If you’re thinking of launching your own business, or you just like hearing success stories, our chat with Gather n Graze’s cofounders may be the inspo you needed to get started!
Jen Kapadia and Marilyn Hew met at a playgroup in Clear Water Bay and bonded immediately over their mutual love of food and entertaining. They launched the now successful, new concept catering company, Gather n Graze, where they create mouthwatering, feast-for-the-eyes grazing tables for families, friends or work colleagues to congregate, share stories and enjoy healthy, delicious food. We think their story is inspirational, and hope other mums who are thinking of launching their own business do as well!
Tell us a little about yourself
Jen: I am Korean American. I was born in Korea and was adopted at 6 months old and grew up in fabulous Ohio. When I moved to Hong Kong I never imagined I would live in Asia for as long as I have which is eight years. My husband, Fee, and I met taking a yoga course together. He sent me a Facebook message asking for some pranayama tips (I shouldn’t probably be telling everyone, ha!). Fee is from the UK and is half Irish, half Indian, so my two kids are a true international blend. My son, Kai, is turning 5 and my daughter, Mya, is 2.5. Before meeting Marilyn, I was working as a yoga instructor and have a fitness background.
Marilyn: I am Chinese-Malaysian-Australian, born in Malaysia and immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, when I was 4 years old. I am an industrial designer, and work opportunities brought me to Hong Kong in 2009, although I was stationed in Kuala Lumpur for the first year. I met my husband in Hong Kong and travelled the world for two years. We married in 2011 and have two children; Erik is 5 years old and Thea is 1.5 years old. I’m an entrepreneur at heart and like to always be doing things. I have owned food businesses, an events company, cofounded a tech startup and now run a catering business with Jen.
How did you meet?
J: Marilyn and I met at our sons’ playgroup in Clear Water Bay. There were a few moms who connected through the same school and we all have been friends and a great support to one another ever since. We would often organise play dates, parties, and dinners together as a group. I always thought of Marilyn as the gorgeous, energetic, go-to mum who you could always rely on to be there.
M: I remember the first day I met Jen, this beautiful woman in her trademark white T-shirt and jeggings. I remember thinking that we would be really close one day and then the next week she moved from the Chinese-stream playgroup to the English one! We didn’t really have much connection except we sporadically bumped into each other at the school playground. Our two energetic boys often found each other at the tyers, spinning the wheel on the big slide and just basically running around everywhere else where there is space. As destiny would have it, we reunited because a mutual girlfriend and Jen lived in the same village.
What inspired your idea to start a business? And tell us about Gather n Graze.
M: Gather n Graze is actually two businesses. One part is the catering service and the other part is the cracker business. Before Jen and I reunited, I often would throw birthday parties, Christmas parties, dinner parties, BBQ parties, Swedish traditions, Chinese festivals. There is always something to celebrate. Jen, the Queen of Snacks, spent her spare time conjuring up unique recipes, which is now the signature crisps of Gather n Graze. When Jen and I reunited, we found that our passion to cook, bake and entertain made all our subsequent social gatherings more elaborate. I’d be like, “Jen, I want to do this,” and then her mind would start whizzing and planning. With my past experience in events, I guess I have more of a macro view of things, thinking of drinks, how guests are greeted, entertainment, lighting etc. Jen looks into the details right down to where to place an edible flower or which size lantern to hang over the grazing table. Our family and friends convinced us to go all out, to cook and entertain as a business and here we are!
A big part of Gather n Graze is to support other budding entrepreneurs by providing a new platform for brand awareness. Companies such as Made By Pen sent us its Field board which we use as props. We feature macaroons by Little Miss Macarons, artisan sourdough bread by Baked Bistro, Moroccan cookies by Lalla and many more.
J: Marilyn and I are passionate about providing the best tailor-made catering service for our clients. We have found that the biggest challenge in organising any party of event is the food. Fortunately for us it is what we are most passionate about providing – the best quality food and atmosphere that you would provide for your guests personally if you had the time or ability.
What have been the biggest challenges in finding the work/life balance?
J: It has been a long time since I worked full time, so my biggest challenge has been how to give the same quality and attention to my children and husband [with a limited amount time]. Gather n Graze started as almost a hobby but has quickly grown into a thriving business in a very short time, so it has taken time for all of us to adjust to me just being around as much.
