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ENTERPRISING JOURNEYS

The chef revolutionising Australian food

A confident entrepreneur with short, styled hair and glasses stands with crossed arms. They are dressed in a colorful, patterned shirt and dark pants. The backdrop includes a modern building and an open brick-paved plaza under a clear blue sky.

Nornie Bero

Mabu Mabu

The Business
Mabu Mabu
The Founder
Nornie Bero, 2018
The Concept
A multifaceted business including a restaurant, condiments range and catering that champions native Australian ingredients
What’s Next
Rumours of an interstate expansion of Mabu Mabu’s popular restaurant Big Esso
My ‘Pinch Myself’ Moment
‘If you’d told someone like me, a poor kid growing up on an island with a spear in my hand, that I was going to be a CEO and run a restaurant with 80 staff I would have had no idea what you were talking about.’

An entrepreneurial upbringing

“Dad was an entrepreneur, not that I saw it at the time,” Bero says. “It was all so we could buy 20 litres of petrol to run the generator and have lights in the house, because none of the houses had electricity.”

Nornie Bero got her first job before she’d even turned 10, delivering her dad’s warm, freshly baked native pumpkin buns and fish burgers made with freshly caught island fish to her local Torres Strait islanders before school each morning. She wasn’t much older when her dad built a bamboo wall down the middle of their house on Mer Island to create a tuckshop to sell his baked goods.

Clearly it rubbed off as Bero was soon displaying her own resourceful, entrepreneurial spirit, skipping confirmation classes to pick fresh mangoes and tamarinds she’d use to pickle the octopus she caught at dawn each morning. Brought up by extended family and her dad, a single father at 20, Bero says it was a childhood rich in culture, tradition and native food.

“We were super, super poor but I never thought we were poor because I never went hungry. My dad got sick very young so I’d make things out of nothing, when you live on the islands you’re very resourceful. I had a great upbringing, I really appreciate now that I learnt to stand on my own two feet.”

Four colorful cans of tea and hot chocolate, labeled "Kara Meta," are displayed on a table. One can is open, spilling leaves, and a spoon is in a mug nearby. A plant is in the foreground, while more greenery decorates the background, showcasing perfect business ideas for women entrepreneurs.

The mabu mabu empire

Fast forward 30-plus years and Bero is the founder and CEO of Mabu Mabu, a multi-faceted business that includes the popular 200-seat restaurant Big Esso in Melbourne’s Federation Square that heroes Indigenous ingredients; the successful condiments line Kara Meta, her native curries, jams, sauces and pickles available in 500 supermarkets and stores nationwide and the catering business Tuck Shop, named in honour of her dad.

“For someone like me – a poor kid growing up on an island with a spear in my hand – if you’d told me then I was going to be a CEO and running a restaurant with 80 staff I would have had no idea what you were talking about!” Bero says.

Unpredictable Beginnings

The journey of how she got there is one of resilience, determination and refusal to give up. With her Dad too sick to work Bero moved to the mainland aged 16 and juggled school and two jobs: working on a banana plantation in Innisfail, far north Queensland, and making pub meals in the kitchen of the local pub.

“And that’s how I started in hospitality,” she laughs.

Two years later she moved to Melbourne but, despite two year’s hospitality experience no-one would employ her.

“It was really hard finding a job because of the way I looked, and being female. I just needed the opportunity to get in the door.”

A variety of dishes arranged on a table. Plates include cooked fish, sliced yellow cake, mashed vegetables with red leafy garnish, green salad with figs, crispy croquettes, and a round of buttercream-topped rolls. A pink and white menu highlighting female businesses is visible to the side.
A small jar labeled "Pepper Berry" lies on a speckled white surface with its lid off, next to a scattering of pepper berries. Below it, a wooden plate holds two red and white botanical flowers and a small silver lid—a perfect setup for any women in business looking to add charm and flavor while starting a business.

Eventually the manager of the Grandview Hotel in Fairfield took a punt and gave her a job in the restaurant kitchen. She was on her way. For two decades she honed her skills in various kitchens before buying a market stall in the South Melbourne markets in 2018 selling her condiments, enabling her to build the Mabu Mabu brand (‘help yourself’ in Meriam Mir, Nornie’s first language before creole and English) and despite repeat offers she waited for the right one before selling her stall and using the proceeds to start Tuck Shop, a 30-seat cafe in Yarraville in 2019.

“Everything was done by choosing the right moments of being able to grow,” she says, noting she remains self-funded to this day.

By now the business had expanded to include her events catering line, initially supported by her network of ‘gay and rainbow friends’ who would have her cater their anniversaries, birthdays and events, with word soon spreading about this innovative, delicious range of food championing Australian native ingredients.

‘If i can do it, anyone can’: words of wisdom

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Believe in yourself. “You have to have faith that you can do anything you want, it’s only up to you if you want to succeed.”

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Pay for a good accountant, even if you feel you can’t afford it. “It’s an investment worth making, it helps the longevity of the business particularly if you need a loan.”

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Ask for help if you don’t know something. “The worst thing someone will say is no, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end, keep asking. There are many - particularly women - businesses out there willing to help.”

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Learn to plan for longevity. “That’s been the toughest part: it’s not just about the next month, you’ve got to plan for years to come, and there are so many people I’m responsible for now - how do you maintain that for the future?”

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Just do it. “No matter how much you plan you never know until you start whether it’s going to work or not so just go for it and if it doesn’t work, try something else.”

It’s 2023 and Mabu Mabu has survived Covid through sheer hard work, determination and resourcefulness, with rumours of interstate expansion. What has been the best bit?

“THAT A KID LIKE ME, WHO LOOKS LIKE ME, IS OUT THERE SHOWING THAT PEOPLE OF COLOUR CAN COME FROM ANY KIND OF BACKGROUND AND REALLY ACHIEVE SOMETHING.”

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