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Ann Cummings, Newcastle’s Pudding Lady, on running a seasonal business

Ann Cummings, Newcastle’s Pudding Lady, on running a seasonal business

Making sweet-tooths see an old favourite in a new light may not be the same as reinventing the wheel, but for Ann Cummings it’s a way to keep Newcastle’s Pudding Lady, a seasonal business, busy year-round.

Talking to Ann Cummings one week from Christmas, you’d be hard-pressed to catch her at a quiet moment. As part-owner of Newcastle’s Pudding Lady, the weeks leading up to Christmas are more than a little hectic. “Oh mate, it’s crazy!” Cummings exclaims.

Try again a few months later, and it’s another story, as Cummings battles to deal with downturn of such a seasonal business. “It’s very hard to build a business that focuses on one day of the year,” she explains. Despite the good name and reputation of Newcastle’s Pudding Lady products—just try and find a pudding on the shelves a few days out from Christmas—there is no escaping the fact that its star product, steeped in tradition, only comes into its own during the festive season.

Although initially involved in the business in a consulting capacity, Cummings and her brother, Peter Watson, stepped in to run the company when the original owners decided to retire after 20 years in business. “At some point, no matter how good your business is, when you’re 75 years old you have to actually hang up your apron,” Cummings confides, chuckling. “What we saw in this business was a huge opportunity, where all the elements that had been put in place were right, the product was good, the reputation was good.” What it needed, they saw, was some innovation and new direction.

Extending Product Life

Taking over an established business comes with its own challenges, says Cummings. With the puddings already proving popular, she and Watson didn’t want to damage a solid reputation, so they focused on extending the life of their product. But this also proved problematic, with the word pudding being associated with Christmas Day, the festive season, and custard and ice-cream: “The three things we have to move away from,” Cummings says.

Enter FruitFusions, a more fruit-based pudding dessert. “We took out the flavours that made the pudding Christmas, things like sultanas and currants and raisins, and put in a range of different flavours.” Cummings explains.

The new range includes puddings based around apple and ginger, mango and summer berries which she believes taps into the new trend for quality dine-in experiences. “FruitFusions was set up for a much younger contemporary market that is cash-rich but time-poor, and looking for a quality product.” Another new line of puddings harks back to a familiar favourite, with the Chocolate Old Fashioned using chocolate to replace the Christmas flavour.

One look at the packaging of FruitFusions and you can see that as part of challenging the concept of a traditional pudding, Cummings and Watson have changed its physical shape. While traditional puddings remain in the familiar bowl shape, FruitFusions come in log form, packaged in a vertical tube. But Cummings and Watson weren’t just mixing things up for the sake of it; packaging and design were part of a carefully worked out brief. “It had to be something that, because of its long shelf life, had a small footprint on the retailers’ shelf,” Cummings explains. “It also had to be something that looks spectacular.”

Initially, it took a while to convince consumers that this new approach was worth sampling. Even at early consumer shows, Cummings jokes, she and Watson used to try to see how long even they could go before mentioning the word ‘pudding’. However, the range has fast become popular with customers and retailers such as David Jones. It scooped quite a few prizes at a national gift fair last year, beating off competition such as the Byron Bay Cookie Company and Dick Smith Foods. “When this little specialist pudding company comes out and wins, it is pretty good stuff. We were absolutely stoked.”

Seasonal Work

Active ImageThe success so far has meant Newcastle’s Pudding Lady now operates for 10 months of the year, as opposed to six months, when the business changed hands. The business runs with a core team of eight, and builds up to 15 around the Christmas period, where business almost triples.

Cummings shuts-up shop in January, with work picking up gradually over the next two months, returning to full swing in April. This does make staffing an issue. “With a seasonal workforce you run a high risk of staff turnover because people want more than you can offer.” Although the aim is to run the business without a break, at present Cummings is thankful a lot of staff do return, and enjoy the time off at the start of the year. “Hopefully by providing a good workplace, they’re prepared to forego [a full working year], and if I give them lots and lots of work towards the end of the season, it sort of balances out.”

With experience as a consultant and a passion for business planning, Cummings was well prepared to take on the challenges a seasonal business demands. Putting in place a strong, detailed plan, with realistic expectations, is the first step. “The actual investment in product starts happening March, April, May and goes right through to Christmas,” Cummings explains. “So it’s very cash-negative for months and months, and you’ve got to be confident in your sales and where they are going to come from and not just sit back and hope like crazy the phone rings.”

Although the business is technically more than 20 years old, Cummings and Watson view it as one that’s only beginning because they’ve changed the breadth of the business to such a degree. She admits viewing an established business as a start-up does confuse the process a little, but it’s been useful in reshaping the business and putting it on track to being open all year.

And there are plenty of ideas for the future, but Cummings doesn’t want to give too much away too soon. “FruitFusions isn’t where this little black duck is supposed to stop; we’ve got lots of plans. Watch this space and come and talk to me in 12 months,” she laughs. In fact, she laughs a lot, and talks repeatedly about how much fun she’s having in this business of giving the humble pudding an extreme makeover. Not only is her passion infectious, by the time we finish speaking of all things dessert-related, I’m suddenly very hungry. Be warned, if you’re a dessert buff like me, their website is torture.

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