Our Co-Founders On the Creation (And Future) Of Buffet
Strap yourself in for this month’s Back of House! We ask the big bosses themselves about first impressions of each other, the Broadsheet Sydney early days and what’s coming next in the content space for brands.By Rose Howard
Today’s did you know: in a parallel universe, Buffet could have been a shoppable online magazine. With Soph and Nik both coming from the world of digital publishing, and being in the business of storytelling and building community, this move initially made a lot of sense. That was, however, 2016. A time of crisis in the traditional media landscape when it seemed as if another print title was being axed every other week on home soil, and when big-name editors in the US were jumping ship to build their own brands or work in Big Tech.
What would it, then, all look like in one, two, five years’ time? As fate (but mostly brains) would have it, this editor-photographer duo instinctively knew where the future of food was heading. At that moment, social media platforms were continuing their rise and potential, and with that came the democratisation of content – brands (and restaurants) had more tools than ever at their disposal to build their own communities and tell their own stories, without relying on the media to do that for them.
Basically, that’s how Buffet came to be, circa 2017.
We’re now an in-house team of nine 🙂.
You know what’s weird though? We’ve actually never told this story ourselves, in full. If you’ve been in a new business pitch, or at a Buffet dinner, you may have heard snippets, the incomplete picture, the half-made sandwich. But what you’re really missing is all the juicy inside sandwich bits — to drive this on-brand analogy home – the butter, the cheese, the salad, the condiments, the protein!
So with that, we take you all the way back (truly, all the way back) to Nik’s first job out of uni as a photography intern in a helicopter, which was kind of random according to her. And to an exciting time full of unknowns, bringing Broadsheet from Melbourne to Sydney, with Soph at the helm. It’s actually how they met, before going on to found Buffet. Here they are, in their own words...
Buffet Day Away in Pittwater, 2021.
The very early days, 2018.
Ok, before we get into Big Ideas and credentials, first impressions when you both met face-to-face. It was kind of a job interview, right?
SMW: I actually have no memory of the first time we met. I feel like Nik’s always been there! I think I commissioned her to shoot a new venue for Broadsheet, and I remember I wasn’t super happy with the shots, Nik? Is that right? This is a bit awkward now but I think I was nice about it, eeeeeek. Regardless, Nikki went on to KILL IT for Broadsheet and really made the most of that opportunity. I don’t remember her ever saying no to a job, like ever.
NT: Haha! Yes, Soph commissioned me to shoot a new venue way back in 2013, it was one of my first photography jobs on my own after working as a photographic assistant for a number of years. I tried to get crafty with this specialised lens, traditionally used for more technical architectural photography. In reality, I kooked it, the effect didn’t quite work and I’ll always remember Soph giving me some constructive feedback. She said it wasn’t quite the ‘Broadsheet style’ but to try a few things differently for the next one. I was pretty stoked there was even a next! Had there not been, and I wasn’t given further opportunity to improve my skills and develop my interest in food photography in the Sydney restaurant scene, there might not be a Buffet. I learnt pretty quickly that Soph can really spot potential in people and has the ability to guide those she works with, whilst at the same time, letting them develop independently. Working with Soph and shooting for Broadsheet in my early days was integral to my career and where I am now.
Who’s the morning person, who’s the night owl?
SMW: I’m not convinced Nikki does actually sleep… but I would sleep into 10am if I could! A little baby gets me up quite early these days, which is a new feeling for me.
NT: I feel like I’m both! Always most productive in the morning though. SMW, I feel like you’re a new little early bird these days thanks to Neddy!
Sophie baking up baby Ned, November 2020.
On the initial Big Idea, pre-founding Buffet.
Soph, you joined Broadsheet in 2013 as Sydney Editor. Those were the early days. I did stalk your LinkedIn and saw a somewhat jaw-dropping stat that you grew their audience by more than 20,000 unique visitors a month to 300,000. How?!
SMW: Ha, who doesn’t love a LinkedIn humblebrag? I came on board with Broadsheet when they’d just expanded their coverage to a dedicated Sydney website – a first for the brand that was, and still is, deeply rooted in Melbourne. Helping grow a site from its infancy in a new city to ambitious growth targets was seriously exciting and also a challenge, mostly because Sydney readers had just never heard of Broadsheet. We had to convince them to trust us, we had to beat the big guys (Time Out, SMH) to the who’s-opening-next scoops, and we had to publish the most interesting, newest, most exciting food, culture and arts content in Sydney – those were the three things I worked most hard at.
Next was social. No media outlet was really nailing it back then, no one was investing in excellent photography, and Broadsheet really set a new media standard for imagery, which immediately struck a chord with this social-obsessed audience. We launched Instagram while I was there, I worked hard on our newsletters and dug deep to find the stories no one else was covering. Having a solid group of passionate contributors who had their feet and ears on the street for us helped enormously, because I was the only member of the team in Sydney for a long while, the team was (and always is) so core to any success. I remember the day we hit one million PVs (page views) per month thanks to this story which got picked up by outlets around the country. We opened the Champagne! The bottom line was to get there first, have the best and most interesting angle combined with incredible imagery and Just. Keep. Publishing. The internet never sleeps.
