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Diana Stanbra's Picnicbox

Growing a new business is no picnic, but a coach can help refine your goals.

Positive feedback spurred Diane Stanbra to keep going with her picnic-box business. But she works 11-hour days, seven days a week. Photo/Victor Carter
Positive feedback spurred Diane Stanbra to keep going with her picnic-box business. But she works 11-hour days, seven days a week. Photo/Victor Carter

Diane Stanbra’s “Eureka!” moment came at 3am the day after touring ­Auckland’s Silo Park for the first time in August 2011. Plans had just been unveiled for the development’s summer launch of activities including outdoor movies.

Wouldn’t it be great, she thought, if you could lie on a bean bag watching a movie and snack on a picnic?

Her partner, family and friends were used to her many grand plans for a new food business, but this was one they didn’t pooh-pooh. With a full-time job in business development for a property management software company, Stanbra had to work on the idea in her own time. Her partner, Richard Aitken, a director of what was then Waterfront Auckland, had her complete a 47-page business plan that forced her to carefully work through marketing, distribution and financials.

Other parts of her plan relied on friends, word of mouth – and Google.

“I went on Google and started writing ideas. Thank God for Google – I don’t know how anyone started a business before Google!”

Photo/Victor Carter
Photo/Victor Carter

Her market research involved making up boxes of picnic fare and getting a bunch of friends over to eat the food and answer questionnaires on menu choices and prices.

Then it was about making her new business, Picnic Box, a reality, ­sourcing quality ingredients, boxes, catering premises, mobile trailers and clients.

She produced 80 $15 boxes for Silo Park’s first outdoor movie night in early December 2011.

“We’d be lucky if we sold 20.” She gave the rest away. It might have been demoralising, but Stanbra says the feedback was overwhelmingly ­positive. It gave her the determination to carry on with the idea over that wet and windy summer during which the weather restricted their trading to just nine days.

Good publicity during the first year and word-of-mouth recommendations saw demand and the client list grow rapidly. “Inquiries went nuts and I needed help and wasn’t sure what to do.”

After a call to her bank for mentoring advice, business incubator The Icehouse became involved, and she attended a one-day pressure-cooker course that helped her refine her goals and prices. The price of the boxes went up – to $20 and then to $25 and she contracted Harbourside restaurant’s former executive chef Phil Spathis to take over food preparation.

“A $15 price was never going to be sustainable. I learnt that pretty much on day one. By the time I went to Icehouse it was $20, but they said that’s ridiculous and financially it wasn’t stacking up. All the ingredients are top-end organic and free range, and they said you can’t deliver that quality at that price.”

Boxes contain either roast chicken or glazed ham (there’s also a ­vegetarian option), garden salad, olive oil and balsamic dressing, cheese and crackers, baguette, brownie and grapes.

By 2014, sales had reached a point where she could give up her “day job” – although taking a pay cut of about 50% – and concentrate on growing the business. Her former boss backed her business aspirations and, until she left, allowed her the flexibility to juggle her working hours as she needed.

In the year after she went full-time, turnover increased nearly 200%, with ­weddings and conferences areas of big growth. The figures helped Picnic Box win the Westpac Business Award for best emerging business in the north in 2015.

She’s still not yet earning what she did in corporate life, but is investing ­profits back into the business and aims to expand into other centres.

Stanbra works 11-hour days and it’s a seven-day-a week job. She’s taken the odd day off, but is never away from a phone or emails. If it was about an hourly rate, she says, you just wouldn’t do it.

“I’ve not had a weekend where I’ve completely switched off because I can’t – there is always something to do, and always emails coming in.

“I’d have this every day of the week rather than sitting here thinking when is the next order coming in? I don’t ever not want to be busy.”

Read more:

You can now set up a global business from your kitchen table. So should you become your own boss?

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