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How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement

Written by Jennifer Nini

Flicking through The Small Business Big Marketing Show podcast with Timbo Reid one Saturday morning, I stumbled upon podcast show #329, which read:

“A brave sea change that lead [sic] to growing a dream business with Pauy [sic] Medeiros of The Source Bulk Foods”

I immediately downloaded the podcast on my smartphone. I am hugely familiar with The Source as it’s known to us sustainability advocates as THE zero waste supermarket shopping heaven.

After listening to co-founder Paul Medeiros’ story of leaving the corporate life and Sydney rat race and settling in Mullumbimby, a quiet town near the coastal shores of Byron Bay – an area renowned for its laid-back organic lifestyle and hippie roots – I knew I needed to contact him. There were too many similarities and synergies in our stories for it not to be a sign. Here’s what we had in common:

  • I too left the rat race for more peaceful pastures,
  • I too left the corporate world for self-employment,
  • And my fiance and business partner Ben grew up in Mullumbimby, the tiny town (population 3,000) Paul had moved to.

Plus after listening to the podcast, I wanted to pick Paul’s brain and tease out just how the heck he and his wife were able to grow The Source Bulk Foods to over 30 stores in just three years when most small businesses struggle to keep just one set of doors open.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - zero waste shopping

Images supplied.

Several days later after listening to the podcast, I jumped on to The Source website found an email address and sent a generic email explaining who I was and that I wanted 15-20 minutes to chat with Paul about entrepreneurship.

Then I waited. The very next day I received an email from Tanya explaining that Paul would be contacting me around lunchtime on Thursday. I froze when my tired eyes read the sentence. I didn’t expect it to all be moving so quickly. I couldn’t believe that the guy I had been listening to on a business podcast had agreed to chat.

I couldn’t compose myself any longer. I ran into Ben’s office shrieking. I was bursting to tell him my good news.

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An honest phone chat with Paul Medeiros…

Jen: How did The Source Bulk Foods begin?

Paul: When we first started [The Source] and people were talking about it – this was only three and a bit years ago – the word ‘fad’ was coming up a lot… and it took a lot for us to invest all our money and all our resources and time especially because we had our first newborn it took a lot of risk for us to do it. But we just had such confidence that it wasn’t a fad it really is a movement. It’s just how people are starting to think. I still think we’re way off sometimes when we’re in the industry and we risk falling into this category where we think everybody know’s about it, but it’s just not the case.

I’ve been writing Eco Warrior Princess since 2010 and I try to promote how people can reduce their impact on the environment. But I feel like The Source has just blown up in the last several years. I think it’s amazing. To me, it signals that people are slowly starting to take on sustainable living.

From my perspective, I think we’ve brought them out of the woodwork. I don’t think we’ve converted them yet. I’ve got to be careful with using the word ‘converted’ because it’s not my agenda at all, but I want to be able to promote what we do and hopefully people resonate with it. What I think’s happened – including yourself and all those who are doing what we’re doing – we’re bringing people out of the woodwork and getting people who already think this way to act on it and encourage what they were doing potentially or wanting to do.

The challenge I find is it’s the masses that we have to try to get to, otherwise we’re all just preaching to the converted. We’ve got to start somewhere but sometimes I feel like it’s getting to the masses [that’s the key] without being a corporation, and holding on to our values and ethics and not preaching but educating and that’s all of our challenge I believe. But… if YOU’VE found the secret key let me know…! (laughs)

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - supermarket

I was going to ask YOU that question (laughs). I know that the green lifestyle and the zero waste lifestyle is increasingly adopted but I still feel like the rate of adoption is too slow. So I was going to ask if YOU had any tips for how we could go mainstream with this… (laughs)

The only tip I can suggest is never give up and keep in the back of your mind, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. A lot of people and a lot of businesses look for the silver bullet in every aspect of their business or what they’re doing but it’s really just the little things – often and frequently – and just keeping at it. I don’t know; I don’t believe if there is a silver bullet, that there’s one solution and then all of a sudden everything’s better or in a better place. I think it’s just everybody as many people chipping away at it bit by bit and to do that takes a lot of patience and resilience. That’s why I always tell people don’t give up on it.