Nik, please tell us about your first experience on a high-stakes photoshoot as an intern, which took place (much to your surprise) in a helicopter:
NT: I had just finished my degree in Economics and Social Sciences and thought I’d take a break ahead of enrolling in post-grad law. I’d always enjoyed photography, dabbled in it alongside my studies, and knew an assistant who was leaving the photographer he had worked with for many years. He asked if I’d like to work with him. Keen for a change of scenery from my studies I went to an interview and agreed to go along to one of his shoots to get some experience. Little did I know, this shoot was going to be up in a helicopter, with one of the stunt pilots from The Matrix. It was pretty incredible, I ended up taking the job and working as a photographer’s assistant and never went back to do my law degree!
As a photographer, how’d you eventually land on food as your niche?
NT: There was definitely a time when I was first starting out that I really wasn’t sure which area of photography I wanted to focus on. I feel very lucky to have spent years assisting some of Australia’s best fashion, food and lifestyle photographers. This gave me incredible experience and the opportunity to learn within different disciplines e.g. learning how to light on a fashion shoot vs a still life product or food. I’ve always loved food as well. Coming from a Chinese family, food and coming together has been a prominent part of my upbringing. The two coming together didn’t really formalise until I started shooting for Broadsheet. Being commissioned to shoot multiple venues within a week, quickly and to a high standard taught me how to bring together my natural interests and all the technical skills I had learnt as an assistant. For example, a Broadsheet feature on a new venue would require me to shoot the food but also capture the interiors, the venue in action and portraits of the owners/staff. The more I did, the more I built my portfolio. It was a great introduction to the industry, integral to developing my photography skills in the food world, and ultimately a name for myself as a photographer in my own right.
Fast forward to 2017. Soph, you’re now Digital Editor at Gourmet Traveller. Nik, you’re shooting a cookbook for Katherine Sabbath and sitting on Vivid panels. All is going very well. Why leave it behind to start Buffet?
SMW: Oh god, I was so keen to leave Big Media behind – it felt so stuck in time, especially in digital. There was so much I wanted to do with GT but just couldn’t get past the red tape and budget cuts. I had amazing freedom at Broadsheet and missed that independence and the start-up energy. As for Buffet, we saw such a cool and pressing opportunity to work with the brands and venues we’d been covering for years – they had all the tools to be bigger and better online, they just needed creatives to work alongside them to guide the way. Buffet grew pretty organically, we just moved from one project to the next, tweaking as we went, slowly adding to the team, which has been the best fun. There’s SO much we want to do, and feel lucky to do it with some of the best! Glad to not be working out of parks and cafes and the tiny spare room of my house nowadays.
NT: 2017, I was in a good place with my photography business and also thinking about my next step. Things were very busy, I had a great assistant but was exploring the idea of building a team to help with production and branch out into the video space. Soph and I caught up and talked about initially collaborating on an online magazine together. (Yes! Buffet could have been a magazine - maybe it still will, one day.) Those initial plans to combine our skills in words and images ended up turning into a content business as we realised more and more clients needed help across all realms of the content world – social media, copywriting, photography, video. The rise of social media platforms during this time also cemented the need for this business opportunity that we seemingly stumbled upon! As Soph mentioned, it all grew pretty organically into a killer team working with some of Australia’s finest talent in the food, drink and lifestyle space!
How has the media landscape changed?
On a Vivid panel for Timeout Sydney, 2017.
You both possessed rich media and publishing experience but had never worked within a creative agency. Do you think that was a setback or your secret sauce?
SMW: I think some agency experience would have helped us a lot, just some bare-bones knowledge about processes and systems and the back end of it all. But creatively, we had everything we needed, plus a lot of energy and drive (oh man, to be 27 again). We’re a unique team in that I can take care of the strategy and copy side, while Nik can shoot and edit – and we both art direct and ideate together and bounce off one another. When we were starting out we didn’t need to outsource anything at all really. Clients were (and are still) drawn to us because we’re nimble and flexible, not bogged down in big-agency red tape and protocol. If that had been all we knew, it might have been harder to break the mould in what we wanted to create. We have built all our strategies and services from the bones of what feels right and what brands actually need, not a dusty old framework which has been used time and time again by big agencies, where brands are boxed into six archetype compartments and treated accordingly.
NT: Soph pretty much sums it up. Our editorial experience also gave us a great advantage in building Buffet. Understanding the media landscape and being quick with ideas and execution allowed us to create content for faster moving, emerging platforms that require larger volumes of content than your more traditional media and advertising channels.
