WA's secret condiments queen doing it with relish

Lyn Bentley's Sticky Fingers has grown from a one-person market venture to an international operation.
Lyn Bentley's Sticky Fingers has grown from a one-person market venture to an international operation.

You will never see Lyn Bentley's recipes.

The managing director and flavour designer behind Perth's Sticky Fingers Gourmet Foods keeps the secrets to her success under lock and key.

Like KFC's herbs and spices and Coca Cola's brown brew, Ms Bentley's creations must forever remain a closely guarded mystery.

"When it's your own blood, sweat and tears it's very important," she said.

"It's a very competitive industry and you'll have people come in who want to copy what you've done but do it on the cheap."

Even her loyal staff and business partner are required to sign confidentiality agreements, with the only duplicates of the recipes kept in a bank vault, should anything happen to Ms Bentley.

It was these recipes that catapulted the former accountant from a woman mixing tomato relish in her kitchen to a gourmet condiments powerhouse with supply contracts across the country and overseas, for 60 unique products across nine lines.

Her customers may now include Dome, Qantas Club, Raffles Hotel and Miss Maud but when she started playing with ingredients 14 years ago Ms Bentley's entire distribution strategy involved a self-manned stall at the Canning Vale Sunday markets.

Some things haven't changed.

There are still a handful of her customers from the markets who buy Ms Bentley's condiments direct from her O'Connor warehouse and everything is still made by hand in WA.

Ms Bentley still plays with ingredients at the helm of an intimate team.

"Right from day one my belief about food was that it all had to be handmade and it still is today," she said.

"Maybe the pots and the stirrers have gotten bigger over time but everything is still done by hand."

It was the quality of her product, she believes, that attracted the attention of Cino to Go, who would become her first big customer in 2002.

The company was then bought by international coffee heavyweight Dome Coffee Australia, who approached Ms Bentley to make a tender the same year.

She risked everything to put up the rent on a warehouse she wouldn't be able to use for more than four months to make herself competitive for a contract that she may not have won.

Although Ms Bentley went on to win the contract in a watershed moment for her WA business, self-doubt almost ended her journey before it really began.

To conquer her fear of putting her family life and finances on the line, Ms Bentley held firmly to her belief in the quality of her product and did the one thing she feared most – jumped out of a plane.

"I came very close to letting my own fears paralyse me," she said.

"So I found something that scared me even more. I thought if I could do that I could start a factory so I went and jumped out of plane and hit the ground feeling ten feet tall and thought 'OK the factory is a walk in the park – I can do this'."

Attracting financing was also hard as a small business starting out, Ms Bentley said.

"Big business gets money thrown at them, small business doesn't," she said.

"It's the same with a lot of the grants – you really have to be able to spend $50,000 or $100,000 to get a dollar-for-dollar grant.

"I don't know many small businesses that can afford to spend that much."

But it was worth the struggle, according to the food lover, whose business has continued to thrive despite challenges to some the Australian food sector.

"I started with $20 worth of jars of tomato relish," she said.

"Now we probably send out about 1.5 to 2 tonnes per week and our aioli is second to none."

Meanwhile, WA Food Minister Terry Redman and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA today revealed a partnership aimed at supporting and advocating for WA's $6 billion a year food industry.

"WA has always been good at growing food but could do more to add value to that produce," Mr Redman said.

"This partnership will focus on food industry planning, sharing of market intelligence and developing collaborative projects to support innovation in the food sector."

Ms Bentley welcomed the joint initiative as a positive step in increasing advocacy for the food sector.

This story WA's secret condiments queen doing it with relish first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.