Justine Muollo: the self-confessed workaholic and mastermind behind products such as the Biscotti Spoon and Justine’s Cookies. I met with her on a drizzly Thursday afternoon to discuss her accolades in life and the propelling forces that have inevitably shaped her success.
Upon entering Justine’s headquarters one is greeted by the smell of fresh flowers, beautiful furniture and a large vintage map pinned to the wall, reflecting Justine’s love of travel. Justine herself is contagious, her passionate and vivacious nature infecting those that surround her. I must admit that due to the weather, I was feeling a little pessimistic but that quickly turned that around: upon leaving the office I felt light and good-humoured and I can’t blame anyone but Justine for this.
I started the interview with the simple yet probing statement of ‘tell me a bit about yourself’, with someone else this might have left a stark, unelaborated response but Justine left little to de desired, demonstrating that all of life's quirks mould a person completely and unabashedly. Of her heritage and background as a Wellingtonian she tells me: “My parent’s okay, their grandparents came out here, were on the ships that came over to New Zealand and six months later my parents were born and they settled in Island Bay. To cut a long story short, my background is Italian but I was born and bred here”. She touches on her education at high schools St Mary’s and Saint Catherine’s but this quickly leads to her discussing cooking, which I think she equates with true learning:
“I have always had a passion for baking, since I was little I used to watch my mum cook, right? Always in the kitchen, always baking and my downtime was reading cookbooks, your dish/taste magazines, you name it. So, I kind of took over the cooking in the family, there’s five of us in the family so I have always had a real fascination for food.”
She then moves on to discuss helping her father in is hotelier business, owning the “Hotel Raffaelle” on Oriental Parade which taught her skills in kitchen management and accounting. Of this time she adds:
“I ended up doing the accounts side for the hotel for eight years, after that I felt really suppressed and depressed. I am a really creative person, I love creating. I am not a studious person, I’m more visual and I have crazy ideas.”
We laugh over this because these “crazy ideas” are obviously an integral part of her success in the business world, merging creativity and a head for numbers with a apparent entrepreneurial flair.
Beyond this, Justine describes the moment when she first thought up the Biscotti Spoon, an achievement that has graced her with international success at the prestigious Sial D’or awards based in Paris, France. Within this, she won Grocery Product of the Year, which is no small feat by any means. She recalls an incident in which she and her sister were in a cafe together and opposite their table was a gentleman who had ordered a large cappuccino and a cookie:
“I remember looking at him and he was really stressed about something and he was looking around and anyway, he broke off a bit of his cookie, looked around and dunked it into his coffee and I said to my sister, “look at that guy over there, he’s feeling really self- conscious about dunking his biscuit in his coffee, wouldn’t it be great if you had a spoon shaped cookie to dunk in your coffee that’s bio-degradable?” and she looked at me like, 'you are totally nuts'.”
However, Justine knew that this was something she wanted to pursue and after being turned down by many manufacturers she met a man called Ross, who helped her achieve this dream which ultimately graced her with the Sial D’or, a globally recognised prize centred around food innovation.
Amidst this success, Justine has faced many plights ranging from machine malfunctioning to court cases with larger companies who have attempted to market the Biscotti Spoon as their own. However, Justine came off as the victor in these battles. After these ordeals, Justine took a year off but without a creative outlet she found herself becoming depressed again, the light at the end of the tunnel was her own insight and intuition in detecting a gap in the market that was the protein cookie. Of this she says:
“I saw a gap in the market, diabetes was on the increase, like wheat and gluten intolerance and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a nice wheat and gluten free cookie that was also really low in carbohydrate? Because everything has sugar.’ So, I started again. I spent 18 months developing the protein cookie, and then I set another company up, did all the marketing and branding. I leased a little factory out, a little premise in Marjoribanks St, set all that up bought in all new equipment and that was called ‘the protein bakery’.”
She finalised her strategy by approaching cafes and gyms in the hope that they would stock her product. Eventually, she scored a contract with Starbucks after they asked her to recreate two products; a chocolate covered graham cracker and a ginger snap. “Since then til now,” she says, circling back to Justine’s Protein Cookies, “there have been maybe 4 times where we’ve moved factories. We are exporting to Australia, the Middle East and now we’re getting into Canada.”