Keith Milne runs Uncle Harry’s Vegan Grill, a company he decided to buy in 2018 at age 70. He tells Brent Balinski about why he did it, and the satisfaction he finds in running an enduring veggie burger business.
“I was actually all ready to retire,” recalls Keith Milne.
“I had a BT-50 and a caravan in my driveway. And I was working as a consultant at the time”
His consulting job in what seemed to be a career coming to a close took him to a factory outlet in Homebush West — where we are having this conversation — and what he calls “a failing vegan business”.
Owner Allan Rodd had passed away, and Rodd’s widow was uninterested in continuing the enterprise.
“I came in and I said to Joan, ‘look, this is just such a beautiful product, they should do something with it,’” Milne recalls.
“But she didn’t want to do anything. She just wanted to get rid of it. And so here I am four-and-a half years later making a vegan product.”
Milne says it was at the cost of all his super at the time and a delay to his grey nomad plans, but he’s never bored and every day brings something to “tweak or make better.”
Pantries and patties
According to a 2009 interview in The Sydney Morning Herald, Allan Rodd ran a healthfood and sandwich store in Gladesville named the Pampered Pantry.
Customer Harry (his surname is apparently lost to history) shared some homemade vegetarian burger patties, which Rodd liked enough to stock.
After Harry passed away without passing on a recipe, Rodd – through trial, error and customer feedback – developed Uncle Harry’s Natraburgers, est. 1994. Demand was such that he had to find another site to make the burgers and a growing range of other products through Natty Foods.
Milne says he was quick to reduce a product range of “between 15 and 20” items and just focus on patties. There were four varieties being made when we visited, including a new mushroom and tofu flavour.
He has continued an approach of low-salt products with no sugar, code-numbered additives or preservatives. The company name, however, was changed from Uncle Harry’s Natural Foods to Uncle Harry’s Vegan Grill.
UHVG is run with two full-time employees and uses casuals when output needs increase.
“In the first two years, from 2018 to 2020, I more than doubled the turnover,” says Milne.
“When I first came into it… I didn’t really have a short-term plan. It was more of an ‘I’m just going to do this and build it up and just make it grow.’ And then of course Covid hit.”
The company’s website currently lists 49 retail outlets as stocking their patties, and Milne lists PFD, Bidfood EWH and Marley Spoon as distributors.
According to Milne, he passed on an approach to produce white label products in the millions for a big manufacturer, but simply wasn’t set up for it and “wanted to stay a little bit smaller in order to sort of like do it in my time.”
“If you don’t use it, you lose it”
As Milne is, more Australians are continuing to work into their later years.
According to a KPMG analysis last October, 38 per cent of the 491,000 new workforce roles in the prior three years went to over-55s, a phenomenon it labelled “the great unretirement”.
And last week the ABC cited ABS figures showing about 45,000 more people aged 65 and older at work versus a year ago, driven by the scarcity of skills.
Milne says he’s looking forward to eventually getting out and driving and trekking, but gives no timetable for this.
He offers that 70 is not old, though he knows some people who are 60 and “already ready for the aged care facility.
“I think the old saying, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ is so true. And I think there is such an opportunity for so many people to get out.
“I think there are so many people who, if they had the opportunity to do something, they would. But they’re a bit fearful because they’re getting older. So it’s really just about what’s in your head and the way that you see your life. And I just don’t want to be sitting at home on the lounge watching Days of Our Lives and waiting to die.”
In this episode of @AuManufacturing Conversations with Brent Balinski, Milne tells us about what made him buy a struggling vegan food maker, what he did after that, what he hates about a lot of the vegan/vegetarian products he sees in supermarkets, and the positives of running a business at his age.
0:18 – All ready to retire, but then…
2:50 – background in education, hospitality, and consulting. Bought the company in 2018.
3:38 – Didn’t want to waste away watching daytime television and saw an opportunity in vegan food.
5:02 – Chef background translates well to manufacturing.
6:32 – Finding a point of difference in the crowded plant-based food market.
9:48 – The pluses and minuses of running a business in your 70s.
11:20 – The role of staying physically active.
12:45 – Nobody is looking out for smaller manufacturing businesses, believes Milne.