The Finest Quality

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-By George Khera

With the goal of pursuing a PhD in zoology, Babak Hadi headed to Australia to specialise in Australian freshwater fish; this was after completing a B.Sc. in Marine Ecology at the University of California. Born in Tehran, Iran, and raised in Hamburg, Germany, the Managing Director and Founder of Black Pearl Epicure found his early life influenced by Bavarian and Middle Eastern cuisines – and by decadent caviar sandwiches. Coming from a unique background to be sure, Mr Hadi soon saw an opportunity to combine his marine expertise with his love of quality food; he saw a gap in the Australian market for caviar and other fine foods, and sought to fill it. “The quality of caviar then was rather wanting,” said Mr Hadi, and in 1990, he founded Black Pearl Caviar in Fortitude Valley, Queensland.

When hit with the government’s ban on the importation of caviar, however, a name change – and a shift in the company’s focus – was called for. Trading as Black Pearl Epicure, Mr Hadi expanded the company’s range to include high quality Australian produce and imported delicacies such as truffles, foie gras, chocolate, mustards, cheeses, meats, poultry and game, saffron, French butter, oils and vinegars. Black Pearl quickly grew into one of the country’s leading distributors of these gourmet products. Now that the ban has been lifted, Mr Hadi is back to selling his much loved caviar, among other top-end products.

At first, it was a bit of a one man show, with Mr Hadi making good use of some family connections to sell caviar as a means of putting himself through graduate school. “I started off selling caviar to delicatessens, restaurants, and hotels,” says Mr Hadi. “One thing led to another, and within two years we had become Australia’s largest distributor of caviar. We were the first company,” he says, “that dealt with caviar as a specialist… the only true experts when it came to caviar in Australia.” The company is now known for having a wide variety of products, including many items “that you simply can’t get anywhere else.”

Though the company’s rise was quick, it was by no means a sure thing. A key factor to the firm’s success, says Mr Hadi, was raising the profile of gourmet foods in the Australian marketplace. Many of the top-end products Mr Hadi sought to work with were unfamiliar to consumers, and he found himself having to work hard to build trust between supplier and consumer. Having a depth of experience in the field certainly helped. As Mr Hadi puts it, “We are experts in the field; we are experts in everything we sell.”

While the company strives to offer very good value for its products, it does not operate on a price-driven model. “We assess products simply on the level of quality,” asserts Mr Hadi, and this – the true value of a very high-quality food product – is another area where educating the public has proven necessary. “We accept that [higher quality items will cost more] with cars, we accept it with wine, but somehow we think great food can be cheap.” Of course, the reality is we get what we pay for, and Black Pearl aims to offer only the best.

The company now employs thirty people, and has “grown on a multifaceted level.” Black Pearl Epicure is described on the company’s website as a “premium food institute,” and indeed the business comprises not only the wholesale distribution centre, but also a retail showroom and a renowned cooking school all located in adjoining warehouses in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley district. Mr Hadi himself has taught a number of food classes, including the Melbourne and Brisbane Masterclasses, and the cooking school serves as a venue for seminars and hands-on learning.

In-depth knowledge of the products is a critical element of the company’s success. Staff at Black Pearl receive extensive training in all the products the company offers, and soon become experts (benefiting from the opportunity to taste the products along the way) themselves. Many of the company’s sales staff are actually professional chefs, and are able to communicate effectively with customers about products. In making these products more accessible to the everyday consumer, the cooking school has had a strong role to play. “We saw a huge jump in numbers in the cooking school after the ‘MasterChef’ series aired on television,” says Mr Hadi, explaining that the series encouraged many Australians to experiment more with cooking at home. “Cooking classes,” he says, “are still booming,” and are proving to be a great way to share knowledge about interesting products and how to use them.

The company has benefited from some broader trends within the industry. “The gourmet industry has been on a high for a long time,” says Mr Hadi. Seven years ago brought the most rapid expansion: “people were really enjoying quality foods… spending more time cooking, selecting ingredients more carefully, being aware of what they were buying… and generally upgrading the food they were eating on a daily basis. Black Pearl was perfectly positioned [to meet the needs of the market] at that point,” and experienced a very steep growth curve during this period, up until the GFC. Now, the restaurant and retail markets have slowed considerably, though Black Pearl still enjoys moderate growth in these sectors.

Dairy sales, too, remain quite strong – Black Pearl, of course, focuses on top quality “handmade, cloth-bound cheeses, real artisan products,” and sources them from Australia and abroad. Though the dairy industry is particularly vulnerable to competition from cheap imports, Mr Hadi isn’t worried; most of his competitors lack the in-depth know-how of the Black Pearl staff, and he expects the advantage conferred to competitors by the high Australian dollar to be short-lived.

Mr Hadi stresses the importance of a holistic, “bird’s-eye” training programme. It is key, he says, to “avoid compartmentalisation” – all employees at Black Pearl are members of a unified team. Being truly customer service-focused is also a strength. The company “will always go the extra mile to make sure that our customers are always happy.” This may mean working with clients to help them through the ordering process, being flexible with order dates and deadlines, and bringing a personal touch to every interaction with a customer.

An unexpected benefit of ensuring that all customers are catered for is that Black Pearl is able to boast a very diverse and dynamic staff. Mr Hadi recognises that many customers are more comfortable dealing with someone closer to their own age, and as a result the Black Pearl staff represents a very broad range of ages. This dynamic is particularly important in the gourmet sector, where it would be easy to feel intimidated by the products; at Black Pearl, customers can relate to the staff and engage with them comfortably, while still reaping the benefits of their extensive expertise.

Mr Hadi’s – and his company’s – philosophy of true customer service was actually informed by his experiences in California as an undergraduate student. There, he says, he encountered such appreciative and attentive customer service, even at large chain stores, that he began to believe that was how all customers should be treated. He has since sought to emulate that experience here in Australia and bring the same level of service to Black Pearl’s customers. The trust between vendor and customer is a critical part of the equation, and it goes both ways; just as you would raise an eyebrow at being offered a Rolls Royce for a thousand dollars, so too, he says, should customers question being offered a 20-year-old Balsamic for twenty dollars. At Black Pearl Epicure, customers can feel confident that they are getting the very best quality for their money. It helps that the firm benefits from long relationships with several partners and suppliers, but at the same time, Black Pearl does prioritise quality. Its suppliers must be able to deliver a quality product and service at every turn, living up to the standards that Black Pearl has set for itself and that its customers have come to rely on.

Ultimately, Mr Hadi’s passion for his work is undeniable, and it has enabled him to achieve something rare: to build a business which refuses to compromise on quality, principle… or taste.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:52 PM AEDT