It is 7.30am. The Brae restaurant kitchen is quiet, but don’t be mistaken – preparation for lunch is well under way. Outside, a fire of redgum wood is burning. In a few hours, the charcoal will be used to barbecue the octopus. For now, the fire’s heat is welcome as the temperature hovers around zero.
In the kitchen garden, three chefs are picking today’s fruit and vegetables. “It’s frozen!” says Peter, as he picks a warrigal green, a thick green plant with a strong spinach-like, earthy taste. Peter travelled from his native California to work at Brae. What on earth attracted him, along with his South Korean, Japanese and British co-chefs, to move to Birregurra, a quintessentially Australian country town 130 kilometres from Melbourne with a population of 800?
“I really like the caring for the garden, the organic aspect of the restaurant,” he explains.
Brae owner Dan Hunter is part of a movement where chefs see their role as much more than transforming raw ingredients into dishes. For Hunter, being a chef starts earlier in the value chain by overseeing the creation of world-class ingredients. Eggs. Olives. Radishes. Turnips. Brae is first and foremost a 12-hectare organic farm. That approach has helped them reap national and international acclaim.
Soon after opening at the end of 2013, Brae was ranked 87th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It now ranks 58th. The day after my visit, Brae was named the best restaurant in Australia by The Australian Financial Review for the second year in a row.
By 12pm I am about to find out the reason for this stellar success, as a four-hour ballet of 16 dishes on today’s set menu begins. The warrigal greens found frozen a few hours earlier have made it to the table, served in a superb puff pastry. The earthy taste from this morning is beautifully balanced with an acidic flavour I can’t quite identify. I learn it is green ants, a favourite of Indigenous communities because they are high in protein.
Is a visitor likely to stumble across a colony of green ants in Brae’s garden? Fortunately, no. When produce requires specialist skills, or a different type of soil or weather, the restaurant taps into a network of close to 30 hand-picked suppliers. Collectively, they supply about half of Brae’s raw ingredients.
One supplier works with Indigenous communities to source the ants. Another is Simon Schulz, whose organic dairy farm is just over an hour’s drive from Brae. The milk from his 500 cows is of such high quality that it makes it to some of Australia’s finest kitchens.
Most suppliers have approached Hunter, rather than the other way around, and the relationship between supplier and restaurant is a key factor in Brae’s success.
“Most of them have a low-scale production and don’t advertise … they know their very personal project will be respected by me,” Hunter says.
The respect goes both ways, as Schulz explains: “Yesterday again, I turned down a supermarket chain who contacted me. I would rather work with people who share my values.”
The partnership between Hunter and Schulz relies on something stronger than the transactional nature of their relationship. They share the same fundamental values and a vision of a sustainable and chemical-free world. Those not aligned with their ethos cannot be Schulz’s customer or Brae’s supplier.
Bruce Stevenson, a supply chain partner at EY, says farmers can teach city businesses about building such symbiotic relationships.
“Since procurement teams stepped up in the ’90s to reduce procurement spend, Australian businesses tend to have a very adversarial relationship with their suppliers,” Stevenson says. “But it has now reached a stage where procurement activities are getting diminishing returns. You can’t get 10 per cent reduction in procurement spend year on year forever.”
Many of these procurement teams need to reinvent themselves and offer value in a different way, he says. Fostering a longer-term culture of partnership with suppliers has many benefits, including less volatility in pricing, higher quality of service and the joint development of successful products and projects. “But frankly,” Stevenson says, “there has been a lot of talk about it but little substance until now.”
To maintain his relationship with Brae, Schulz personally delivers his milk at least once a quarter. It was through these interactions a couple of years ago that he began hearing criticism from environmentally conscious customers about the packaging of his milk.
Hunter remembers: “They were so thoughtful on one hand. They worked in a very pure and natural way. But on the other hand, they were putting their end product in plastic bottles. It did not make sense.”
In response, Schulz began delivering milk to large consumers such as Brae in eight-litre steel vats similar to those used by his grandfather. More importantly, this response to a handful of customers’ complaints prompted a bigger project that could make Schulz a pioneer in the milk industry. In August, he launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money that would allow him to substitute reusable glass bottles for the 12,000 plastic bottles he uses every week for his cafe and retailer deliveries.
Schulz and Hunter are not short of ideas for projects on which to collaborate. Brae is testing one of Schulz’s new cheeses and will soon try meat from his cows. Hunter is excited by the prospect, saying: “Schulz’s cows grow in a chemical-free environment [and] are grass-fed. This should translate into an incredible depth of flavour.”
Theirs is a win-win relationship. Brae is winning by having a say in the development of new product lines; Schulz is winning by reducing the risk in his product launches. And perhaps, most importantly, their collaboration allows them to join forces as they progress towards their shared vision of a sustainable and chemical-free world.
For businesses that want to achieve a true partnership relationship with a supplier, EY’s Stevenson offers two key tips.
First, ensure the desired outcomes of the relationship are aligned by being transparent about the priorities of both organisations. These priorities might be in conflict: the customer might want to increase service quality or reduce costs while the supplier might want their bills to be paid earlier or to diversify their product lines. An upfront and transparent alignment of goals sets the foundation for a commercial model in which both parties win.
Second, empower your supplier. Stevenson says corporations tend to have a misplaced belief that they are better than their suppliers and, as a result, they maintain a tight control on their suppliers’ operations. Trust your suppliers to innovate and seek their expert opinion on your projects.
How do you know when you have achieved a true partnership relationship like Brae and Schulz? “It should not feel like a win for one is a loss for the other.”
Edouard Larpin is a senior corporate strategy and management consultant.