Johannesburg – Karen Short bursts into her Linbro Park, Sandton, offices straight off the plane from London, where she’s been researching frozen meals to ensure that, when she launches her own brand here, it’ll dazzle dinner tables.The words ‘frozen’ and ‘By Word of Mouth’ (BWOM), noted for its fresh, exquisitely presented and often unusual flavours, seem not to go together somehow.
But Short will doubtless revolutionise frozen food in the same innovative manner that she began changing social events, weddings and corporate functions in the mid-1990s.
She chuckles as she recalls soggy sandwiches and sausage rolls, presented on silver-foiled trays, being de rigueur back then. She changed all that with snacks on painted ceramics, decorated with flowers, petals and other foliage.
“You couldn’t get sundried tomatoes and pesto in SA back then,” she recalls.
The food more than matched the sumptuous décor as Short, who grew up cooking alongside her family in the kitchen of their Kloof home in Durban, developed, tested and tasted new dishes.
Short, who had majored in psychology, trained at Prue Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London, worked on yachts and in Europe, told her family she planned to return “to open a catering company like no other”.
Short, then 23, declared she was moving to Joburg. “There are no boardrooms in Durban,” she quipped. There, drawing on every ounce of her formidable creativity and courage, she dived into Egoli’s culinary waters. She began cooking on her own, in a friend’s kitchen, struggling to buy petrol for deliveries and coping with cheques that bounced.
As her reputation began to flourish, Short, for whom the word ‘creative’ might have been invented, branched out into event management services.
These included floral designing, hiring and decor, beverages and providing front of house managers and waiters.
Her rapid expansion was problematic because, instead of doing what she loved, she was running a business, hiring, firing and doing performance appraisals. “I wasn’t doing food and design. I thought of selling.”
In addition, her bookkeeper had been committing fraud, stealing R500 000 over 18 months.
Her husband, Adrian Short, became a partner, “and handled the business side, leaving me free to innovate”.
Her awards tell the story of her success because BWOM has won in the Best of Joburg awards for 17 consecutive years now. Furthermore, last year it won the 2016 international Catersource Achievement in Catering Excellence award for catering in excess of $2 million. The event was held in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, “and we were really stunned by our amazing win”, exclaims Short. “We were up against the best in the world.”
Today BWOM has a huge warehouse in Linbro Park filled with chairs, colourful glassware, tablecloths, cutlery in silver and gold, and crockery variations.
“I’m always on the lookout for new trends,” says Short. “Leeks, pies, terrines and pâtés are hot now, as well as picnic baskets,” adding that often the old tried and tested foods are the best.
She has produced frozen meals for six years now. “Some families take a full Christmas dinner to Plettenberg Bay every year.” Franchise owner Famous Brands recently approached BWOM and, in an unusual step, it bought 49.9% of the company; usually it buys the controlling share. “Together with Famous Brands we will launch a frozen meals range. It will help us with packing, distribution and a national footprint.”
BWOM has long wanted to open in Cape Town and Durban and this step will enable it to do so. They are also looking for an outlet for frozen foods in Joburg’s northern suburbs.
Short envisages frozen meals being available online and in deliveries to offices and some homes.
Her charity work involves supporting 2 000 child-headed households, as well as organisations that help women battling breast cancer.
“I never sit still,” says the mother of four sons aged between 10 and 17, who runs marathons with her friends all over the world, from Tokyo to London and New York. Most days she’s up at 5am and her energy, lively mind and restless creativity see her out of the starting blocks of whatever it is she has set her mind on.