Yes I think you’re right, I think it starts with consciousness and just being aware of it… Now I moved to a regional area in Queensland and we don’t have The Source here and one of the issues is access. How is your business addressing this, besides wanting to expand to other locations? Do you have any tips for those people who don’t have access to The Source?

[It’s brand marketing]. Where I see brand marketing benefitting is the awareness: ok so who is The Source, what are they about, what do they do? So giving them the overall perception. So you might not be a customer but jumping online or seeing our ambassadors or going to websites like yours that’s at least creating that awareness and it starts a shift in their thinking.

We recognise that we’re not here to solve the world’s problems in one hit – if we can create that awareness or put them in touch with somebody that can at least guide them to a better or healthier lifestyle. They may not buy from us and I’m okay with them deciding to buy a Macro branded product from Woolworths if its going to impact their lives in a better way. That’s all we’re trying to do. So I think for me it’s instigating that awareness and getting people intrigued and interested in improving their lifestyles and their health. And zero waste is a part of that as well.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement

You moved from Sydney to Mullum, and I know you left the corporate world, can you tell me a bit about that?

Well that was the start of the mind shift… I developed this real need to simplify and to get away from the rat race and it was good because my wife [Emma Smith] had the same sort of conscious shift at the same time and we decided to start a family and then when we brought it all together we’d like to start a family outside of the rat race and it took us about three or four years to find the right business. And as you heard on the podcast, so many business plans later, we found the fruit shop.

I love that story because it’s similar to my own. There’s something that triggers an awakening…

We didn’t actually ask for this [The Source]. We were quite happy cutting up pumpkins [at the fruit shop] like you heard [on the podcast] and this the idea of bulk foods kind of landed on our laps [when we started selling bulk foods in a space in our shop] and we thought, there’s a reason for it and it’s a great opportunity to align ourselves with our customers… so it was never about making money.

And it’s been really interesting that, when you do something that feels so organic and so natural, it’s not about money, you don’t have any worries, you’re not hiding anything, you’re not being deceptive and you’re following what you resonate with naturally.

It’s such a genuine process and journey, that you’re not thinking about profits, and you do and think and concentrate only about what matters.

The previous life obviously shaped you as a human being and then you had your awakening and you were really just intuitive and had you not been paying attention perhaps this would never have happened.

It’s just that conscious shift. I certainly don’t regret being involved in that life [the corporate life]… I can put management practices and all the positive stuff into place in running the business.

So in the space of four years [including this year] your brand has grown so much. You’ve gone from a fruit shop in Mullumbimby to more than 30 stores. What do you think has been the secret to your success?

The customers were already there, I haven’t changed anyone’s mentality, like I said, we’re still very young [as a business]. I think they were just looking for something that they could just sink their teeth in. I think the key was the business model that we chose.

And we weren’t doing it for the money; our intention originally was that we help other families do what we’ve done.

All we needed was enough income from two or three shops. By setting up the franchise model – and I hated the word franchise because it has all sorts of negative connotations – but at the end of the day, that’s what it was and we just had to be real and obviously it doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we walk the talk – the key was getting families to own that stores that had the same values or resonated with what we were doing or the concepts or healthy options or zero waste.

The Source Bulk Foods Shop Front - Zero Waste Supermarketjpg

Not getting families that were traditionally selected by big corporations that are only interested in making money, and I know it’s cliche when you say ‘build it and people come’ I have a similar thing: if you just conduct your business in the most genuine way, and resonate with what you really believe in, then everything will follow… and it’s kind of true.

There’s no point buying this business or buying into this venture if you don’t believe in the no packaging. Because that’s not something you can confidently believe and genuinely promote or talk about so there’s no point coming to us if you’re not that way minded. And there’s no point coming to us when we’re trying to sell healthy options and you’re wanting the processed sugar options. There’s no point coming to us if you don’t believe in these things.

And we’ve rejected so many people when they first ask about how much money I’m going to make and our process is that I meet them personally, at least twice, just to talk and see what they’re about. They might not like me or we might not resonate, whatever it is.  There’s not point talking about just want to make money. If you want something like that, go to another business.

