When Jess Daniell, from Jess’ Underground Kitchen, utters the words, “bricks and mortar,” her face lights up with equal parts disbelief and gleeful pride. That same “pinch-me” look appears when casting her eye over her Parnell kitchen, complete with gleaming appliances, concrete counters and curated props.
Doubling as both a test kitchen for her cafes and HQ for the growing JUK team, the result is a New York-warehouse-meets-the-set-of-Friends and she has every reason to feel proud. In just five short years she has moved from the virtual world of online blogging, to selling ready-meals to friends from her Herne Bay kitchen to being the successful owner of two destination cafes.
It all started in London when the English major turned copywriter discovered blogging as a way to combine her three loves – writing, travelling and eating. “The blog was the stepping stone for me to find a way to be creative and share the experience of food. I loved the full process of it. I thought my dream job was to be a food writer.”
The farm girl from Wairarapa, with no formal chef training, almost got her wish when she returned home to a job on a food magazine until redundancies “pushed her out the door”. Ever resourceful, that’s when she decided to make meals from her home for mates, and friends of mates. And then it snowballed.
“I thought if I cooked for my friends they’d all give me 10 bucks for ingredients and I’d eat for free. People would leave my home with a brown paper bag. I used to wonder what the neighbours thought I was selling!”
Dinner is the correct answer. Except that Jess, who was newly unemployed and effectively crowd-sourcing so she could cook the meals she couldn’t afford, had created a private underground food club that attracted an instant cult following.
“I thought I might do it for a few weeks until I found another job,” she explains. “I never imagined I’d be sitting here at 33 with a food business. I didn’t have a business plan. It was the customers who created Jess’ Underground through word of mouth. I made whatever anyone wanted and I was flexible.”
She insists it was quite by chance she hit on this very marketable concept. But with cafes in Auckland’s Herne Bay and Remuera; two acclaimed cookbooks and a third in the pipeline; frozen and fresh meals stocked in Farro with plans under way for more outlets nationwide, there is nothing accidental about the success of the thriving JUK brand.
“You have to be all in when you’re a small business owner. There’s no checking out, no weekends. You live and breathe it and that’s what makes small businesses in New Zealand successful – because there is so much drive.”
So how does she find time for her third love – travel? “I’m heading off again soon to eat my way around Malaysia,” she says, confirming that wanderlust is still a major priority. “We’re going from Penang to Malacca – the home of Nyonya cuisine. It’s the melting pot of the Chinese, Indian, Singaporean, Thai and Malay cooking. It’s where the laksa was born.”
This food education is then passed on to her customers through her full-flavoured meals.
“Travelling through South-East Asia I learned about ingredients we just didn’t have on the farm; big bright pops of chilli, coriander and lime. I cook with big bold flavours,” Jess explains. “It’s not what one usually expects from supermarket heat-and-eats."
To learn more about Jess' Underground Kitchen, visit the website right here.
“You have to be all in when you’re a small business owner. There’s no checking out, no weekends. You live and breathe it and that’s what makes small businesses in New Zealand successful – because there is so much drive.” – Jess Daniell.