When it came to saving her staff, Victoria Whitelaw had to think outside the box.
Once upon a time you’d find Victoria Whitelaw loading flowers into her van at the morning markets. Lots of flowers. As the florist of choice for Melbourne’s most prestigious corporate events and venues – from the Melbourne Cup Carnival to the National Gallery of Victoria and the Grand Hyatt Melbourne – Victoria Whitelaw Beautiful Flowers was supplying 40 to 50 events a week.
These days, though, Whitelaw is more likely to be loading 300 kilograms of pumpkins or watermelons into her truck. “I’ve gone from servicing a luxurious clientele to packing veggies,” she smiles. “And it’s still fabulous.”
Whitelaw made the move into home-delivered produce boxes when the shutdown of public gatherings saw a 65 per cent decline in her core business, leaving her 23 staff in jeopardy.
“One event we did for Spring Carnival last year had 17,500 bunches of flowers – just in one marquee. And we did over 40 marquees last year. That gives you an idea of the size of the business,” she says. “And suddenly, that side of things was all gone. I went into survival mode and the first thing I thought was, ‘I’ve got to save my staff.’ I’ve put my heart and soul into this business for 16 years and by hook or by crook I was not going to lose it. It’s my life.”
The produce box idea came to her one weekend and she presented her business plan to her daughter and operations manager, Jessica, on the Monday. That afternoon she organised a product photoshoot, the online store was being built and logos designed. By Thursday night, The Veggie Box by Victoria Whitelaw went live.
Whitelaw marketed the business on Facebook and Instagram and by using Google Ad words. She also organised (gasp) letterbox drops. “My staff were a bit aghast at that because it’s such an old fashioned thing but I figured everybody is at home. They will look at their mail.”
She also knew that the vast majority of her orders would be online so she concentrated on making the website as good as it could be. “I was relying on every single sale. And it had to happen fast. I had wages to pay the next week. We spent a lot more time promoting it than we have my flower business because this is a brand-spanking new business. We had to get instant traction.”
Within four weeks they’d sold more than 1000 boxes. “When the first order came through, I thought, ‘Oh this is a miracle!” she recalls. “I was just so happy to hear the phone ringing.”
As well as fresh fruit and veg, there are fridge boxes – with Victorian milk, eggs, butter, yoghurt, creams and vintage cheese – and pantry boxes with herbs, pressed olive oil, honey and other artisan goods. “The bread is from an Italian bakery across from my store in Toorak Road. The eggs are from a young guy in the Goulburn Valley. I’m trying to keep it as local, as Victorian as possible. There’s a lot more camaraderie between local businesses wanting to look after each other at the moment.”
Whitelaw also marketed special Anzac Day and Mother’s Day boxes – with champers, croissants and flowers for mum – all delivered by her regular drivers, redeployed florists and the four extra staff she’s hired.
“We get so many emails and calls from people saying how much they love it. It’s made me realise that I’ve made the right decision. We’re going to be safe. Just a simple thing like beautiful produce has meant so much to people.”
It’s also changed the way she does business. “I get profit-and-loss reports now weekly. The business part of it has become so strong because I need to know every few days exactly where I’m at,” says Whitelaw. “Every decision I make at the moment has to be a good, solid decision. I was a single mother and that survival instinct runs deep. You’ve got to be ready to hop in that ring and just go for it.”
And survive it will, if Whitelaw has her way. “The business has grown so quickly in a month. It’s been immediately profitable and I can’t let that go.” Even so, she is still pinching herself a little. “The last thing I thought I’d be is a fruit and veg merchant. I love beautiful flowers but now I’m starting to love beautiful fruit and veg, too.”