Herb Smith: From officer to entrepreneur

Herb Smith: From officer to entrepreneur

After a successful career as both a police officer and an Aboriginal community project officer for the New South Wales government, Herb Smith has built another successful career for himself with his business Dreamtime Tuka. The brand specialises in baking treats highlighting native ingredients that are sold throughout the country to commercial brands including BP and QANTAS. Baking Business sat down with Herb to have a chat about his journey to get to Dreamtime Tuka and what the future holds for both him and the company.

I had always had an idea about a business. I had never had experience with a business! But I had this idea about Indigenous-flavoured foods, because I grew up with my grandmother and my mother cooking Indigenous food for us,” Herb says.

“At the time, there was a real interest in Indigenous foods at some of the big restaurants in Sydney, and there was more of an opportunity to put Indigenous foods at the forefront. So I had this idea, it was something I was really excited about. I thought, ‘What shall I make?’ And I thought about what I would like. And I like cake—anything sweet!”

So, in 2015, Herb decided to register a company that would promote native ingredients through the supply of baked goods, especially in the corporate sphere.

At that time, many companies were looking to expand their offerings and increase the Native products that they supplied. This, Herb says, was the perfect market for him to expand into.

“I decided to register as a business. I wanted to build a company that would provide not just a couple of boxes, but boxes and cartons and pallets,” he says.

“But before I registered the company, I knew I needed a business name.”

And so Herb hunted around for a name that would perfectly showcase the message that he was trying to promote. In the end, the idea came to him from his past.

“I wanted the name to mean a lot to me. I was sitting in my office one day, doing a bit of work. I sat back in the chair and started to think about it, and I was thinking about the days when I was growing up as a young person,” Herb says.

“My grandfather used to come to the door, late afternoon when the sun was going down. And he’d put his head out the door, where I was playing with my cousins, and he’d say ‘Come on inside, have a feed of tucker, get a full belly, go to bed and you’ll have sweet dreams.’ And I straight away thought, yes: Dreamtime Tuka.

“I firmly believe that my old Black grandfather sent this message to me.”

So, the business had a name that was connected to Herb’s roots. And it was always going to be connected to his grandparents.

He says, “I feel very proud today, because I’m able to tie the roots of my company to my grandparents. To my grandfather with the story of how the name came about, and of course to my grandmother, who used to be in the kitchen cooking all this food with Indigenous ingredients.”

After finding the right name, Herb says, he then had to go on to find someone to manufacture the products.

“My vision was to grow the company and develop a product that we would be selling by the pallet load. I knew I needed a manufacturer that was set up to do that. I knew if I was able to secure a corporate company, I needed to be able to say ‘Yes, I can fulfil that order for as long as you want’.

“I was very lucky that just down the road in Dubbo, which is 48km away from where we are in Wellington, was a large bakery—Earlyrise Baking Company. I researched them, and they were producing quite a lot of products themselves.

“I made an appointment to see one of the directors, John (there are three brothers, John, Bill, and Rob Stevenson), and we sat there for over three hours discussing the potential engagement that we might be able to do,” Herb says.

After speaking to the other brothers, John Stevenson was able to offer Herb the contract to manufacture all of Dreamtime Tuka’s products and give him the start he needed in the industry.

Over the years, Herb says, the relationship between Earlyrise Baking Co. and Dreamtime Tuka has grown and flourished into a close bond and remains as strong now as it was when the brothers agreed to take up Dreamtime Tuka’s contract.

After the success that Herb had with Earlyrise, his next big break came when Dreamtime Tuka was picked up by QANTAS, Australia’s largest national and international airline.

“I was at home one afternoon in the office, and I received a call from the QANTAS Aboriginal Unit,” he says.

QANTAS was looking for Aboriginal businesses that would be able to showcase their products for their staff day at the QANTAS headquarters. So, Herb flew down to Sydney with the Dreamtime Tuka products, which were sampled by the people in procurement.

From there, Herb was invited to take part in the rigorous supplier interviews that all prospective QANTAS suppliers have to go through before being given the greenlight.

“At the end of the tasting session, they came back and said to me that they liked the lemon myrtle coconut slice,” Herb says.

