Small independent grocers are institutions and usually family-run. It was during a chance conversation in the kitchen that Australian product designer Madeleine Hoy uncovered her family's fruit-filled history. ‘I was sitting with Dad while he was roasting meat for dinner,’ she says. ‘He made a throwaway comment about his grandfather's fruit shop, and I was like: “What fruit shop?”’
After migrating to Australia from Sicily in the thirties, Madeleine's great-grandfather, Giuseppe Schepisi, opened a fruit store called Locantro Fruit and Lemonade Emporium, in Daylesford, Victoria, a quintessential country town with a deep Italian history about two hours outside Melbourne. ‘Dad went and grabbed these black-and-white photos of Giuseppe, his wife Katherine-Mary and their kids all out the front of the shop,’ she says. What followed this revelation was the conceptualization of her online store and design studio, Nonna's Grocer.
Madeleine has forever dreamed of owning and running her own business. After studying set design, she went on to work in the events industry, creating work for fashion brands like Chanel and Dior. ‘There's something so beautiful about event design being a pop-up experience that gets put together and then literally disappears. But I wanted to create work that was designed with thought and style, and could last.’
After the onset of chronic illness, she reduced her event workload to part-time. Madeleine's schedule allowed her the time and space to funnel energy into her creative aspirations. ‘Standing in the kitchen with Dad, a lemon candle popped into my mind – no other fruit. I needed to make a lemon candle,’ she laughs. ‘I wanted to connect my design skills with the history of my great-grandfather's fruit shop.’ After hunting down someone to cast her prized lemon – which she says she spent hours choosing – she waited a week, picked up the mold and filled it with hand-dyed yellow wax. ‘It was absurd. I was alone in my own space, holding a wax lemon… and it just evolved from that.’
When a prototype was ready to go, a gentle push from a friend saw her candles go to market. The fruit-and-vegetable product line of her candles grew and she found fans fast. Eventually, Madeleine quit her events job to start individually designing, pouring, carving and buffing her produce full-time.
Now, Nonna's Grocer is made up of a team of five people, who are hand-pouring candles four to five days a week in a beachside warehouse an hour outside of Sydney. ‘It does feel like an obscure concept, but people are connecting with the nostalgia and the slower pace of life that it evokes,’ she says. ‘I've met a great creative community and I love going to work in the morning – it's so meaningful.’
Just like in the early days of all small businesses, troubleshooting is constant. ‘You've got to create a cog that just smoothly spins around. Candle-making is more science than it is artisanal, so the amount of trial and error that's gone in is intense. But I haven't looked back. I'm a big believer in just putting it out there and tweaking as you go. You don't get many chances to put your ideas out there, so you've just got to go for it.’