Vol. 16
A Trip Down Bakery Lane with Lulu Purnell

Lulu Purnell

January 2016

A testament to hard work, drive and determination, Lulu Purnell is founder of I Heart Brownies, a brownie phenomenon. Taking her simple idea and turning it into one of Brisbane’s favourite gluten-free desserts. As we learn in Volume 16, I Heart Brownies wasn’t her first entrepreneurial idea, nor has it been the overnight success it may seem to passers-by.

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Lulu Purnell--- 20 October 2015

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you do?

I run a soon to be brownie empire! I Heart Brownies. We make brownies, we have heaps of very loyal customers. That’s pretty much what we do, we bake!

Where did your love of baking come from?

Definitely having dessert after dinner every night as a child helped, loving baking anything sweet. I think the breakthrough really came with this amazing recipe. When I developed that and teaming that with the heart shape at a time when gluten free was just gaining momentum in the market place. All of that put together has put us where we are now. It’s a bit of a combination of being in the right place at the right time with a great product and having a whole lot of luck.

"The breakthrough really came with this amazing recipe. When I developed that and teaming that with the heart shape."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 16

I Heart Brownies hasn’t been your first entrepreneurial idea, what drives this, why not the normal nine to five?

I’ve never been excited by the nine to five and I admit that I did it for about eight months and that was pretty much as much as I could stand. That’s the amount of nine to five I’ve done in my lifetime. I think that regardless of whether something made money or not that wasn’t really of any interest to me. I could virtually live on nothing if I needed to. Having-- being able to spend my time and energy devoted to a project I was really excited by was the motivation, and not all of those have proven to be successful. Not only not financially successful but something people were not interested in taking up as much as I was. When I Heart Brownies came along it was just another in a long line of ideas, and this one took off.

So, you know, it’s like you fall off a bike, you just keep getting up, you fall off again, you get up again, you fall down, you get up again. Something’s going to stick at some point - and we’re still running with this idea. I don’t know how long it’s going to last for. I certainly hope we’ve got at least another ten years of it being popular but I’m also extremely aware that it can go as quickly as it came.

"I’ve never been excited by the nine to five."
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I Heart Brownies has come a long way since its inception. Can you talk to the progression from kitchen to bakery?

I never had a business plan and I really want to say that from the outset because I don’t necessarily believe that trying to plan your business from the first day that you plan to start operation until five years down the track is a worthwhile thing to do. I think that you start off with something very, very small, and you see if people like the idea I guess because what you think is a fantastic idea-- it may be a great idea but people may not be very interested in it or it might just not be the idea for the time and place. If someone created the corset now, would it sell like it did [laughs] like it did when the corset was first brought out? You know, it’s not for the time now.

It’s a very different business now to what it was three years ago when I started. I would hand make every single brownie, I would deliver them myself, I would do all of my own bookkeeping and accounts. I’d go and set up the market stalls and sell the brownies myself so I was there right from the beginning of the production, even to picking up the ingredients right through to that very final stage of selling them.

As we’ve grown bigger I’ve had to relinquish some of that control which is quite difficult and trusting someone else or a team of people to treat your product the same way you would, and to educate them to understand the reasons behind how you got to certain processes to the one that you are at right at this point in time is very, very challenging. I’m certainly not the same person-- personality wise. When I first started I never anticipated-- I couldn’t anticipate the direction it would take over these three years. So every time there was a step that happened to propel the business forward or to take it a step sideways, it was always a decision I made really much on the fly. There’s no driving idea behind me that I wanted to be selling this many brownies making this much money at this point in time. It was all very much based on my instinct and I’ve learnt from my mistakes and that’s-- I think a very important thing to do when you are running a business-- is to recognise when something isn’t working and shift direction or shift your gaze sideways and really don’t waste any more time or money or resources on something that’s not working.

I have one regret and that is that I haven’t recorded this process on paper. The learnings have been so amazing that I would have loved to have been able to share all the steps that I’ve gone through during this process with people who may be starting a business, and I’m going to try and go back a little bit and do it and maybe continue it from this point on but I really, really regret not having started that from the very beginning. Documenting that history, that really rich experience.

"You fall off a bike, you just keep getting up, you fall off again, you get up again, you fall down, you get up again."
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Now that a small simple idea has grown so much, do you feel pressure now to keep getting bigger and bigger with rising operational requirements?

