A tiny apple orchard on the picturesque Mornington Peninsula was beckoning Michelle Ball and Adam Dargan with the promise of a quieter, family-friendly existence after the hustle and bustle of the city. A decade later, and Johnny Ripe has grown from a little farm gate to a thriving wholesale operation.
When Michelle and Adam found their little three-acre orchard at main ridge, they were ready to get away from their fast-paced lives in the restaurant and café scene and build a more sustainable life where they could raise a family. Local council regulations meant that they needed to be able to use the produce they were growing, so apple pies were the obvious next step. And so, Johnny Ripe was born in 2011.
“Adam and I are chefs by trade but we’d had a few businesses before Johnny Ripe; a restaurant and a café, and we had a cake shop in Sydney,” Michelle says.
“We thought, ‘what can we do that’s a bit more family friendly; something that can go on anyone’s dinner table whether they’re rich or poor, and it be just sort of an honest, quality product?’
“So we started making apple pies and then the range kind of grew. We had a little farm gate that we started at our home, and we were here open only Friday through to Sunday.”
However, almost two years later they had become so busy that the business was starting to intrude and make their family home feel “too commercial.”
“We’d been down this path before, as in being quite burnt out and over customers,” Michelle says.
“When you’re trying to make a quality product and give it the love, but then it starts intruding on your life you can become quite bitter, quite quick.
“So a little restaurant around the corner came up for lease and we went down that path. We were there a few years and we actually took on a couple of partners—they left about two-and-a-half years ago—and sort of became quite the household meal. We were known for quality and consistency.”
Now, Johnny Ripe is a mostly-wholesale operation. Two years ago the Epicurean Group took over the retail side of the business and run the shop while Michelle and Adam and the Johnny Ripe team of nine supply them.
“We made that choice [to go wholesale], and it takes the fun out of it and the customer contact,” Michelle says.
“But we’ve got three children and we had to have something that was just a little bit more sustainable for us. It’s been an interesting couple of year but with this COVID thing it is working to our advantage.”
Being a food manufacturer and therefore an essential worker, at the time of our interview Michelle is homeschooling her four-, six- and 10-year-old children for the most part, and sending them to school two days a week. Naturally, it’s tricky to strike a balance in these circumstances, and Michelle says she’s had to relinquish some of the order she likes to have.
“I’m not a control freak by any means, but I like order,” she explains.
“If there’s not order in my day I can get quite flustered. So personally, I’ve had to work through that because some days you just don’t have order and you need to be okay with that.”
Johnny Ripe is now just the family and has been for a few years, and Michelle and Adam have found contentment in their little slice of the country.
“We leased a little factory in Mornington and our shop is in Red Hill. It’s all our food, but we’re not there.
“We live in Main Ridge, still in the same property and it’s very much our home now for 10 years. It’s a good place to live actually.
“It took a lot for us to get used to, but we spent many years in Europe and overseas so we were used to such dramatic weather patterns. We were just searching for somewhere with such a good food belt that has a bit of everything.”
In terms of Johnny Ripe’s product offering, Michelle and Adam made the decision to narrow it down to maintain consistency and quality in a few well-chosen products.
“We do savoury pies as well; a chicken, a fish, and a beef. We’re very well known for our vanilla slice and beetroot brownies, and we do a cronut which is halfway between a croissant and a doughnut. We don’t do breads, but we do more biscuits and cakes.
“Years ago when it was more of a café and restaurant model the range was a lot broader, but we’ve worked hard to really rein that in so that it can be consistent. It’s hard to get consistency when you’re doing volume so we made the choice to narrow our product range so that we can maintain that quality.”
Michelle and Adam are also really passionate about using high-quality, local ingredients, even if it narrows their profit margins.
“We use butter and beef that’s local, and just really try to keep it small,” she says.
“We’d make a hell of a lot more money if we changed a few ingredients, but we’re just not willing to do that.”
In terms of the effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on them, Michelle says that while there’s been a little bit of a downturn, the business fortunately hasn’t suffered too much, largely thanks to the wholesale nature of it.
She also hopes that the situation with the virus will see more people reassessing the choices they make with food, and turning towards more local, high-quality products rather than “processed rubbish”.
“I think, especially at the moment, that one of the good things that’s going to come out of this isolation situation is people are going to focus more on their travelling and their food mileage and it’s a good opportunity for people to really change their habits,” she says.