The slice then went on to the decision-making branch of the procurement team who told Herb that he’d have an answer about whether or not Dreamtime Tuka would make it onto any planes within around three weeks.

“So, you can imagine coming back and waiting that three weeks! It was quite a nervous three weeks waiting to see what the outcome would be,” Herb says.

“Ultimately, it came by phone call. They said ‘We want to congratulate you. We have selected your lemon myrtle slice to put on our planes’, and that was it, that was the start!

“I was over the moon! I was expecting it to take maybe four or five years to get to this stage, and here I was, six or seven months after starting, ready to produce this product.”

From there, Dreamtime Tuka was stocked on light regional planes. Herb got in touch with Earlyrise Baking to produce the first order of 170,000 slices as part of a test run. Since that first order, Dreamtime Tuka’s relationship with QANTAS has continued to flourish.

“We have now grown with QANTAS to the point where we have a slice on every plane flying across Australia,” Herb says.

“It’s on both the morning tea and afternoon tea slots. Just recently, we are also on QANTAS international flights flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles, and we’re also in the QANTAS lounge.”

That first order from QANTAS paved the way for other businesses to engage Dreamtime Tuka to supply products.

“From there, we just rolled on. You couldn’t want a better start in the business than to deal with QANTAS,” Herb says.

“Since then, we’ve built great relationships with BP Australia and Accor Hotels. We also service lots of state and federal government departments with our products.”

He also says that Dreamtime Tuka is currently in talks to begin the process of entering the retail market and getting stocked on the shelves of grocery stores.

“We’ve done a small amount of retail work in coffee shops and a few little businesses that we supply, but my vision has always been to be at the top of the tree,” Herb says.

“People are already always asking where they can go and buy the products and if we have retail outlets. What we’re hoping to do is finish up on the shelves of some of the grocery retailers in Australia.”

The way forward is looking bright for Dreamtime Tuka, with new product ranges currently in development.

“Our plan now is to develop more of our products,” Herb says.

For Herb though, all of his business success hasn’t made him forget his roots or his goal of giving back to the community that he came from.

“I’m so passionate about things—because I’m working on promoting Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal heritage, in a great way: through food. Everybody likes to sit down around a table, you add food, and you find yourself in conversations,” he says.

“And in a lot of cases, a lot of people have never had an Indigenous product, like lemon myrtle or wattleseed, for example. So it’s great for me, because I’m sharing my culture and heritage.”

But that’s not all Herb is doing to raise the profile of Indigenous Australians, he’s also working to get more Aboriginal people into the industry.

“I’ve always wanted Dreamtime Tuka to be a catalyst and a platform, because I have a lot of opportunities to help Aboriginal people so that they can have the opportunity of secure employment,” Herb says.

“So, I started a program called the Dreamtime Tuka Pathway to Employment Program. We use Dreamtime Tuka as a pathway to allow Aboriginal people to come into the baking industry and take on apprenticeships—whether it be administration, driving trucks, pastry cooks, bakers, anything.”

The program was officially launched by the New South Wales Government, and Herb hopes it will enable young Indigenous Australians to get the break into the industry that they might not otherwise have received.

Not only that, Herb hopes that he can be the inspiration that can help other Indigenous entrepreneurs to get started on their way to success.

“I want to be able to encourage through the success I’ve had. If you have an idea, take that idea and mix it with passion, with motivation, with hard work. All those ingredients will give you the success you want to do that. And here I am, a man well into my 70s that’s actually building that,” Herb says.

“I’m hoping that’s the sort of thing that will encourage other potential Aboriginal entrepreneurs to go ahead and take that big step and take the challenge on themselves.”

Herb says his grandparents—the inspiration behind the whole company—would be immensely proud of the work that he’s done.

“It’s such a privilege to be able to do this,” he says.

“I sit on the veranda sometimes having a cup of tea, and I look up there towards the heavens and just think—wow. My grandmother and grandfather, who went through the hard times and oppressive rules as Aboriginal people, would they ever have thought that they might have a grandson who would be providing to big corporate companies like QANTAS? Having a slice on planes that fly all across Australia and are now flying to the other side of the world?

“It’s unbelievable. And I think they would be very, very proud. I know they would stand up and say, ‘Well, there’s a gap in that area, and one of our grandsons is actually helping close that gap.’”

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