Food allergies affect around 1 in 10 children in Australia, and whilst some allergic reactions are mild and can be “outgrown”, others can be extremely severe and life-threatening.
Father of two, Seong-Lee knows all too well the daily challenges that come with raising little ones with allergies with both his children suffering from severe anaphylactic food allergies.
“My daughter, in particular, is allergic to 7 of the top 10 most common food allergies (plus others not in the top 10), [so] it has been extremely challenging, to say the least,” says Seong-Lee.
For parents who have children with allergies, it is a constant source of worry ensuring they don’t come into harm’s way. Then when it comes time to send them off to daycare or school it can be an added source of anxiety knowing you can’t be there to protect them.
Thankfully schools and daycare centres across Australia have nut-free policies to mitigate the risk of allergens, which can provide some peace of mind to those parents. However, it also presents the problem of finding healthy, nut-free lunchbox solutions that little ones will actually want to eat.
Seong-Lee quickly noticed that the options in the supermarket aisles for nut-free, healthy – and not to mention tasty – were seriously limited. And so the idea for Buddee – a school-safe spread for every lunchbox, every child, every home – was born.
We chatted to Seong-Lee about raising kids with allergies, building a business from scratch and his tips for packing a healthy lunchbox.
1. Can you tell us a little more about where the idea for your business came from?
The idea of Buddee was inspired by my 2 children. After discovering that they both had severe anaphylactic food allergies, I realised that there were very limited quick and healthy options for school lunchboxes for them. Furthermore, nearly every spread at the supermarket (other than jam and Vegemite) contained nuts.
This is when my business partner (Rodney) and I realised that there was a huge need for nut-free spreads. With so many schools around the country having no-nut policies, multitudes of school children cannot take peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches to school. So Buddee became the answer.
2. Both your children suffer from severe allergies, can you tell us a little bit about that and the impact this has had?
It has been extremely challenging to say the least. My daughter, in particular, is allergic to 7 of the top 10 most common food allergies (plus others not in the top 10), so everyday life is quite difficult for her (and for my wife and I) at mealtime. Our daughter just wants to feel normal and “like every other kid”, but really struggles to because she rarely gets to eat what everyone else is eating.
This is why Buddee is so important. It’s one thing I could do for my children to allow them to feel like every other kid. Buddee is all about inclusion.
3. How long did it take to go from the idea to holding that very first product in your hand?
The entire process took about 2 years, from the very first test batch to seeing a jar of Buddee on the supermarket shelves.
4. How long did it take to get the product ‘just right’?
The formulation process alone took over a year to get it just right. It took about 60 versions just to get Buddee Chocolate right. Many of the earlier versions didn’t taste great, to be honest, but Rodney (who was in charge of the formulation process) was very persistent, as we refused to launch with mediocre products. We needed it to taste amazing, to be allergy friendly, and to be healthy.
5. How did you take the business from idea to reality – what has that journey been like?
The journey has been an absolutely crazy and fabulous experience. We have learnt so much in such a short time, about the manufacturing and retail industry, and also about ourselves.
Personally, this journey has solidified in me that there’s nothing more important to me than my family, and this is all for them. They are what drives me to make Buddee all it can be.
6. What are some of the biggest hurdles you have faced with your business?
I wouldn’t say we’ve had that many major hurdles, but every phase of the business had its challenges, like with any business. But having someone to work and partner with has made all the difference to overcome any challenges. Rodney and I are a good team. We have very different skill sets, which is also helpful. And we have very supportive wives, which is even more helpful.
7. And what about your biggest achievements so far?
There’s no doubt that our biggest achievement so far has been Woolworths and Coles both deciding to stock Buddee nationally. It’s been very affirming and makes us feel that we have done something right, and are filling a real need in the Australian community.
8. What has the feedback been like so far?
It has been nothing short of amazing. We’ve had so many comments and messages about how much people (both adults and kids alike) love eating Buddee, and how much it has helped families at mealtimes and for lunchbox prep. It only started rolling out in Woolies stores since last week, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback has made it all worthwhile.
9. Lunchboxes are often a big struggle for most parents – what are some of your top tips when it comes to packing them healthy food they will actually eat?
Our children are quite young, so for them, a variety of colours and interesting shapes seems to work. We like to make the lunchboxes colourful with food like carrots, strawberries and sweet potato sticks, and sometimes we use those cookie cutter shapes to make things more fun to eat.
And of course, we often put a little dipping container filled with Buddee to dip their carrots or apple in. That always feels like a treat. Another tip is to change it up a little (for variety), but not too much, or the kids will expect a different seasonal degustation menu each week 😉.
10. Tell us about what it’s like running your own business as a parent, how do you find that juggle?
I think it’s really all about balance. I won’t deny that the last few months have been a bit manic with Buddee work, but my kids know that it’s all for them. And regardless of how busy I am at work, I make it a point to always be home to eat dinner as a family every day, and I still do many of the school drop-offs and pick-ups during the week. That time with them is really important to me.
11. What do you find the most challenging thing about being a ‘working out of the home’ parent?
Personally, I think that most parents are working parents regardless of whether they have a paid job or not. Even stay-at-home parents work so hard in and out of the home to make everyday life happen.
So I don’t really think that being a working parent is the challenge. I think the challenge can be to prioritise proper time spent with family, without the distraction of work or devices. I struggle with that too sometimes, but I’m trying to be better.
12. How do you find a balance between being a dad and a business owner?
I’m always a dad first. Admittedly at times it can be tricky to find the right balance between being a dad and running a business (especially during the crazy busy period of a start-up), but being a dad will always come first, and my wife and children know that.
13. Do you have any tips for how you manage/plan your days around work and family life?
As a business owner, it has always been a little bit easier for me to manage my days around work and family, but understandably for some families, it’s just not possible. My wife plays a huge part in how we both manage our respective work and the kids, and I’m grateful that we are able to rely on each other to make that balance work well. So communication is key.
We always try to dedicate the weekday evenings and weekends to family time, which is important for the kids, and for us.
14. What do you love most about what you do?
I love that I get to run a business that has meaning and purpose and is helping to create change. Not just for me and my family, but for many other Australian families.
15. What is your dream for Buddee?
It is my dream that Buddee becomes a household name with Australian families, and is seen as a brand that people can rely on (to be school safe, healthy, and tasty). After all, that’s why we called it Buddee!
Buddee spreads are free from Australia’s top 10 most common food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, dairy, egg, soy, sesame, fish, shellfish and lupin. They’re made from chickpeas which are not only healthy – but also high in protein and dietary fibre. They’re also manufactured in a purpose-built allergen-friendly facility in Melbourne, Australia, using at least 95% Australian ingredients and packaged in recyclable glass jars. Buddee is available in Woolworths supermarkets (and coming soon to Coles).