Keeping it in the family: the story of Chester’s Tomatoes

Keeping it in the family: the story of Chester’s Tomatoes

Meet Associate Member Dave Bird and his entrepreneurial kids from Port Macquarie, whose family venture has blossomed into a thriving tomato business.

The Bird siblings, Chester, Milla and Sam, are doing business a little bit differently. When Chester, the eldest at 17, initiated a homegrown tomato venture, he set the stage for a unique family legacy centred around Chester’s Tomatoes.

The very beginnings of the business can be traced back to a conversation between Dave and his brother-in-law. The idea was simple – teach the kids to run a business and they’ll gain a diverse skill set not found in conventional jobs. As a business consultant himself, Dave challenged his children to find their own source of income, strategically cutting off their pocket money after primary school.

Chester first came up with the idea of cultivating and selling vegetables when he was only in grade four, but soon narrowed down the focus to tomatoes due to their popularity. The journey began with two years’ of research into growing tomatoes, designing logos and purchasing punnets, prior to the family’s move to Port Macquarie.

Dave and Chester then spent countless hours constructing garden beds and cultivating a vast veggie garden. Chester diligently planted heirloom tomato seeds in a greenhouse, nurturing them into thriving plants. The first harvest marked a milestone, and Chester, armed with business cards and a trolley of punnets, embarked on door-to-door sales, kickstarting Chester’s Tomatoes.

The business model proved highly successful, with demand quickly outpacing their ability to grow tomatoes. However, challenges like the Covid-19 lockdowns, relocation and adverse weather conditions prompted a strategic shift. Chester reached out to Ricardoes Tomatoes, a local farm, and established a partnership that ensured a consistent supply of quality tomatoes.

As Chester says, “If you buy quality from the start, people see that you do things properly and in the long run it saves you money. And that’s been the case with the tomatoes.”

Changing hands

As Chester transitioned to other endeavours, the business was sold to then 13 year-old Milla (under Dave’s careful supervision). Milla kept up the momentum, knocking on doors and keeping the community engaged with Chester’s Tomatoes. Her year of owning the business served as an invaluable learning experience.

“It definitely helped me with my people skills because I had to knock on people’s doors, which at first was extremely confronting, and I was really nervous to do that,” she says. “But by the end, I thought the worst that they can do is say no.”

This experience has helped Milla enhance communication and entrepreneurial skills, which she takes with her as she pursues a keen interest in fashion.

Today, the reins of Chester’s Tomatoes are in the hands of Sam, the youngest sibling at 12 years old. Sam continues the family legacy, and is considering future diversification into oranges. He has also introduced a loyalty program, fostering customer engagement and environmental responsibility by offering rewards for recycling.

Chester's Tomatoes
Chester and Sam selling their popular tomatoes.

Dave has seen a huge leap in confidence in all the kids since starting the business.

“Door-to-door cold calling is the hardest form of selling,” he says. “So, they were going in the deep end straight away. But if you can get confident in that, you can pretty much do anything in sales. Now it’s just second nature.”

A juicy success story

The feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, with many expressing joy at the sight (and sound) of Sam’s familiar trolley squeaking through the neighbourhood.

As Dave says, “The fact that some of the customers have been buying from me for four and a half years  – and keep buying – is testament to the fact that they’re providing something which is commercially viable.”

One of the business’s biggest supporters is neighbour and NSW Farmers Regional Service Manager for North Coast & Tablelands Mark Bulley, who has offered both encouragement and practical assistance to Chester’s Tomatoes over the years.

Chester’s Tomatoes continues to go from strength to strength. And, as the business’s youngest proprietor, what golden piece of advice would Sam give to someone looking to start their own business? “Don’t be afraid to try new things.”

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