• Alex Elliott-Howery and her husband James Grant started Cornersmith in 2012. (Small Business Secrets)
As the Cornersmith Cafe and picklery grows, husband and wife founders Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant are intent on preserving their message.
SBS Small Business Secrets
6 Nov 2016 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2016 - 9:43 AM

As one would expect, the original Cornersmith café in Sydney's Marrickville sits on a corner - as does Cornersmith's picklery and its second café in Annandale.

Securing three coveted corner properties in the inner-city could be considered a feat in itself, but what makes their position noteworthy is the literal message it sends: the Cornersmith will not shift its position - on anything.

"We don't compromise on corners!" co-founder Alex Elliott-Howery laughs, "But it's true, just because we have grown, doesn't mean we will make decisions based purely on finances, we want to stay true to our ideology."

It's a formula she admits has not been easy to follow; throughout different points of scaling their business, hefty overheads have impacted the bottom line.

"We are thoughtful in our choice of suppliers, they are local businesses with strong ethics and quality produce, so yes it does cost us a lot more to use them for our businesses."

Similarly, her vision for the picklery was to sell wholesale goods - but the balance sheet didn't add up.

"For us to do enough scale to make money we needed to hire a factory and we did that once, but we would have needed to import Chinese onions that were pre-cut, and I just said no, absolutely not, If that's how it would be done we are not doing it."

The neighbourhood trading scheme, however, has been an enduring, savvy financial move.

In 2012, Alex and her husband James Grant opened the Cornersmith café in Marrickville, and put up signs asking for local fruit and vegetables.

"We live in Dulwich Hill, an area with lots of older Vietnamese and Greek families who have moved out and left these established fruit trees. So there are all these people who have no idea what to do with this glut of produce in their gardens."

The Cornersmith became a swap-meet, where locals might trade a box of lemons for a jar of lemon preserve, pickles or even coffee.

"We are passionate about working with the seasons and seasonal foods, and we are waste warriors, so this is a way we can not only eliminate waste, but there is a lovely feed-on effect in the community."

These days, trade is roaring; the Marrickville and Annandale cafes accept produce daily, which is either used on their menus or sent to the picklery to be bottled into something more exotic.

Alex says the value in this process is in customer buy-in, and the connection and loyalty established by the process.

"People see we are say, getting a free box of lemons, but you could go to the markets and it's not expensive, so it's less about saving money on produce, it's more the flow-on effects from creating ties with people."

When SBS toured the tiny pickle headquarters in Marrickville, a bulk batch of rhubarb compote was bubbling on the stove.

"What happens when we use local produce like this is that there are no food miles, because it is brought straight to us, and people can learn how to use different foods."

Education is a growing part of the business; Cornersmith's workshops now bring in a quarter of the revenue and is the fastest-growing part of a business that includes two cookbooks and a burgeoning media profile.

"We are busy bees, but we didn't expect this, we planned out our first café as a nice thing we could do. We had some butchers' paper and sharpies - but now we have advice and we are like real business people!

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