What was the very first Buffet pitch, and how did it go down?
SMW: We worked on the launch of Paper Bird restaurant in Potts Point, which was SO much fun and exciting. It was our first restaurant launch as a team, and we loved it. The co-owner, Ned, is a mate, but that put the pressure on rather than made it easy.
Favourite business trips together?
SMW: Pre-COVID, we took a trip together every year! We’ve bounced around LA, NYC and Seoul together, eating and snacking and doing some magical thinking. We ended up travelling to South Korea twice in 2019 for work which was a total immersion into the culture and an experience I don’t think either of us will forget. It’s fun being friends and business partners and doing whatever we like, wherever we like.
NT: LA and NYC were super fun. We’ve really nailed the right balance between eating, exploring and shopping and sharing a tiny hotel room to save money for more food.
Most memorable shoots?
SMW: Oh man, so many. The launch shoot for Ragazzi was incredible – the opening was delayed due to some certificate being late, #typical, and everyone found out about an hour before service was meant to kick off - the staff were all there ready to roll. We’d been pushing pushing pushing to get the entire menu shot before the doors opened, which is where the magic really happens, right on the deadline! That’s when we came up with this shot, which I like to think has become something of an icon, is that weird to say? So many replicas of it out there now! Another would be that time we pretty much moved into Andrew McConnell’s Supernormal in Melbourne for three straight days. Good times, many dumplings, a fair bit of pressure.
NT: Eek, tricky one! Each shoot is such a unique experience and it’s such a privilege to be able to capture a slice of someone else’s world. All the travel shoots I’ve done have been incredible, launching Clayton Well’s restaurant, Blackwattle, in Singapore. Capturing food adventures in Japan, South Korea and Slovenia are also definitely up there. I really like shooting restaurant openings too, they can be a bit nerve-wracking but I’m into that – keeps me on my toes.
Buffet at the Drink Easy Awards, Melbourne 2019.
What's next in content land?
SMW: We’re lucky to get to try so many dishes on shoots at restaurants. They’re mostly cold, but it’s a real privilege. The salmon pastrami gildas at Ezra, the porchetta panino at Fabbrica, the wagyu at Cho Cho San, the chips and tarama at Greca… all before anyone else! So good.
NT: Yes, we’re professionals at eating very good cold food! I’ll always remember feeling so lucky to try Quay’s new menu multiple times from shooting its reopening in 2018.
Best way to use the office sandwich press:
SMW: I’ve been crisping gozleme to golden perfection before lockdown. Looking forward to getting back to my craft once we can get back in there. Extra lemon pls.
NT: Heating up my homemade quiche – don’t @ me.
Travelling on assignment to South Korea (twice!), 2019.
Experts at eating cold food on set.
Wrapping this up with some crystal ball insights. How has the media and content landscape changed since you both started out? And looking forward, will print make a comeback, will brands become the next great publishers and podcasters? Discuss.
SMW: This is such an exciting time for anyone making anything. When we started out, the word “content” was almost rebuffed, almost a dirty word. Now, it feeds the universe - it’s so important to cut through the noise by creating things that not only stand out but stand the test of time. Every restaurant now knows they not only need an Instagram account, but it needs to be original and cutting edge, it needs to be planned. Not only that, but brands need to think outside the social box - how can you translate the world of your business to exist in the lives of your customers when they leave your space? Audio, print, product – there are so many exciting avenues for brands today to move beyond their physical four walls, and even their original offering. Community is where it begins and ends.
NT: The democratisation of content creation thanks to the rise of social media marketing platforms means the possibilities can seem overwhelming! Yes, it’s great we can all create an Instagram account and start chatting to an audience, but there’s actually a lot to coordinate if you want to get it right and stand out from the wash. We’ve seen increased demand for strategy with our clients, which tells us brands really value the process of planning out their messaging and direction before jumping straight into creation. Brands are in effect their own publishers and this will continue to develop. It’s really about getting the balance right, between your visual style and tone of voice, working out what channels suit you and your goals best, and of course branching out to other mediums like print and podcasts, but only if it’s right for the brand. Once you’re in the groove the key is maintaining consistency with your content and always allowing for that regular injection of innovation as you go along.
Finally, what’s next for Buffet?
SMW: We’ve been circling some thoughts about renovating our studio space to include some exciting new expansions, we’re launching our first audio product this year, have two print projects on the go and wow – you may soon be able to wear a little piece o’ Buffet on your feet… watch this space.
NT: Growth is such a dynamic and layered adventure and we’re feeling grateful and excited by the possibilities that are in front of us. Amongst a few tangible developments that Soph touched on, we’re focusing on developing our work with new and existing clients as well as our team. We’re always exploring new ways Buffet can create and communicate but at the same time, we’re learning that we can’t be everything to everyone. It’s a crucial time to look at our strengths and areas for opportunity and give ourselves the time and space to focus on this.