M: As with any new business, we knew we had to put in 101% of our time. Our work meant that we were often on the road meeting new clients, doing site visits or working in the kitchen. The time spent with my husband and kids is quality time. Whether I’m playing, reading, talking, cooking, doing homework with the kids, it’s just us. I believe in spending quality time together even if it’s in pockets of 15 minutes throughout the day.
What advice do you have for other mums who would like to start a business but are worried it will be too hard?
J: My advice is if you don’t try you will never know. Gather n Graze started naturally with an idea. We both felt that there was no harm in trying so we still keep that same attitude and take it one day at a time. It will always be busy and starting a business is honestly very challenging. But, when you have the passion for what you are pursuing you never lose you will always be learning. Having the right partner has made all of the difference. We both have our good days and bad so having that one person you can rely on has kept us going and made it so enjoyable.
M: Being an entrepreneur is time consuming but the rewards are far greater than being an employee. I promise you, you will be tired. But there are no failures in doing your own business, just learning. It’s important to be passionate about your business because when you are enjoying the process, it’s not work. Find a partner(s) who challenges you and brings something different to the partnership, whether its experience in business, [creativity] or [financial expertise]. Keep communicating, keep asking questions, keep innovating with each other. When you are ready to grow, employ staff who are smarter than you. There is no other place better than Hong Kong to start a business. Not only is it a great way to test your product/service, we are fortunate to have helpers!
Sustainability and eco-friendly are two words that are very popular in Hong Kong at the moment. How does Gather n Graze fit in?
M: We always invest in produce that tastes good. That means selecting grapes, strawberries, chips, raw nuts that are more expensive. The aim is for our guests to eat all the food. The reality is there is a lot left over. Any unconsumed food are donated to charitable organisations such as the Chicken Soup Foundation.
What do you hope Gather n Graze will do for Hong Kongers?
M: Introduce new cuisines, try new flavours, learn new tastes. Showcase local small businesses and their produce. Our crackers are made in Hong Kong. Put Hong Kong on the map of healthy eating.
Do your kids help you? What do they do that inspires you at work?
J: My kids are the perfect taste testers and little chefs. If you know my kids, you would know that they absolutely love to eat (knock on wood!). I have had Kai and Mya both cooking since they could hold a spoon, and it has reflected on their appreciation of food. Kai loves to bake, so when I am testing out new baked recipes he is my go-to sous chef. Mya is our little cracker monster. She absolutely loves our crackers. When testing at home I need to make sure she doesn’t take her little hands and grab freshly rolled crackers because she will eat them even raw! Watching my kids appreciate the entire process of cooking whole foods has really inspired me to pursue Gather n Graze. I want to offer people delicious gorgeous food that I cook for my own family.
M: My son Erik takes after my husband, the life of the party, laughing and being social. I’m hoping that my daughter takes after me when it comes to food appreciation.
Where do you get most of your ingredients?
J: We source seasonally and locally as much as possible. A lot of our ingredients come from EcoFarm. Most of our fruit from overseas, and use imported meats and cheeses from Italy, Spain, France and New Zealand. Our supplier, Eat the Kiwi, has some wonderful, unique products and we always use its edible flowers from the Secret Garden.
M: Part of our vision of Gather n Graze is to support local businesses like our own, so often many of the ingredients on our tables are made from local bakers or artisans. Baked Founder Chef Zahir supplies all of our custom artisan breads. His sourdough is phenomenal and the best we have found in Hong Kong. Little Miss Macarons founder Anita creates our macarons, which have been the most complimented treat on our tables. We also partner with our own local deli Chez Raymond de Paris for meats and cheeses.
Jen, you’re a vegan. Does that get in the way of preparing meals for others?
Interestingly Marilyn and I prepare and style the food we naturally cook ourselves, so it has not been an issue. My family also is not vegetarian and I have always prepared their meat dishes. For me I have been interested in vegetarianism since I was quite young. Meat has always been the last food I chose to eat as a child because I actually didn’t like the taste or texture. Over the years I have considered the ethics for my own personal choices, but I understand that we all choose what we eat for different reasons. I hope that the vegan dishes I offer through Gather n Graze will inspire and impress people to consider how a plant-based diet and dish can rival even the best meat based meal.