So to answer your question, for us I think the key to our success has been getting these guys that are helping us spread what we’re about and in turn widening the awareness to the consumer.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - Emma Smith & Paul Medeiros

Thank you for elaborating on that. Also I think that you can’t really do everything on your own, you really do need people so it’s never a one-man kind of band, it’s either your customers spreading the word about you or your franchisees doing their bit. And I travel and when I see your stores – like I went to Melbourne recently – I feel like the stores are all streamlined, and all similar so it’s great consistent branding…

That bit can be a challenge though. Because obviously the more people you bring on it is a positive but it can also work against what you’re trying to achieve because everyone has their own ideas and it’s fantastic, that’s what we’re all about and we’re very relaxed, we’re not a typical franchise where this is the script you have to say, this is what you have to wear, we’re very flexible with that as long as the values that we originally started out with come through in what they do, then that’s completely fine with me.

So I know you left the rat race but now you’re in a business that has since grown. Are the hours you’re now doing the same kind of hours that you were doing when you were in the ‘rat race’? Is it more stressful now than before when you were working in corporate? 

It’s definitely not as stressful as any jobs I’ve had in the past. I’m probably working the same hours – originally for the first year or two it was crazy, I was working seven days a week and managing a child but we’ve now got about 10 or 12 support people that help us out.

So my job has been more as the driver rather than the engine.

When it’s something you believe in and surrounded by good store owners and good support people it shouldn’t have to be stressful. It shouldn’t have to be hard work. It should be fun and enjoyable. And even though I do work long hours and I travel, it doesn’t seem like work. It’s something I do enjoy. I mean I miss my kids of course every day I’m away from them, they’re my life, but you know I also see that this as an investment that I’m trying to include the family where I can, they travel with me where possible so I can minimise the time that I’m away from them. So to answer your question, no I don’t find it stressful at all.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - Paul Medeiros & Emma Smith and family

You founded/co-founded the business with your wife Emma Smith?

Yeh! She’s the brains trust!

Sorry?

She’s the brain trust! She keeps reminding me of that (laughs). Emma’s very very involved in the social media and the marketing. We’ve sort of evolved into our roles. I do more of the brand alignment, all the store support and all our customer service. But yes, she definitely co-founded it.

Well I was going to ask, because my partner Ben and I run our businesses and we do get on each other’s nerves sometimes. Do you have any advice for running a business with co-founders? For those running a business jointly with a partner or with business partners. Or any advice for me as I run businesses with my fiance? (laughs)

Have you got children?

No…

I was going to say, the best answer is when someone’s about to have a child you always hear: you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you get into it! So it’s hard for me to give advice on that because unless you’ve experienced it you don’t really know the sort of things you’re going to experience.

Emma and I were working together probably for about three or four years in the fruit shop – this is before The Source – literally 24/7, we’d go to work, come home, go to work, come home, and go to bed and literally tied at the hip. We’d known each other for a long time and we were able to manage that but we basically fired each other from different roles so many times! And it was difficult because I would try to get her to see why my way was better and she would do the same thing and we kind of naturally fell into different roles. But it was important for me to say to her – and for her to say to me – okay so now that we’ve identified that, you have to stay out of my hair like literally I’ll come to you for advice and obviously we’re partners in every way and the discussion should be open and you should be able to see what I’m doing and if you have an issue you should be able to bring it up but ultimately we had to set parameters around decision making to be able to do it properly. That is the only suggestion that I have. Set that up early so you both know what you can and can’t move on.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - Paul Medeiros and Emma Smith

We live in an Instagram world, where everyone looks and seems as though they’re all successful but I know – just from what I do and being around farmers and being around business people – I know the amount of work and effort that it takes to get something off the ground. So what’s your advice for people who might feel a bit overwhelmed with starting a business thinking that they might never reach the level of ‘success’ they see on social media or even your success? What advice would you give mindful entrepreneurs starting out?

Just having something you’re completely committed to and passionate about is sort of the foundations because without that doesn’t matter what I say, it genuinely won’t happen or people won’t be as passionate about making it work. I think that’s the key. Once you’ve identified what that is, it’s just a matter of following your instincts and making sure you don’t give up on what you believe in.

You’ll get feedback from so many different people and areas of what you’re doing that may lead you to question what you’re doing but we’ve never ever ever questioned whether this was going to work or not. We questioned the degree of success but again, having that mentality of not doing this for the money, it wasn’t enough to put us off. We always looked at everything in this way. Everything we made outside of paying bills was a bonus; was icing on the cake. We always had a base parameter that we had to cover, we never got into any debt to continue the growth of the business which helped. So the profits from the first store was enough to put back into the second store, so we never had to borrow.

