MICHEL MUSSETT - MICHEL'S FINE BISCUIT COMPANY, CASTLEMAINE
I was born and raised in Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. I remember building snowmen with my best friend Vicki who lived across the road. As the youngest of five kids,I was considered the spoilt one but I really thought I was hard done by. Looking back, maybe I was a tad more spoilt than the others. Mum and Dad had the 'Log Cabin' restaurant in Mt. Dandenong and Mum cooked the best scones in the hills and would make Devonshire teas for all the tourists. Dad waited on tables on the weekend and through the week he worked at Stanley making screwdrivers, he called himself a 'plastics engineer' which we all thought was amazing and so very important. We had a EH Holden station wagon and all seven of us would fit in. Growing up in the hills was a great experience, we were quite sheltered from the rest of the world and life was pretty good. When the folks sold the restaurant they built our house in Viola Avenue. We thought it was amazing, but today it really is one of the ugliest houses I have ever seen. It took three buses and a twenty minute walk to get to school in Lilydale, no mums dropping off the kids back then.
Mum and I did all the baking every weekend, we would bake for all the lunch boxes for school and work, and that’s how my love of baking and food began. We made 'Jam Betweens' , before Arnott's Monte Carlos, they were almost a cake texture filled with fresh raspberry jam. When Mum's old Sunbeam mixer died she bought a Kenwood Chef and I thought we were the luckiest family in the world, they were seriously special in the 70’s! We used our neighbours' butter and eggs and everything was made from scratch- how I still do it! Our La Juliet and Fruit & Nut Cream ranges are a take on the Jam Betweens but now I use fresh fruit and Belgian Couverture Chocolate in the centres.
I finished form 5 (year 11) and from memory did really well, I was a soak for learning and doing the right thing by the teachers but that didn’t stop me from wanting to get out of there and start working. There was no talk of uni as there was not enough money in the family and my parents were going through a pretty messy divorce and we kids were left to fend for ourselves quite a lot. Dad moved out, the eldest three were married and there was only my brother and I at home with Mum. That was scary so I only lasted a few months before fleeing the family home at seventeen.Vicki and I rented a one-room shack in Olinda with no heating. We would light the gas stove and open the door and sit around it to keep warm. We eventually moved to Kilsyth where I got a job with a carpet manufacturer working on the floor - so not my thing. I then went to a pharmacy in Croydon where I stayed for a couple of years and became the Elizabeth Arden makeup artist and skincare guru. Then I rented my girlfriend's parents' property and worked from home managing some friends' bricklaying business which gave me a great insight into business. It was 1985 and I met my beautiful man Billy in February, moved to Castlemaine in October and started with Castle Bacon the next day. I was the Accounts Payable Manager! What I failed to tell them or maybe they forgot to ask was that I had never seen a computer in my life and there was this weird looking square box on my desk that I didn’t even know how to turn on! I fluffed around for two days looking busy and avoiding this box until someone was sent to show me the ropes. From then I managed the department with ease. The accountant at the time however, told me that women should be at home wearing an apron and doing the dishes, we didn’t deserve to be working in roles that men should be in! In the office there was a female office manager, female accounts receivable manager, female payroll manager and we all reported to him. He was a pig and to this day don’t know how I didn’t knock him out after that comment. Imagine saying that in today's workplace… From there I went to ADI in Bendigo and then Empire Rubber, managing the accounts payable departments and finally after too long in the same job I was made redundant! That’s when my work life really started. When one door closes another really does open. I started my own business.
In 1985 I thought Castlemaine was very small and gossipy. I worked in an office of locals and they didn’t take to outsiders too well, it may have been my imagination, I remember sorting out some invoices and came across one for sheep crutching. I had no idea what crutching was so asked a girl in the office and was laughed at by the whole office then one of the managers came down from upstairs and laughing, explained sheep crutching in great detail. I was so embarrassed but it did break the ice. I missed Melbourne a lot in the first few years and went back to visit at every opportunity, I missed being a nobody and unrecognisable. In Castlemaine I felt everyone knew my business and because Billy was one of Castlemaine’s favourite sons I had a lot to live up to. It wasn’t until I started the business that I loved living here and now wouldn’t live anywhere else. It does help that I still live in the same place Bill and I bought back in 1986. We were married in 1988 in our garden before the Hot Rod shed went up, that shed is now our bakery and business and I built another shed six years ago for his hot rod.
The changes here are enormous and I think for the best. Castlemaine has improved on so many different levels with the influx of some very talented and amazing people that have moved here over the years. I thought it was all about hot rodding when I moved up but have come to love the complexity of this beautiful little town and all it offers
I met Billy in Melbourne at a hot rod meeting. I asked him for a ride in his coupe and he said no! But he gave me a ride at the next meeting in Castlemaine and we were engaged after spending three weekends together. It was love at first site and I still get goose bumps and some times a bit teary thinking about him. That moment changed my life and I will be forever grateful. We were married in our garden surrounded by family and friends, it was so beautiful and it just got better every day after that. He was my rock, I grew up with a chip on my shoulder and he was the one that bought me back down to earth and the one that gave me so much confidence, even though he was so shy and introverted himself. He suffered from Bipolar which made me love him even more. He was clever on so many levels, he was very humble and didn't realise how clever he was and I think that’s why so many people loved him, they respected him. We had been together nearly 24 years when he passed away of fucking cancer. Getting straight back into work was the best thing I could have done, I didn’t have a choice thankfully, his funeral was on the Wednesday and I went back to work the following Monday as I had to start making our Fruit Mince Pies for the Christmas sales. I remember rolling out pastry with tears streaming down my face and wondering how I was going to get through the next hour, I just couldn’t comprehend anything longer than an hour without him. There are times when wonder how I will get through the next day or week or year without him. It’s coming up to ten years without his kiss and the security and warmth of his cuddles which are so very much missed. I feel him here with me, he is still my rock and I constantly ask him for advice and strength and he is still giving it to me.
