• Luana Spadafora

Danielle Lebon, Co-founder of Co-Lab Pantry

Co-Lab Pantry is an online store selling next-day delivery specialty produce and gourmet food from the best restaurants, bars and local makers in Melbourne and Victoria. The wide-ranging pantry—stocking iconic Victorian brands like Brunetti's, Four Pillars Gin, ST ALi coffee, Tipico and Yarra Valley Dairy—started out in early 2020 as an emotional project to help local restaurants find a much-needed source of revenue during COVID-19 lockdowns. With one of the strictest lockdowns in the Western world, Victorians faced a challenging year, and it was especially devastating for the food and hospitality industry.

Co-Lab now has over 150 restaurant partner businesses from Melbourne and regional Victoria, with new products added daily. And not just food products - you'll find cook books, clothing merchandise, tote bags and lots of fancy drops.

I spoke to Co-Lab co-founder Danielle Lebon—who's previously worked with the likes of Mecca, Gradi Group, Nique and Frank Body—about the creation of Co-Lab and her career journey so far.

Some of the goodies you can buy from Co-Lab Pantry

Tell us about your career journey in design and photography and how Co-Lab Pantry came about.

My journey started over 10 years ago when I began a double degree in Communication Design and Business (Marketing). I studied abroad and freelanced through the course to build up my experience, network and clientele. I then worked client-side, agency-side and went on to run my own businesses working with over 300 brands including the likes of Mecca, Gradi Group, Nique, Frank Body and many others in a vast range of industries - architecture, fashion, beauty, hospitality, education, health, floristry, etc. both locally and globally. I love learning and sharing, and I’ve been able to continue doing both as a brand mentor at the Australian Style Institute.

I was first introduced to the world of e-commerce at Mecca when I worked as part of the e-comm team that saw Mecca online and their social channels develop, transition and grow. I learned so much from the people around me and began to learn how valuable your network is.

Co-lab Pantry came about initially as an emotional project to help an industry we were so passionate about (hospitality). Through the pandemic, we saw restaurants dabble in the retail space by producing retail products that consumers could use at home in their own kitchens.

Living in the outer suburbs, we found a gap in the market—these restaurants didn’t deliver as far as our suburbs and these products simply weren’t available on any delivery apps or platforms. These products were chef-created ingredients so that you too could produce restaurant quality meals in your own home on the days you aren’t eating out.

After many, many conversations with restaurants, we developed a model that would work well with their existing business models, so that when they reopened it would fit nicely into their day-to-day processes without disruptions.

Have you always had a love affair with food and Melbourne's dining scene?

From a young age, I was obsessed with food. I’d visit my grandparents as a 4-year old and ask for a crunchy roll filled with different textures of salad and cured meat instead of a packet of chips or chocolate. My grandmother would laugh in disbelief.

At 10 years old, my cousin and I would have eating competitions because we both couldn’t get enough of the satisfaction food gives. When I finished school, I made it my mission to visit all the best restaurants and created a live list of each one I deemed as worthy across Victoria and then the world. My list grew to over 400 places that then became the basis of Co-lab Pantry.

What does a typical work day at Co-lab look like?

Given Co-lab is a start-up, no two days are the same. And boy do we mean that! We wear many hats—admin, customer service, logistics, operations, finance, creative, marketing, sales, tech, the list goes on. It’s a constant juggle of everything and the priority list changes each day. There is so much diversity in our day but it’s what we thrive off.

Apart from Co-Lab, what are some other standout projects you've worked on throughout your career?

That’s a tough question because each project has been so unique that they've all stood out in their own way. I’d have to say a standout project for me was when I was beginning my Masters course where we had the amazing opportunity to work with PHNNWM on developing better service integration for priority populations. I’ve also loved working on projects such as Jason Grech’s 2020 range and designing a cafe from brand to interior. I like to work on projects with meaning and with people who inspire me.

Some of the goodies you can buy from Co-Lab Pantry

This is a tough one! What's your favourite, can't-live-without cuisine? What's your go-to snack on the go when you're working?

This is tough!!

Can’t live without cuisine—I have to choose 3—Japanese, Vietnamese and Meditteranean.

Go-to snack: either D’affinois cheese on a lavosh cracker, or what we call in Maltese ‘hobz biz zejt’ which is bread with olive oil and tomato paste, topped with tuna, olives, tomato, onion, capers and cracked pepper.

What are your top three tips for other entrepreneurs starting out?

Surround yourself with good people. Prepare yourself for hard work and long hours. It’s really important to have a good support network around you who understand and can lift you up in those times you can’t lift yourself up.

Communication is key. You can never over-communicate, only under-communicate. I’ve found with every scary situation, communication is always the answer, and it always turns out better than you expect. People just want transparency.

Make time for you. This is something I’ve always struggled with and still do now. It’s easy to feel like making time to rest or do things for yourself is unproductive. There are always a million things that can be done in that time, but I’m learning that when I do stop and take a breather, the time that follows is always so much more productive than it would’ve been without it.

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©2019 by Luana Spadafora