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The Great COVID Pivot: From designing Sydney’s premium restaurants to crafting their own line of Mustard

We don’t need to tell you how tough it’s been for small businesses to survive during a pandemic, you’ve heard enough about that already. A story of a different kind, this is a tale of a business emerging as a by-product of lockdown and before you jump to conclusions – it doesn’t involve Zoom, sanitiser, or masks. 

What do you do when every one of your local and international projects are put on indefinite hold?

For the three-man team of Design Partnership Australia (DP Aus), lockdown accompanied by a stark drop in business was the exact thing they needed to finally back the idea they had been toying with for the last three years. But it’s never an easy feat and certainly not in a global crisis.

More commonly known around Work inc’s community as the ‘Mustard Boys,’ Callie Van Der Merwe, Roberto Zambri, and Calvin Janse van Vuuren make up the team. They’re a breed of architects, specialised in designing retail and hospitality spaces centred around human behaviour. Together they have a deep yearning and curiosity to solve problems in creative and appealing ways so, naturally, they set out to solve one of their own problems and the answer came up mustard. 

What does mustard have to do with architecture? Absolutely nothing.

At the beginning of 2020, Design Partnership Australia was going strong; they had global and local projects that would come to win awards and it was set to be a record breaking year but with their clients being in the hospitality industry and that being the first to go when a global health pandemic hits, it meant every one of their projects got put on hold.

March 2020 – Founding partner of DP Aus, Callie, sat down with the team to talk through every possible thing that could hit them over the next year and they decided a new plan was to be hatched. For three years they have toiled with the idea of a product, making the shift from selling themselves to potential clients and rather selling something as simple as a bag or pottery. But it wasn’t until Sydney went into lockdown that the team had time to spare to sit and really think, so they weren’t going to let it escape them.

They did a full reconnaissance mission to develop a product and what they found was a family-grown mustard recipe close to their hearts. Callie’s wife and chemistry extraordinaire/product developer, Marina Van Der Merwe, is the mind behind the mustard formulation passed down from Callie’s parents. Quite soon, a jar of mustard would give the company purpose and a new direction. 

“One day if you look back on your life you would want to have impact, purpose… When you design a building or a restaurant, nobody can come ask you for another one of those. As a designer you’re not selling that thing, you are the product and when you are the product, you’re always in servitude of somebody. Therefore, you can never fulfil your own purpose properly.” – Callie 

Ditching the Dijon, and mustarding strength for something a little more saucy
It’s called VanDeRō – An Australian Craft Mustard

‘Van De’ – meaning ‘of the’ and relating to the group’s Dutch heritage

‘Rō’ – relating to the delicacy of caviar, but instead it is of the land, a fine mustard seed 

A line of mustard could not have come at a better time. With more people at home and less opportunity to go out, we’re seeing people get experimental with their fridge staples and there’s no reason you can’t muck around with some mustard in your meal. We envision this zingy condiment to make a place on the charcuterie board, glazed atop a cake or donut, and giving a proper punch to the gooey cheese toastie, sausage sizzle, and premium cut steak. 

VanDeRō has every aspect of Mustard covered and don’t go looking for another alternative on the shelves of Woolies and Coles, we’ve looked, there isn’t any. These guys have been ruthlessly comprehensive with their curation and they’re sure to blow your top off – some are actually really hot, read your labels!

Tickle your fancy with a Craft Beer Mustard; Sundried Tomato & Honey; Nuts, Seeds & Port; or get your senses really revving with either the Bird’s Eye Chilli or Cracked Pepper Mustard; and for those in hope of a lighter experience then there’s the one-of-a-kind Seeded Sweet White Rō.

From the outset the Mustard had to give in some way

“Over time the design conversations started to filter into a conversation of how we can add value to other people around us, not just our clients. Once you do a design project, it’s done, but it doesn’t add value to anyone else but your client.” – Roberto 

It’s difficult to talk to VanDeRō without them first divulging their values driving this new venture. From the outset they were definitive that built into the business model was to be a cause that helped others, and it couldn’t be a seasonal marketing ploy. Fittingly, the Australian company sought to start in their own backyard. VanDeRō are on a mission to provide food security for all Australians. Through the support of OzHarvest, the entire mustard range contributes one meal for every jar purchased.

Overnight success doesn’t really exist

It used to be a conversational aspiration and after three months of red-eyed development it’s come to full fruition. The VanDeRō/Design Partnership office sits on the ground floor of Work inc’s Bay 9 and there’s no chance you could miss it. You can tell these three have used every skerrick of know-how they’ve acquired over the years in the industry – the office walls are brimmed vibrant, gold-foiled mustard jars, and if you look closely you may just spot a mustard boy working in their element behind the floor to ceiling shelving.  

“Design Partnership Australia – we have designed to human behaviour. And VanDeRō – we are changing human behaviour. That’s our parallel.” – Calvin 

Not only can you see the obvious specialist design elements in the packaging of the product, but their network of retail and restaurant owners have also been put to good use; the team plan to sell wholesale to the very restaurants they designed as well as make the gourmet mustard an extra feature of the dinner experience – take home the condiment that made your rib eye so tantalising?

But for us, the exciting part is that no matter where VanDeRō goes, we will always look at it with pride knowing that Work inc had something special to do with its genesis. 

VanDeRō x Work inc Coworking

One of the many benefits of operating out of a coworking space is the helpful community of well-versed business owners, and one of the many benefits of Work inc is the team that incontestably comes with the space. 

“The people around us have opened up a world to us; we’ve got Paul next to us who pops in every now and then to give us marketing advice, then there’s Warren on the other side, he’s an optometrist, but he knows three times more about Australia Post than us. ” – Roberto 

When someone’s in need, it feels like the whole neighbourhood has your back. The Work inc team provided the taste buds for mustard scrutineering, as well as acting like a sounding board for any niggle the team had. For us, this was our first time dappling in this area, but we had a lot of fun collaborating on this project of theirs. 

“We’d say to each other, ‘Have you checked with the Work inc team? No? Go get their feedback, go!’ And they’d run off and they’d come back saying, ‘nah your idea was shit…’” – Calvin 

Lonely is often the word left behind when we talk about entrepreneurship, but it can really feel like no one wants to help or support your endeavour. 

“It’s tough starting on your own, you need to navigate an almost secret world where it can be hard to get any answers because to everyone, you’re just more competition.” – Kristy Bannister, ops director of Work inc & founder of Dr. Dough Donuts 

Finding your feet in a world of chaos

Now the DP Aus side of things are picking up, thankfully, but it also means the team has to continue to learn how to balance their time between the two businesses as VanDeRō grows with familiarity in delis, restaurants, supermarkets, and Aussie fridges.

In a single moment, 70% of Design Partnership’s work was gone and within two weeks their entire income stream disappeared. The world’s a long way off from it’s previous state and while we will never again visit the old normality; Callie, Roberto, and Calvin, are confident with the success of their two businesses that whatever the world throws at them next they’re more than ready for the pivot. 

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