The first biscuit I made myself was the very yummy Pistachio and White Belgian Chocolate. When doing the research for the business I came across the most amazing bag of Australian Pistachios grown in Robinvale and thought, 'Oh my goodness, what can I make with them?' I always refer to the ingredients as the 'heroes' of our business, without them we would be just another biscuit maker. When you use fresh ingredients from local producers it's pretty easy to make a great product, I’ve always used free range eggs, fresh fruit and butter, local flours and as much organic ingredients as I can and you can taste the difference. We make small batches that are all hand made, hand piped and hand packed, for me it’s the only recipe for a beautiful and delicious biscuit.
My first clients were Jools for Jim in Bendigo, and The Marriot Hotel in Melbourne. Jools for Jim wanted something special to offer their clients and the sous chef of The Marriot approached me at the Harvest Picnic at Hanging Rock. I met with the head chef and his team of 30 and started providing them two weeks later. I would deliver to their loading dock in my Holden Commodore and I thought I was the luckiest biscuit maker in the world. Sadly for us the head chef moved overseas a couple of years later and the new chef was all about cutting costs so we were let go. I was quite shattered but needed to toughen up and that’s what I did. To this day 95% of our clients have all come from recommendations which is great, our consistency for a quality biscuit and not compromising on quality has really paid off. Today my customers vary; cafes, retail food and gift outlets, corporate banks, law firms, accounting firms, Victorian government, car dealers, real estate agents and two Melbourne farmers markets. We did have Emirates for six years in their first and business class lounge but they let us go due to cost cutting, which was a huge blow.
The business was a very slow burn; the first year we wanted to see if we could survive doing something so different to what was out there. I asked Billy if I could have a bit more of his shed and being the gentleman that he was, he moved his stuff and made more trolleys and benches for me. The third year I asked for the whole shed which I was really hesitant about, as men's shed are sacred, but he was thrilled to turn the rest of his shed into what we have today. He said it was my turn to shine and loved my enthusiasm for our future. The first five years we didn’t make a profit which was quite challenging, in the sixth year we finally made a small one. Unfortunately this happened just after Billy passed away so I didn’t get the chance to celebrate with him. Every night after work he would come in and ask if we made money For five and half years I had to say "Not today, but maybe tomorrow."
There have been many challenges a long the way, some good but some quite debilitating. I remember people telling me not to make any big decisions in the first twelve months after Bill passed. I was told about a company that did branding and marketing. Friends used them and it was a very successful business relationship. Unfortunately for us it was a disaster, they managed to get only one new client and we were out of pocket $33,000. I sacked them and they took me to Dun and Bradstreet for the last $1000 because I just couldn’t pay it. I still believe lessons in life are a great thing and I have learnt many things since that time, hopefully for the better. We learnt later many of their clients were leaving them in droves because of the same problems.
Advice for women wanting to start their own business: Just go for it. If you're prepared to put in the hard yards you will be rewarded financially and emotionally. I have lots of affirmations around the walls in the bakery, my favourite is, 'A day without laughter is a day lost', I think we can take ourselves a bit too seriously and we need to laugh, especially at at ourselves. As women, we run homes and families and our businesses are an extension of those but with a financial gain. For me I need to trust my instincts a lot more, as I’m getting older I am doubting myself more and that annoys me.
Favourite things to do in the area: I love catching up with girlfriends at Fig cafe on a Saturday, The Coffee Bean make the best coffee and have the best biscuits in town. I love wondering around our nurseries and just pottering around at home with my little dog Scoota. I’ve just renovated and extended our home we bought together in 1986 so am really enjoying the new space. Our art gallery is amazing and the Theatre Royal has something for everybody. Unfortunately The Good Table closed and left a lot of people shattered, but Bistro Lola is great and Naam Pla is good when it’s open! Down the track I’m going to run cooking schools from home in my new kitchen and have some of my chef friends teach. I would love to create tours of the markets and then bring people back to Castlemaine and cook the produce.
Tips for people thinking of moving here: Go for it! Bring your thermals as the winters can by quite brutal. At the other end summer can be long and hot. But the change of seasons are stunning, we have just had one of the most stunning autumns I can remember in all the years I’ve lived here. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has moved here who doesn’t love it, once you get involved with the great people and the fun activities there are on offer, I don’t think you would look back. The number of talented people who have chosen Castlemaineas their home is exhilarating, we are so very lucky to live in this great town, it’s full of wonderful, colourful characters.