Concentrated quality – interview with Hank’s Jam

Hank’s Jam is a Sydney centric brand that is synonymous with quality. With humble beginnings in a Sydney kitchen over 20 years ago, the brand has grown substantially, yet managed to maintain its cottage industry processes and ethos.

Food magazine recently caught up with general manager of Hank’s Jam, Bernie Rorke to chat about the company’s journey over the years, including signing a deal with Woolworths, and exporting to the UAE and China.

The story of Hank’s Jam began when Hank, a young Danish chef working in a restaurant in Darlinghurst, started to make marmalade. It wasn’t long before word of mouth started to spread, resulting in the brand creating somewhat of a cult following. Over time, demand increased so dramatically that Hank quit his job as a chef and started to make the jam full time, the only thing was that Hank really had no intention of creating a business.

“It got to the stage where it started to get bigger then he really wanted,” said Rorke. “My partner Chris was running a number of cafes and he used to sell Hank’s Jams because he loved the product. Basically Hank came in one day to deliver the products and sort of said that he wasn’t enjoying cooking it anymore, and didn’t want anything to do with the business. So from there, Chris decided to buy the Hank’s business.”

From there, Rorke says that he and his business partner decided to keep the same cooking methods that Hank used which involved slow reduction cooking, but on a larger scale to satisfy commercial demand.  

“It’s still the same methods,” says Rorke. “We’ve just automated the jarring. So in essence we are still creating that same product with the care and love that Hank put into it.”

Slow reduction cooking

The traditional method that Rorke refers to involves reduction cooking using all natural products, and no preservatives.

“We have to cook it down to a particular rich level, because otherwise, we would get mould in the jam. If we were just trying to get the highest yield, we would just reduce it slightly and put preservatives in it which is what stops the mould forming. We also put the highest amount of fruit when compared to other commercial jam manufacturers, and that combined with the reduction cooking method, and all natural ingredients, gives us the flavour that we have built our reputation on.”

The main distribution avenues for Hank’s up until recently have been solely cafes and independent retailers. It’s only been recently that the products have been available in Woolworths – a decision that Rorke says involved two years of persistence on the retailer’s behalf.

“What happened was that like any business, we got to the stage that we had to look at the commercial viability of the business. We really wanted to keep the cottage industry feel with our product but about three years ago, Woolworths approached us. They were doing a promotion for Australian Made and local produce and wanted to get the Hank’s brand involved. Chris tossed and turned about it and for two years he kept saying no. Saying that it’s not where he wanted the brand to be but then the commercial realities kind of set in.”

From there, the company made an interesting decision. They decided to sell three of the Hank’s products with a slightly different label to Woolworths.

“We received a bit of flak from our followers at the start but, 90 percent of our products are still going out through independent retailers and word of mouth through cafes so the vast majority of our business is still back to that traditional channel,” says Rorke. “It was a really tough decision to make and I mean we did cop a bit of flak at the start, but it’s started to settle now.

“Rightly or wrongly, we are actually in the process of bringing our packaging back into its original retro style, the only real addition being a coloured tab that differentiates the flavours. When we went away from the original design to the different labels for the Woolworths products, we found that it created a lot of confusion for our customers, so we’ve bought it back to our grass roots I suppose.”

Exporting Hank’s to the world

Exports wise, Rorke says that Dubai has served the company particularly well. Hank’s started importing its miniature 28gm breakfast jars to hotels and serving them inflight on Qantas first and business class.

“We invested in creating the smaller jars for the hotels and airlines because in reality, there was only one other player in the market doing it in Australia and they were a lower end jam, and Qantas and a lot of five star hotels were looking for a more premium product,” says Rorke.

In addition to the single serve jars, Hank’s are also exporting its 285gm retail sized jars to Dubai and more recently to China and the US.

“At the moment we have had good positive feedback so we are just going to wait and see as to whether that takes off. We’ve been in Dubai for about six months and they have had about two or three orders. We are also just breaking into a couple of the airlines over there as well as the five star hotels.

China however wasn’t quite as smooth sailing as Dubai.

“We’ve got a good distributor [in Dubai], but it’s a lot of learning by mistakes too,” says Rorke. “For example with China we’ve had some major challenges relating to getting product cleared through customs – it was a bit of a nightmare but we finally got it through, and it cost a lot more than we expected. But I think the initial hurdle of getting it in there was the hard part.”

The demand for quality

In addition to the airlines and premium hotel market, Rorke says that Hank’s original key distribution channel – foodservice – remains to be one of the brands most loyal, especially with the increased demand for artesian bread.

“One of the biggest drivers of jam has been the increase in good quality bread. If people are going to make the decision to buy good quality bread, then they want a good quality jam as well to put on it,” says Rorke.”Cafes in general have really upped the ante in the quality of their food offering, they see it as their big point of difference. Cafes have always been a centre piece to Hank’s. We have found cafes to be the ones to really take to our products and influence people to go out and buy it in retailers.”

When it comes to new flavours and innovations, Rorke says that the brand has launched a number of new additions including a tomato sauce, strawberry and rhubarb jam and new ‘exotic’ lines including fig and cinnamon jam, and pawpaw and passionfruit jam. But there are two lines that have been outstanding star performers.

“One of our products that has grown dramatically is the pear and vanilla jam because pear is the only fruit that doesn’t have allergies. The product is also the only jam that’s listed on the RPA elimination diet handbook,” says Rorke. “But our biggest mover, and our fastest mover has been our chutneys.

“We find that chefs – the trained palette – just love the chutneys because they love testing their palate. So they’ll sit there and ponder the flavour and try and guess what’s in it.

“Chefs are under a lot of pressure to add flavour to the meals that they make all the time, so if they can get a chutney that works well, they love it. The foodservice sector really has been a big door opener for us.”

Although foodservice is still the main bread winner for the brand, Rorke says that the retail sector is continuing to gain momentum, especially as people look for quality over quality.

“The premium jam sector is the one that’s growing the most in the retail sector because people are really demanding quality. The lower sugar jams have declined enormously because people want a quality product. People are not eating jam for health, they are eating it for flavour.”


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