So going back to the question: be completely absolute in your resolve to make it happen. And now look on the back of that, I had this thing on my mind, I never wanted to be 80 or 90 on my death bed wondering ‘what if’ or ‘I wish I tried’ or ‘what if it worked’ and that’s always in the back of my mind so whenever somebody make me see something differently or gives me some reason to make me think a bit negatively I always think, well if I don’t do this, I’m not going to know and I’m going to be making this decision on someone giving me their negative perspective rather than fact. So… bugger it I’m going to do it because I don’t want to be 80 thinking if I didn’t do it, somebody else would have or what if it worked or what if I would have been happier or what if I’d been able to help people. This way I know what I’m doing, I know the people I’m helping, I know all of that.

When I think about the success of your business there’s so many factors – the fact that you guys have your heart in it and now when I’m talking to you, it speaks volumes that you are so dedicated and so passionate about it because you love it and you care about the people involved.

That’s the key!

I forgot to ask you! Where do you source all of the bulk foods from?

I guess what everyone’s trying to do here is trying to support the local economy and reduce food miles and all of that. So your standard answer from someone you speak with who does what I do is going to be the same. But the difference is: how much do people walk the talk. We’ve got a set of protocols we follow so obviously we source as many products as we can locally within the region, your honey, your olive oil, people that are making artisan foods locally, we try to source what we can that way and obviously anything else from Australia. We had this conversation in a focus group just last week and even though that’s what people are wanting, they also recognise that you just can’t get everything from Australia… at the moment. But it’s getting there.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - zero waste lifestyle

Our mentality is even though we believe in organics and we support it to the nth degree, there are some things, for example dried apricots, Australian dried apricots, they’re four times the price of Turkish apricots and before they were made available we were supplying the Turkish apricots but then we said, “you know what it’s not up to us to decide if people want to buy it or not or have the money or not. Our job is to show people that it’s there and then it’s up to them to buy it or not”. And now, after two or three years, the sales for Australian apricots have outgrown the sales of the Turkish apricots, so we’ve done what we’re meant to do. We do walk the talk and a lot of people will say that but they choose profits over supporting local and we put it on the line, we put both out and make it an organic process. Now there’s this whole thing around China and Chinese products and a lot of Chinese products that is certified and tested heavily by ACO and all the other certifying bodies, and even though we were so against initially keeping Chinese products that were certified organic we resorted with a lot of research and a lot of testing, keeping some Chinese products that are certified organic when we re completely sure that we’re not feeding our customers chemicals.

And again it’s about walking the talk, so anytime anyone asks us about any of this, we are so transparent, we’ve got all the information and we’re happy to provide it. But obviously anything we can get from Australia that’s what we’ll do, more expensive or not, we believe in supporting the economy.

So you help out with the sourcing of the stock or do you have supplier agreements or do the stores source locally within their region or how does it work because the stores are all spread out?

We sort of have to control that because there’s always that chance that someone’s going to try and get cheaper nuts from somewhere or whatever it might be but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better quality or has the right ethics behind it or whatever it is. So we have to be very careful that we don’t open that up to abuse so we have to control the product. We don’t sell it to our chain so the owners buy the product directly from our approved suppliers and the product has to be approved so they can’t just buy whatever they want.

How The Source Bulk Foods Are Helping Australia Lead the Zero Waste Movement - Paul Madeiros

 

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I want to thank Paul Medeiros and his wife Emma Smith for following their passions and their intuition, because if they hadn’t, The Source Bulk Foods may never have begun and the zero waste movement in Australia might have taken much longer to gain traction. I’m certain that I speak for the entire sustainable lifestyle community when I say – you guys absolutely rock! *standing ovation* *wolf whistles* *rounds of applause*

For more information on The Source Bulk Foods or to find out if they have a location near you, please visit their website www.thesourcebulkfoods.com.au.

Now over to you: Have you shopped at The Source and enjoyed the experience? Have a question for Paul and Emma? Adopted a zero-waste lifestyle and want to know if a store is coming to your city? Please leave a comment below.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she launched Eco Warrior Princess to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she’s not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

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