• Pepe Saya became an institution with his hand-churned cultured butter. (Supplied)
People can relate to a food snob, says Pepe Saya's founder Pierre Issa.
SBS Small Business Secrets

SBS Small Business Secrets
11 Dec 2016 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 19 Jan 2017 - 3:12 PM

As a little boy in Australia, with Lebanese-French heritage, Pierre Issa's parents called him 'Pepe', reasoning it would play better in the schoolyard.

"Yeah, they thought that, but come on, 'Pepe' isn't much better than Pierre is it?" an adult Pepe laughs.

"So that is the name of my business, Pepe is my nickname, and 'Pepe is in Saya' is something odd I used to say as a kid, because it meant I was in my dream world."

It was this expression a young Pepe remembered when he considered a name for his business.

After the name came the story - a face and persona to fit a gourmet label.

"I wanted a face, I thought, people can relate to a food snob, so I had in my mind this older, sophisticated, balding man with a big nose who would sniff everything and taste it and be very picky about what he likes."

The brand's first block of butter was sold at Carriageworks in Sydney's Eveleigh, at the Saturday markets.

Six years on, the company still has a strong presence at the site, with ten per cent of revenue coming from direct to customer sales - the lion's share is wholesale.

"So we sold five, ten then twenty, and it grew week on week, until we thought, what about retail?"

"One of the problems in the early days is we were making all this butter, and we would have a coldroom full of butter and no customers to sell it to!"

That issue was shortlived.

Grocery chains like Harris Farms stocked Pepe Saya 6 months after the business launched - a rapid escalation Pepe attributes to a strong customer base at the markets.

"From day one this [the markets] has been where we advertise, because if your second most-asked question at the markets is 'Where else can I buy this?' you know they will buy at other places and you are in the right spot."

A contract from Qantas in 2012 was a turning point; with the airline using Pepe Say butter for in-flight services.

"It has brought our butter to the world, and when people hear we are with Qantas it's always 'How did you do that?' but we didn't do it, they did."

Another, growing element of the business is supplying to restaurants; Pepe Saya is distributed nationally.

"That took time, the restaurants. In 2009, 2010, chefs were using the French stuff, they didn't know there was anything of quality in Australia and they wanted the best."

Pepe wanted to show local restaurateurs they didn't need to import from France - Aussies could do it better.

And so began months of door-knocking, to no avail, until the company looked to its customers to spread the word.

"We had to prove ourselves. We are in a market, so the best way we can share our product and get feedback is back to basics, we cut up some bread and butter and we ask  the customers 'What do you think?'"

The company manufactures from its Sydney factory, with 8 tonnes of butter made every week.

It's a level of success this founder didn't bank on, but he says his work is never done - he will never stop trying to please the fussy, if fictional, Pepe Saya.

"We aspire to be the kind of butter Pepe wouldn't turn up his nose at, that Pepe would say he likes. Because if Pepe says its good, it's good."

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