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March 19, 2020

Jessie Spiby’s business model has got this situation locked down

Personal and family food security has become a huge anxiety since supermarket shoppers decided to go rogue, but Masterchef graduate and owner of Bowden restaurant My Grandma Ben sees safety in some old fashioned ideas.

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  • Interview: Josh Fanning
  • Pictures: Josie Withers

One of the first people we thought of when we noticed our network starting to buy up big on dry goods from Gaganis Warehouse  was Jessie Spiby.

Jessie got a dose of fame from her appearance on Masterchef (back when it was relevant) and managed to build on the momentum of her message during that time, ‘to be more aware of where your food comes from and how it gets onto your plate.’

Pickling was a particular passion for Jessie, which became a hallmark for her as she introduced her millennial fans to the new (old) concept of making stuff that lasts.

Jessie launched her restaurant My Grandma Ben in 2018 with a goal to minimise waste, in particular plastic waste and food waste.

“Through this we have been able to explore our love of pickling, fermenting and preserving – to make the most of the seasonal bounty,” says Jessie.

Recently returned from overseas, Jessie is currently in self-isolation. Our publisher, Josh Fanning caught up with her via Facebook to talk about her reaction to COVID-19 and how we need to be using this pandemic as an opportunity to reconsider the systems and thinking in hospitality.

Q&A with Jessie Spiby – founder of My Grandma Ben

Jessie Spiby at her Bowden cafe – My Grandma Ben


CityMag: Can you believe / could you anticipate what’s happening right now?
Jessie Spiby: Yes and no.

The cautious business part of me has suspected that at some stage we as a society might have to rethink the way in which we consume and how we do business. However, I could never have predicted this situation. I was expecting it to come about more gradually through climate change, bushfires, floods etc.

That’s the vibe I got when you launched My Grandma Ben – your message was strong and clear that we need to treat food with more respect.
Absolutely. Right from the start of opening the business we had supply issues due to extreme weather. It was a real eye opener and made me more determined to try and do our bit towards food waste.

And this, I understand, comes from / is inspired by Ben?
The café is inspired by all of my grandparents and their way of life. It’s about honouring that type of woman from that day and age. The one who would save the little pieces of string to make one long piece, mend stockings and never wasted food. Ben (Betty) inspired much of my love of vegetables, along with my mother Sally. They both would express such joy at ripe strawberries or tomatoes picked from their plants. The simple pleasures.

My English grandma Grace Spiby was an inspiration too, gutting or plucking the pheasants, ducks or salmon my grandpa would catch and using every last bit. I feel very lucky to have seen these things growing up, albeit confronting for a little city girl at the time.

I had the thought recently that our anger at ‘boomers’ may be misplaced? Of course Betty wasn’t a boomer, but the way we lived ‘back then’ is almost the easiest way for us to progress as a society beyond 2020. I mean, budgeting and living frugally and ‘within our means’.

Supermarkets didn’t invent plastic, but they certainly capitalised on the compartmentalisation and single use, convenience of plastic and the potential for seemingly “perennial” harvests. Seeing the attitude of supermarket shoppers this week has only underlined the detriment this business model has wrought on society.
Absolutely. The way we got to where we are today is a very complicated thing to dissect.

Dissecting my feeling over Boomers is hard! And my opinion has changed recently.

Given the opportunities our parents generation had in regard to growth in the housing market, lots of jobs, great super, great redundancy packages, job security etc., it’s easy to see how we got to where we are. Convenience, bountiful supply of fruit and vegetables all year around, affordable options to replace items rather than fixing items etc. However, I have noticed such a shift recently when attending climate rallies. The boomers have lost trust in our government too, and I can hear the rumblings of change.

My mum is one of these ‘boomers’.

Her and her partner have a property out of Willunga which is pretty well self sufficient (almost). Mum’s garden has had many people well fed this summer and she has a pantry stocked FULL of her apricots, apples, pears, tomatoes, passatta, zucchini relish, jams, and chutneys.

Plus preserving is aesthetically pleasing.
Abso-lutely! Urgh, I bloody love seeing a bench full of jars cooling. Really is my happy place and the part of my life that really makes my heart sing. I dig it.

I am really excited to see the shift that comes from this abrupt change to our ‘current programming’. Yes, it’s a bit scary, and the unknown can make everyone pretty anxious. But it makes you reconsider what you need in life, and for me it’s quite simple.

What are Jessie Spiby’s Top Five ingredients in life?
I want to live more in the now, put my energy into my garden and my family and friends.

Flavour bases!

And what are simple ways we can all feel more in control of our personal food security.
We currently hold seasonal pickling and preserving workshops monthly, vegetarian kimchi and dumpling workshops, all things chilli and have held Silk Scarf dying with Rebecca Sullivan, where we use food waste and flowers to dye fabric.

Coming up (once virus woes are settled) we plan to hold seasonal fruit preserving (think winter citrus and summer stone fruit) workshops.

The cafe also offers community trading. We ask our customers to bring in their excess produce and we either trade coffee or food for small amounts, or for lager hauls we process the produce for them and return half and keep half for the cafe.

We just made about 15kg of umaboshi plum and plum compote courtesy of a lovely customer who brought in a shopping basket of her perfectly ripe Japanese plums!

Our signature marmalade for our homemade crumpets is made fully from donated fruit. Our preserves lasted the whole year, which was amazing. Along with our lemon curd made for catering.

And what are simple steps other restaurants and cafés can consider adopting to make their systems more secure in times of scarcity?
We’re really lucky that we are at Plant 4 so it has been good to work with them on some aspects of our business waste, such as composting. All our napkins and customer food scraps are composted along with kitchen waste.

We reuse the paper bags our bread comes in as bin bags and we generally have the one bag for the week.

We take care to recycle bottles, glass and cardboard, and any soft plastics we have I take to a recycling drop off point.

Moving to our new tenancy (within Plant 4) will allow us more space to create better systems around more bulk buying of things like almonds and walnuts, as we will have more space to store produce.

We continue to sell filter coffee to help in minimising our waste and still caffeinating our guests. We also work with ethical local suppliers of milk and beans.

We also insist that our vegetable supplier uses reusable crates rather than waxed boxes, which makes a big difference in our waste out put. Especially when catering for large wedding numbers and having a largely vegetarian menu.

That’s a lot of little things, which add up to a lot! Do you have new goals in light of the COVID-19 situation?
We would love to take our community trading to the next level and really make the most of what is grown locally. The next phase is to reduce our recycling waste and I would like to implement a worm farm. I really want to be a leader in this space and lead by good example. We’re not perfect, but we do continue to make improvements and look to make better choices each time we’re faced with one.

Make better choices each time we’re faced with a choice to make. It’s simple, but it has defined human progress thus far. Thanks for speaking with CityMag, Jessie.
Thanks! I hope people feel okay heading into this uncertainty. If people are worried or without enough food, they can take home catering from our kitchen to theirs via the website and follow us on Facebook to keep in touch and join our community.

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