There was a very big leap when we moved from a business where our rent was fairly low and we had a few staff to when we moved into the shop (in Brisbane Bakery Lane) and our expenses really sky-rocketed. It’s not just the rent on the premises that you are paying, it’s paying staff in a premises from 7am to 6pm, seven days a week and more than one. So, when we were working previously, we may go in the kitchen four days a week, now it’s a seven day a week venture and for the first three or so months, because we’ve been open since April now, that was very stressful and I don’t feel like I got a lot of sleep [laughs]. There was quite a lot of stress in being responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars in wages every week. When you’re the person who eight people rely on for their sole income, you’re not just working for yourself. I didn’t get paid for a long time and everyone else still gets paid before I do, so…

I don’t feel stressed about it anymore. I feel like I’ve taken on that responsibility and I’m quite proud of it. I feel empowered by that responsibility now and my job is primarily to keep-- not only to keep everyone else and myself employed but to make sure that everyone works together as a team to provide the best product and the best service that we all can, yeah.

"As we’ve grown bigger I’ve had to relinquish some of that control which is quite difficult and trusting someone else or a team of people to treat your product the same way you would."
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The Bakery Lane project in Brisbane is interesting, why did you choose that location for I Heart Brownies?

I looked at a lot of properties for a long time. I love the atmosphere that markets provide and I’ve been involved with a lot of markets for over ten years and so I really wanted something that had that community base to it and it’s very difficult to find that in a retail environment. When I found out about Bakery Lane, it was still a dirt patch, nothing had been built. I first saw the project in person when they laid the ground cement floors and I knew when I saw the plans for the first time that it would be a little haven off a very busy main road in an area that’s young and vibrant with lots of nightclubs and very busy.

However, I knew that the other people who were coming in here were small businesses who were taking their first leap into retail trade and that we were all more or less in the same boat, and we could support each other - and we do! - and I absolutely love it. We need each other and we learn from each other.

"I don’t feel stressed about it anymore. I feel like I’ve taken on that responsibility and I’m quite proud of it. I feel empowered by that responsibility now"
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I Heart Brownies is both artisanal and progressive. Do you feel I Heart Brownies is leveraging or leading the growing foodie culture in Australia as more and more consumers are looking for something special?

I would say a little bit of both. Consumers who now are a little bit more aware or a lot more aware of what they’re eating and who they’re buying their products from and are holding the people who make their food to quite a high standard. I have the same standards and I’m really proud to be able to offer something that is absolutely handmade and know that when we are selling it, we can say, “We only use the best ingredients, we’re not filling it with flavouring or colourings that aren’t natural. We’re not putting preservatives in it. You’re getting the absolute best product that you can have at the best price because we respect you, because we’re like you.” I think as these consumers grow, this demographic is really going to take over the majority of consumers and we’re in a position to support and encourage that to continue.

I Heart Brownies is very active on Social Media, how do you find it as a means to raise awareness?

Yeah, I’m amazed by social-media, it-- even though I wasn’t in business when you had to pay for newspaper or magazine advertisements, I certainly think about how they coped in that time. Today, we have spent virtually no money at all on advertising. We’re lucky enough to have a product which people really love to post photos of on social-media and I didn’t anticipate that we would get so much traction from that-- from that heart shape - but we have, and I’m humbled by it. I’m humbled when I see how much people-- and hear how much people love the product because unless you’re, I guess-- in times gone by-- unless you were talking to someone face to face, you couldn’t get the feedback that you’re getting now because people are putting everything out there, there’s no holds barred-- you know, you’re not having to do a survey to find out what people think, you can go online at any minute of the day and find out and there’s definitely a downside to that.

People are prepared at the drop of a hat to go online and say that something’s bad as much as they are that something’s good. There are no repercussions to that for the person, but to the business that can be extremely damaging, as it can be extremely good for business if it goes in a positive way. I find that that sort of feedback and those sorts of opinions that are so easily and widely available, keeps us accountable for producing a really good product and it keeps us on our toes. I’m really glad it’s there!

"Consumers who now are a little bit more aware or a lot more aware of what they’re eating and who they’re buying their products from and are holding the people who make their food to quite a high standard."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 16

What’s next for Lulu and I Heart Brownies?

I have a lot of what I think are great ideas. Not a lot of them pan out [laughs]. I’ve had an idea for a long time that I really would like to sell my brownies in vending machines. It’s a bit of a Japanese thing and I really love how much Japan has soaked up that culture. I’m not quite sure if Australia’s ready for-- or Brisbane is ready for that, but I’m going to try it. I’m going to have some cutesy pink vending machines wherever we can get them in so people can get their brownie fix twenty-four seven and they can be stocked daily with fresh brownies.

Find Lulu at I Heart Brownies

Proofreading by Cinzia Forby & Luke Yates. Photography by Erin Kelly.