old-skool vibe, new-skool twist”. The concept, created by Clinton and Karina Serex, opened in 2013 in Caulfield North, Melbourne, and has become the go-to for classic burgers, jaffles, shakes and all the good stuff. But Tuck Shop isn’t your standard burger spot; the team pride themselves on using tip-top produce and making basically everything from scratch — including their sauces.

Bottles of the tomato sauce, which feature artwork by Mike Souvanthalisith from Studio Mimu, were placed on tables for customers to use at the start, but it didn’t take long for diners to ask to bring the Tuck Shop sauce experience home.

“From day one, we’ve made all the sauces from scratch and we had bottles of the tomato sauce on the tables,” says Serex. “There were quite a few requests early on, so we’ve been bottling it for about six years now.”

A smoked jalapeño hot sauce soon followed. Both products are free from thickeners and preservatives and are made with natural ingredients. They’re also vegan, which means they are universally appealing to all customers. “You can really tell the difference between [artisan products] and a store-bought sauce,” says Serex.

Via Porta is fairly new on the hospitality scene, opening last year in Mont Albert, Melbourne. Four siblings are behind the concept, which operates as a hybrid venue. “We had the vision of creating a multifaceted business with a dine-in presence as well as jarred products and pantry staples,” says Chef and Co-Owner Simon Cosentino.

The brand’s line includes everything from fruit preserves to pickled veg and sauces, with the majority of products crafted in-house. “We always make jam based on the season and the fruit we can get,” says Cosentino. “The last batch, we did 400kg of strawberries from Queensland. The whole team were involved and the finished product is so good; you can’t get that from larger companies.”

Victorian operators have been dealt quite the hand in 2020, with restrictions impacting businesses in unimaginable ways. But if this year has taught operators anything, it’s the importance of diversification. Dine-in trade was the lifeblood of most businesses, but other avenues such as takeaway, gift cards, virtual experiences and product lines have and will continue to be of importance moving forward.

Tuck Shop and Via Porta are both geared towards take-home trade, but both have experienced an uptake of their product lines in recent months. “It started to gain
traction over the last two years, but more so through this COVID period,” says Serex. The team have steadily ramped up production of the bottled sauces, which are made in batches of 24–36 at a time.

A stellar sauce reputation has also led to wholesale opportunities, and a number of venues including Smith & Deli, Marion, Gary’s Quality Meats, Frankie’s Top Shop, The Leaf Store, 10 Greek Plates and Meatsmith now stock the sauces.

“Andrew McConnell is a regular at the shop, and Meatsmith is definitely our biggest client,” says Serex. “We might sell 20–30 bottles a week in-store, and I supply Meatsmith with up to 24 bottles a week, but it’s still a very small production.”

Like all venues, Via Porta navigated unchartered waters when COVID restrictions commenced. “We shifted all our attention to taking our take-home food range and pantry products to the next level,” says Cosentino. “We’re in a fortunate position because they have been really well received and it’s cemented a new aspect of our business. We didn’t know how good it could be — COVID has opened our eyes to the whole concept of preserving products and having shelf-stable quality products we can distribute.”

The venue also ventured into wholesale after experiencing a surge in popularity for their range. “If we’re talking volumes in sales, we’re selling a lot more now than when we first started,” says Cosentino. “We’re supplying other venues with our products and it’s definitely grown; the sales have grown and our range has grown. We’re selling through smaller independent delis, grocers and supermarkets as well as a number of wholesalers, who have been a massive support for us.”

The establishment of Co-Lab Pantry, a digital platform that supports the hospitality industry, has also been a game-changer for Serex and Cosentino. Buyers are able to purchase goods from a range of venues and have their orders shipped Australia-wide. Co-Lab are also part of the Click for Vic campaign from the state government, which aims to support local businesses.

A Co-Lab co-founder approached Tuck Shop during the initial lockdown in Victoria, and the brand were one of the first to join the platform. “They place a normal wholesale order and pick up 40 of each sauce at a time and then they reorder more,” says Serex.

While Serex has considered setting up an online store, the postage system has been problematic in terms of cost and time. A hot sauce devotee out of the then-5km radius purchased four bottles of sauce from the venue, and it took 10 days for it to arrive in spite of the relatively short distance. “It’s definitely a lot better through Co-Lab, who use a courier system and it’s better value for the customer.”

Via Porta are also big fans of Co-Lab, and have been supplying the platform for over three months. “The Click for Vic initiative has captured a wider audience, which has been really exciting,” says Cosentino. “Co-Lab buy in large quantities and they distribute as they get orders. It’s crazy thinking that we are a small producer, but we have the capacity to distribute interstate.”

While Melbourne is back in business, a strong take-home offering will remain a crucial revenue stream for many operators. Cosentino has plans to debut new products in the lead up to the festive season.

“I’d like to work on a lot of chutneys and preserves and continue to expand,” he says. “When we first started the pantry products, we probably sold 10 jars a week — now we’re up to 100 jars; it showcases the growth in this space.”

Tuck Shop is sticking with two sauces for the time being, but have received plenty of requests for the Tuck Shop burger sauce, which features on the menu.

“There’s the potential, as it’s a vegan soy-based mayo so it’s shelf stable, but we’re going to keep that for ourselves for the burgers,” says Serex. “I’ve had requests for barbecue sauce, but we don’t use it in any of our products. The two sauces we sell are used on the menu [the smoked jalapeño is on secret menu item the Bully burger].

The past year has nudged operators to think differently about their brands; and developing, refining and growing product lines has proven to be a fruitful operation when done right.