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September 29, 2023

Q&A with Ashley Vola

Ashley Vola is the owner of Vola Foods, an eatery located in Brunswick dedicated to serving authentic Cameroonian cuisine. The site, once an overgrown lot, now houses a converted shipping container where Vola has hand-crafted a space that reflects her heritage and allows guests to see the cityscape of Brunswick in a new light. She shared with us the inspiration that fuelled her venture and how she transformed her idea into a reality.

Words: Deborah Monrad-Hunt
Illustration: Evie Cahir

You’ve got such an interesting and unique business model; you’ve really taken your passion project and started it from the ground up. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for Vola Foods came about and how you made it happen?

I always wanted to have an African restaurant, but I also wanted it to be like an outdoor warehouse and very traditional looking. My goal was for somebody to walk through the door of my restaurant and have the experience of being in Melbourne but not being in Melbourne – I wanted to take them back to my family home. Growing up here, there wasn’t anything like back home from when I was a child. I’ve always been creative, I loved watching cooking shows, I wanted my own restaurant but I just didn’t know how to go about it. 

I looked at so many commercial places but everything was out of my budget and I had no security. They were asking for three to five thousand dollars a month in rent plus GST plus all the outgoings. The bank wouldn’t give me a business loan because I didn’t have enough in savings – when you’re starting out, you need to have 50% of whatever you’re going to borrow. 

My brother sends car parts to Africa and it got me thinking about shipping containers. It’s bigger than a food truck, I could fit it out however I wanted, and they were around the two-thousand-dollar mark back then. I asked my mum if I could put it in front of her house and then called the local council to make sure she wouldn’t get in trouble. They told me it would be fine as long as it’s on private property. So, I found a shipping container on Facebook Marketplace, arranged a tow truck and got to work.

It took a good five months working on it at my mum’s house. I started thinking about how I wanted the kitchen to look, what equipment I was going to use, and I planned it all out using a home design app on my phone. I didn’t know what I was doing and I made a lot of mistakes, but it meant that the plumber, the welder and the electrician could look at it and understand where I wanted things. 

Then my mum got a phone call from the council saying that there was a complaint that someone was living in a shipping container in front of her house and that it didn’t look good for the area. I didn’t have anything in writing so they told me it had to be removed in two weeks. I went on and started looking for land. I found a few sites that were ready to go but again they were out of my budget. I ended up finding the land after walking past it after work one night. It was a dump; the trees were all the way up to my neck. But I saw the potential, I liked the area and the size, and I could afford it.

Before we moved, we cut the grass and levelled the land. It was muddy, there was broken glass and trash, no electricity or plumbing. When I say we started from the bottom, I mean it. We used portable toilets in the beginning because it was the easiest way to go at the time. As we grew, we started getting more containers and we divided one into a toilet. 

It has been a process and it took about seven months from signing the land to opening the business. In the end, I just wanted to take a risk. That’s hard to do and there were a lot of hiccups. I just listened to my gut and made it happen.

"It was a dump; the trees were all the way up to my neck. But I saw the potential, I liked the area and the size, and I could afford it."

What were some of the hidden elements of opening a business that no one really knows about? 

The communication with the council was definitely a setback. I knew I needed a food permit but I had no idea about anything else. I called my local council and I was told it was fine to move and that I didn’t need a building permit for what I was doing. But when I went by the office to pay for the food permit, they wouldn’t approve it because I did need the building permit. It was back and forth like this for three months. I was paying rent and it was going down the drain. Eventually, I called up and said, “The shipping container is already there, I’m not moving it, what do I need to do to open my business?” In the end, I didn’t need one because it was during lockdown and I was opening an outdoor restaurant. This time though, I got it in writing.

Depending on the equipment you’re going to be using, things like gas bottles, you’re going to need certificates of approval or compliance. If you’re building electricity from scratch like us, you need safety approval from the council. You need an approved waste agreement from Yarra Waters. You’ll need someone to have a food safety certification and you definitely need public liability insurance to protect yourself and your staff. The council may need a business plan and they’ll probably send out a safety inspector to approve everything before you open.

Just be ready for the sleepless nights. Because we all have these beautiful ideas, we go to other places a lot and see all of these great things but don’t realise behind the scenes what it takes to get it. I honestly had no idea how tough it was to open a business, especially with permits. I just thought you get your certificates and you’re done but it’s definitely not like that so that’s one thing you need to do is as much research as you can into what you need here. 

The one thing I did learn, you can’t take anything personally in business, you’ve got to push for what you want. Honestly, you really just have to listen to your gut. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing, but I’m also learning. It’s not always going to work out but you’re gonna learn something and that’s how you move forward.

“Just be ready for the sleepless nights. Because we all have these beautiful ideas, but don’t realise behind the scenes what it takes.”

What’s one thing you wish you could have implemented into your current concept now that you look back on what you’ve accomplished? Is there something you wish you could have done differently?

I set the business up in a way where if I’m not there, it wouldn’t run. I was too involved in the kitchen; I didn’t know how to let go. Communication hasn’t been my strongest point with teaching people to do things. People don’t know the food and I have all the recipes in my head. They were too close to my heart; I didn’t want people changing the recipes, changing the quality. I’ve bought another shipping container for the bar but I’ve been so hands-on in the kitchen I haven’t really had time to step out. So, if I was to start again, I would be better at training and letting others take charge more, rather than me constantly always having to be there.

What I’ll say is that I don’t really have any regrets. Honestly, I don’t live for regret, I live for lessons. You can’t have regrets as long as we’re learning each day. 

“When I say we started from the bottom, I mean it.”

Can you talk a bit about your menu concept creation. You’re making a lot of traditional dishes from your home country that are really personal to you. How did you translate that for an Australian audience?

A lot of my dishes are very authentic and I haven’t really changed them, especially our fish stew which is very traditional. I’ve been in Australia a long time and I understand the Australian taste buds so I use herbs and things, but the spices are from Cameroon. They have to be otherwise it’s just not the dish. 

Before I opened up, I cooked a lot for my family and my sister Kelly who is my biggest critic. I used to do a lot of catering so I’ve had a lot of people eat my food and give me feedback. So I’ve really been working on this menu slowly for about eight years now, but it all comes from the heart.

“I just listened to my gut and made it happen.”

With such a unique style of venue, was marketing a challenge? How did you let people know you were there?

Social media and worth of mouth. Like, we have a sign but you can’t even see it. So social media has honestly been our biggest thing. It’s 2023 and if you’re not on social media, no one is going to be talking about you. People want to see what you’re about before they go to you. I will say I’ve been blessed to have the right people in the community around us. You know, someone will come in who knew someone who was a massive foodie on Tiktok, or someone else who loved my food and my story came in and happened to know someone working for The Age.

It’s about focusing on customer service and community. Google reviews are so important to bring in people and every review will make you better. Bad reviews tell you what you need to work on. If something is not going well, I’m changing the menu. I don’t take anything negatively; I look at it as an opportunity for improvement. 

What’s your best advice for someone wanting to start their own passion project?

Get everything in writing! And don’t overload yourself, don’t bite off more than you can chew. My biggest thing is, if it feels good you have to do it. If something is nagging you and you can’t sleep at night, you have to do it. I’m just trying to cook and do what I feel is best for me and my family and my team.

Have a clear goal on where you want to go, put it out there and don’t take no for an answer. Believe in yourself, stay true to yourself and enjoy your sleep while you can.

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