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Rory's Story | Building a family café into school canteen empire

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Rory's Story | Building a family café into school canteen empire

Rory Hope grew up inspired by his parents’ business – and always imagined achieving self-employment too.

In 2003, with managerial experience under his belt, Rory decided to take the plunge and commit to purchasing a fast-food franchise business with wife Louise.

Unfortunately, costs and timeframes blew out significantly in the time it took to organise the purchase. Faced with this growing risk, the Hopes decided to cut their losses and invest their remaining money into a small café lunch bar instead.

“We started out as a very small café lunch bar in Surrey Downs, and though we had experience as far as kitchens and procedures and running shifts, we had no clue around the business side of the model,” Rory said.

“We were learning a lot, but the kind of business it was meant it wasn’t going to yield huge salaries or take us where we wanted to be.

“So, as we went along, we started to put feelers out and try and grow the business that we had.”

The café began a catering service, popular with local sporting clubs and events. However, the biggest ‘aha!’ moment came a few years in, with a request from a local primary school to begin preparing school lunches.

“It enabled us to begin a new business model, using staff in the café to prepare school lunches ahead of lunchtime, and then send them over to the local primary school,” Rory said.

“Word got around, and we slowly popped into a few more primary schools. We developed the model further and expanded into the high school arena.”

With his café already prioritising healthy lunch options, Rory’s business was well-positioned to address the new healthy eating guidelines being implemented across the nation’s school canteens.

“The previous operators were running canteens like accountants, making money from Coke and hot chips,” Rory said.

“When the healthy eating guidelines came in, they had these massive businesses and structures that didn’t have the ability to move and change with what was happening, and their sites became un-profitable.”

Rory saw the huge potential in this market and decided to consolidate his family’s separate ventures – which by 2013 included several cafés as well as the catering and school lunch arms – into ‘Rory’s Group’.

“We decided to shut down all our shopfronts, because they were hard for us to run and were not profit-building,” Rory said.

“We knew that what we were doing in catering and schools was our niche. We had something different to what everybody else was doing.”

Today, Rory’s Group is still catering events, and serving lunch to students and staff in around 80 South Australian schools. The business is driven by a mission to cater and be inclusive for all.

“The canteen spaces that we’re building now, they’re cafés, they’re places in the schools where people come, they meet, they relax, they talk, they learn – there’s so much to them, and what they bring to the community,” Rory said.

After almost 20 years in business, you might expect Rory’s Group to be slowing down and settling into their success. However, Rory is adamant that the secret to his longevity has been constant evolution – and is committed to lifelong learning and ‘adapting weekly’.

“Too many businesses, they just do something because that’s what they’ve always done, but there comes a point where that becomes null and void,” Rory said.

“There are a million other businesses starting up behind you with fresh ideas, so you’ve really got to be the head of your field.

He’s certainly a man of his word, earlier this year upgrading the business site from a 100sqm kitchen and 100 sqm office to a mammoth 2000sqm production and distribution facility.

“We began manufacturing our own products – as that grew, we grew our kitchen bigger,” Rory said.

“Now, where we are in Cavan, we warehouse, go direct to the manufacturer, we have our production facility that’s producing our food, we’re our own distributor, and the retail outlet as well, so we’re the only operation of our type in Australia.

“That’s a lot to settle – it’s almost like re-birthing the business 20 years later.

“But it’s a once-in-every-20-year move, getting ready for our pivot national, so we’re now ready to expand out of the South Australian market and looking interstate.

“The biggest lesson, and it’s taken me until the age of 42 to learn, is that as an entrepreneur and a business owner, there is no end.

“It’s just days and weeks and years of learning and growing – and watching other people grow and develop.”

Rory’s workforce has grown with the business, and now incorporates many of his family members.

“There’s me and my wife, my sister, my brother in-law—my mother and father-in law have just retired,” Rory said.

“My daughter is working for us, managing a canteen while she is undertaking uni.

“My dad, he’s about 83, he’s still driving, and my uncle, they share the load.

“Having your family on board is always great. Families argue but they’re always together, and at the end of the day, they’re people that you can always rely on.

“It can be hard as far as personal relationships go, navigating those boundaries around work and home.

“The way that’s always worked is by having very clear, defined roles in the business—who’s responsible for what—and making sure there’s respect in all areas.

“Home is home, and what happens at work, stays at work. It’s okay to have a bit of banter about work at home, but if there’s problems at work, they’re kept at work for tomorrow.”

For National Family Business Day, Monday 19 September, we asked Rory to reflect on what makes a family business special – and why customers are drawn to ‘mum and dad’ type businesses.

“The difference in dealing with a family business is the love, it’s like the secret sauce,” Rory said.

“Generally, a family business begins with really good morals and culture—it starts with the family and the directors, and it will move its way through the management levels and find its way right out to the customer floor.

“Like all businesses, you can’t get everything right, but when you’re dealing with a family business, they really do care.”

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