When communities were burning last summer, the nation heeded the call: shop local. Support local stores and keep small business owners going during terrible times.
Across Australia, people headed into tiny shopfronts, drove out to farm gates and ordered home delivery from home-based businesses. It was something, but it didn’t feel nearly enough for Sarah Britz.
“I wanted to do something more,” she tells SBS Food. The web designer from a NSW Central Coast rural property put a call out on social media to volunteer her services to help rural business get online. She was overwhelmed with the response.
“These small businesses needed to get a website presence without all the costs that come with creating their own website,” says Sarah. “Rather than building many different websites, I decided to create one – one central place for everyone to sell from who is a rural or regional small business.”
In August, she teamed up with Lauren Hateley, a clinical psychologist from rural Victoria, and Jenn Donovan, a Riverina-based marketer. Lauren had started a social media initiative helping Victorian small businesses and Jenn had built a large Facebook group, Buy From a Bush Business, which has now grown to over 300,000 strong.
Jenn had started the group as a farmer’s wife wanting to help drought-affected rural small businesses.
“Small businesses were already on the backfoot this year, so we want to help Australians support Australians by getting money circulating in local economies,” says Jenn. “The first thing we had to do was build an easier way for small businesses to sell online.”
A marketplace community
The result is Spend With Us, a marketplace community that expanded the reach of a small local businesses Australia-wide.
“We were living and breathing droughts and bushfires, simply by being rural ourselves,” Sarah says. “We could also see that there wasn’t a platform specifically to support them. Little did we know there was a pandemic around the corner as well!”
The trio tapped into the extraordinary sense of community that the bushfires brought to every Australian. Aussies were thinking about where they were spending their money and they wanted their purchases to make a difference.
“Little did we know there was a pandemic around the corner as well!”
Local goes large
Recognising that “local” had to go large, the team worked hard to get a website up that would give small businesses the ability to band together and sell directly to online consumers. Most of these tiny operators had no idea how to get the word out to consumers about their products and lacked the technical skills necessary to get them online.
“The lack of technological knowledge of business owners was a big hurdle,” admits Sarah. “We needed to create a platform that would enable non-tech-savvy businesses to get an online presence instantly through a simple setup process.”
“The lack of technological knowledge of business owners was a big hurdle,” admits Sarah.
Spend With Us offers a platform to all rural and regional based Australian small businesses. Each business tells their own story on their store page so consumers know exactly who they are supporting when they purchase a product.
“Best year ever”
That means, if you’re looking to send a Christmas hamper, you can purchase directly from a business like Alpine Valleys Fine Foods, based in the Buckland Valley in rural Victoria. They’ve been making their own puddings, fruit cakes and panforte for Christmas hampers since 2005, packed together with artisan products from other local operators.
“It’s been so good to share the love and be able to support other small producers around our area,” says owner Vivian Andersen. “Spend With Us has been amazing. It picked us up after the bushfires and then filled the void when farmers’ markets in Melbourne closed.
“We pack to order and the demand just keeps coming. It’s been amazing.”
“I don’t know what would have happened without this initiative. Instead, we are having our best year ever. My dining room and lounge are filled with boxes – we pack to order and the demand just keeps coming. It’s been amazing.”
Direct from the makers
As well as beautifully packed hampers from suppliers like Alpine Valley Foods or Robin Valley Estate, other foodie gifts direct from the makers include artisan raw honey from suppliers like the mother and daughter team at Colombatti Naturals or organic Two Busy Bees Honey produced by a father and daughter team in Geebung, Queensland.
Boozehound BBQ Sauce from The Alpine Sauce Company, based in Bright, Victoria; Christmas Berry Jam from Infused Catering in Deniliquin, NSW; or a wide range of unique condiments like Butt Tickler Hot Sauce from HotNTasty4U from Bonny Hills, NSW also look good.
Fresh ideas to stay afloat
Gourmet chocolates and sweets, in particular, make a great gift to send. The caramel slice and ‘Better Than Sex’ brownies from Falls Creek business Milch Cafe Bar are high on the list. Normally a bustling hub during both snow and summer seasons, Falls Creek was hit hard by both bushfires in January and lockdowns throughout the year.
Like many businesses forced to close, owner Jaye Fatchen and her team knew they had to think fast to keep the business operational.
“We came up with the idea of selling the brownies online during the bushfire evacuation,” says Jaye. “We stayed on to assist with firefighting duties within the village should the need occur. I spent quite some time standing in the cool room looking at the food that was going to rot with the resort closed.”
“I spent quite some time standing in the cool room looking at the food that was going to rot with the resort closed.”
The team baked 300 brownies that week and offered them through their Facebook page. Slowly, their business idea evolved with more products and the support of their customers and Spend With Us.
“People were very kind and generous,” says Jaye. “They really understood that every single order was helping us keep our business afloat.”
Small purchase, big impact
Many businesses have also chosen to “pay it forward”. Shoppers can purchase from a supplier like Bega Valley Eggs, and have their items gifted to stockists who have been affected by bushfires or coronavirus.
“Every business we supply will be affected by the fires this season in some way, and possibly for months and years to come,” say Bega Valley Eggs owners Tom and Joscelin McMillan, who almost lost everything when two fires swept through their farms on New Year’s Eve 2020. “Every dollar donated and every share of our fundraiser helps make a positive difference to our family and our community.”
For the team at Spend With Us, their greatest wish is that people continue to buy local from small communities. A purchase from a business operating in a rural area puts money into the town itself.
“Supporting rural small businesses can change the town they live in, to ensure that towns survival against all the odds,” says Sarah. “That’s an incredible impact you can have – possibly from something you were going to purchase anyway.”
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