It was a cosmopolitan city lifestyle while living in Glasgow that exposed Carla and Scott Burns to fresh gourmet produce and the opportunity to experiment cooking with it. It was this inspiration that the couple drew upon to launch a food venture or their own upon returning to Brisbane.
Growing up around baking and cake decorating it was a natural progression for Carla to move into the field and her parents’ desire to be closer to the family sealed the initial family partnership.
“I grew up in my mum and dad’s bakery, dad being a master baker and mum being a very talented cake decorator with over 30 years’ experience.”
The Burns’ balanced out these more “classic” elements of Carla’s parents cooking with a passion for modern cooking and gourmet ingredients. A background in art for Carla and sales and customer service for Scott found suitable application in their new food venture. It was a perfect blend that brought the family together and worked so well to launch what would become known as Vanilla Pod to the local Brisbane community.
After an extensive period of developing concepts, scouting for locations and establishing a brand, it was decided that Vanilla Pod would be the name of the venture and Ascot would the location. Vanilla is an essential ingredient in all Vanilla Pod cakes, and was a fitting name to represent the Burns’ food business.
“I just love the process of using a vanilla pod and not a lot of people have ever used one. So it conjures up questions and ideas, smells and aromas; and I think it’s a name that people can get excited about.”
They signed a lease in February of 2005, started the fit out in April and opened the doors in July of that same year.
“We thought we’d be just a little suburban café making a few cakes and cupcakes, and have a great little business. It exceeded our expectations within the first 12 months and quickly became a little hub for people to hang out, bring their families and catch up.”
The couple never really had a vision beyond being a local café and deli. Four years into the business and the global financial crisis loomed, forcing the couple to adapt their business to meet the changing face of the hospitality industry against an increasing picture of adversity.
“We just maintained our strength with our customer service, and our product being consistently good and always excelling expectations.”
Over the years Vanilla Pod has taken on some unique projects, seeking to diversify and continue to grow to meet its’ customers’ needs. For a few years Carla and Scott took Vanilla Pod mobile with a coffee van and were regulars at sporting events, school carnivals and corporate events. Masterclasses were another facet of the Vanilla Pod brand with Carla and Scott working to share their knowledge and skill set with their customer base long before home cooking become the boom industry that it is today.
“People knew what to do with the jar on the shelf, it became something that they loved the smell or the taste of which they wouldn’t have experienced if we hadn’t shown them what to do with it.”
Even with the boom in home cooking and people becoming better versed in food and culinary skills, Carla still sees the place of providing gourmet catering and specialty cake services.
“People are still really busy; there are so many working couples and families out there that don’t have time, so to outsource catering or order a cake for a birthday or event makes it special and takes the pressure off people so they can actually enjoy the event.”
Sporting food trends such as Paleo and also embracing the need for Gluten Free options is also another way that Vanilla Pod has continued to develop and provide a product that is relevant to its customers. In terms of staying relevant to customers Carla’s philosophy is simple.
“I just think the product needs to be fresh, the service, crisp clean flavours and a lot of things in food come down to love. I think if you love what you do you every day you can keep your produce fresh and exciting. There’s not a day where I’m not excited to be going to work.”
While this key philosophy may be one aspect of the Burns’ success, Carla sees the true success of Vanilla Pod in its staff and the team behind them.
“Without the people helping deliver our passion for food and our message to our customers we wouldn’t have a business. And if we didn’t have the beautiful customers loving what we do, then we wouldn’t have the business. It’s a big three-way street.”
While searching for a location for Vanilla Pod the Burns’ cast their net wide, looking at Racecourse Road, Bulimba and Paddington, but all lacked what was quintessential to the quaint location opposite Oriel Park at the heart of Ascot: the beautiful village feel that exudes from the local Ascot community.
“It’s like a little village and a really lovely community area that we felt like we could become a part of, and the support of the community has been unceasing since that first day.”
When conducting initial research into the Ascot area the Burns’ noted that the location opposite Oriel Park was in the vicinity of eight-nine schools. They knew immediately that there would be a demand for their services. In turn the couple have been forever seeking to develop and nurture the community that has supported them so loyally since that first day.
“We’re regularly making donations to local schools or events and showing up and being a part of our community.”
Having children of their own in the initial days of Vanilla Pod meant that the family’s connection with the local community was further strengthened and as the business grew so to did their children.
“Our customers really loved our kids being a part of the business. That was an exciting thing early on: they followed the pregnancies and they followed the kids as they grew up.”
The Burns’ girls are a regular feature at the Ascot Café serving customers and on Vanilla Pod social media, sharing their cooking tips and recipes. Almost sharing a similar childhood growing up around food as her kids, Carla can see the positive effects on their development already.
“They just want to work; they love merchandising in the deli, running coffees and they can bake many things on their own already. I think they’re pretty well grounded and they have a great work ethic. The life skills that they have developed early on will be beneficial later in life.”
One thing that was always on the agenda for Carla and Scott was developing and expanding the specialty cake arm of the business. When the opportunity presented itself last year the couple took it. Vanilla Pod Specialty Cake Kitchen was established in Albion and here Carla and her team of consultants, decorators and bakers continue to create unique cake creations for all occasions.
The future appears strong for Vanilla Pod, and while Carla and Scott may be tight-lipped about what lays ahead, they don’t have a desire to have Vanilla Pod splashed across Australia or become mass-produced.
“What I do want is that everything we produce, every day, with the love that my staff and I put into it, I want that to have an effect on everybody’s life that interacts with that food.”