When James Willis launched a beta version of his online cake-in-a-jar delivery service in 2016, he sold a couple of hundred gourmet jar cakes out of his home kitchen in Brisbane. Now he’s sold more than 30,000, operates out of a dedicated commercial facility, and has teamed up with one of his childhood heroes – and Australian national treasure – Maggie Beer on a Christmas product just in time for the festive season. How does someone who admits to having “no culinary experience whatsoever” snag a partnership with one of Australia’s culinary icons?
“[You’ve got] to make it a win-win,” says James. “You can go in there with your fingers crossed and hope that they’ll work with you, but in business you’ve got to offer them something that’s going to get them to say ‘Yes, we’d love to jump into this experience with you.’”
Offering an alternative to sending flowers, The Mason Baker lets customers send freshly-baked cakes (flavours include peanut butter, salted caramel, sticky date pudding, raspberry red velvet and gluten-free carrot and candied pecan) to friends and loved ones across Australia. “I saw that there was an opportunity to do something that no-one else was doing and inject a bit of fun into the market,” says James.
When the business first launched, James and his team were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response. “I had a couple of staff who were helping me and we all kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a bit daunting. What have we gone and gotten ourselves into?’” says James. He decided to inject more capital into the business and take it full-time. “We’re operating in our own space now and filling orders every day of the week, which is really exciting.”
James has been a fan of Maggie Beer since he was a child, when he would watch her cooking show on TV, and he has long nursed a vision of collaborating with her on a Christmas product. A chance meeting at a food market in Brisbane last year kicked things off. “She came up and spoke to me and was really interested in my product,” says James. “We chatted for quite some time and then it was a year later that I actually reached out to her and her team and pitched the idea of collaborating on the Christmas dessert.”
The pair have created a Christmas pudding jar cake accompanied by Maggie’s famous brandy butter. “You walk into Coles and Woollies and there’s always the traditional Christmas pudding that you find on the shelf that they’re flogging for three or four dollars a pop and it just seems a bit monotonous,” says James. “In every box, we do handwritten cards and there’s an instructional menu to walk you through how to have these beautiful Christmas puddings ready to go in two minutes.”
While The Mason Baker operates a different business model to the Maggie Beer brand, James was inspired by Maggie’s business acumen. “Maggie took a farmhouse shop that she had in the Barossa and grew it into one of Australia’s most iconic food brands,” he says. “Only a certain type of person can dream that stuff up and then go out and actually do it.”
And what’s it like working with Australian food royalty? “Wonderful,” says James. “I call it ‘the Maggie magic.’ I feel that magic resonate throughout her entire business and it’s been perpetuated through the people she employs, so it’s been really fun working with her and her team.”
For those hoping to replicate his success, James advises startups to be discerning about who to collaborate with. “When you have a new, fun product, everyone will want to work with you, but it might not be the right fit,” he says. And while collaborations are an exciting part of running a business, it’s a lot of work too. “There’s the hard nights of slogging away and the big days of working where you think ‘Is what I’m doing viable? Is it correct? Am I following the right path?’” says James. “But it’s gotten to a point now where I can really look back with a smile and say it’s all been worthwhile.”