Today’s virtual tea lady – Thinking outside the box

By Paula Doran

If ever there was a story to inspire ‘thinking outside the box,’ it’s a company initiated in the suburbs of Melbourne by the name of The Fruit Box.

What began as a delivery service of fruit to bayside Melbourne homes, with two delivery vans and, at one point, five people filling those orders, has grown exponentially.

The former lawyer at the helm, Martin Halphen, bought the business in 2000 when, ripe for a change of career and a new adventure, the average sale per order was $30.  In those days, he says, it was easy to sell the fruit, but difficult to deliver across geographic challenges and still make a profit.

Ironically, it was just a few years later, after he became a mobile fruiterer, that an opportunity to supply to a large legal firm in Melbourne opened up a door that made The Fruit Box grow…

If you know Melbourne’s CBD, you’ll be impressed by 101 Collins Street and know it as the home of Freehills law firm.   When The Fruit Box was given the opportunity to supply the entire building with fruit, cashing in on the birth of corporate perks and workplace ‘wellness’, Halphen, in a way returned to his legal roots, and launched his new baby, The Fruit Box, into a whole new chapter.

Subhead: Leaving behind the suburbs

“Once we had that first opportunity to fill a workplace inquiry, we then applied the same model we’d had in the suburbs to the corporate need, which was much better for us.  We could deliver in a much denser area and were quickly making 20-30 deliveries per hour,” Mr Halphen says.

“Employee perks were the flavour of the month, and we definitely rode that wave.”

That same sort of ‘corporate fruit courier’ model was a turning point for Halphen, though he still says there were significant moments of character building along the way.

“After that first inquiry from one of the top five legal firms in Australia, we upgraded our logic and thought, if there is one organisation who needs us to cater to their whole-of-office needs, there has to be many.

“We also kept moving in that, a key customer asked us to then supply their Sydney office,” he says.

“At that point the penny dropped and I could see a real opportunity in providing a national footprint for The Fruit Box.”

Between 2005 and 2008 The Fruit Box expanded into the capital cities of Australia, supplying multi-tiered organisations with as few as five employees to large multi-nationals with 500-plus.

“The business growth was unprecedented. Cashflow in those early days was a real problem.  As was time,” Halphen says.

“In our case, we were paying the fruit markets in 14 days, and then got paid by our clients within 40–45 days.  You’re extending the credit terms to your customers, so we had fantastic growth but no cashflow.

“You could say I starved for about eight years.  There’s that exhilaration that you’re onto something special, but at the same time you’re quite deflated.  At the worst of it, I sold my house, which gave me time to keep going and provided a bit of a buffer.

“You keep working, you keep listening to your customers and you keep building.  Then, one day, the receipts are higher than the payables and you’ve turned the corner.”

Halphen says initial market clout was also a challenge.  “In the beginning we were so small.  We couldn’t secure strong supply relationships because we had no volume.

“But then as business grows, you start buying pallets of fruit and suddenly the mandarin guy in the Sydney markets that wouldn’t sell to you because you were too small is watching you walk past to the next guy and buy in bulk.  I got great pleasure in walking past that man.”

Sub-head: The virtual tea lady

These days, The Fruit Box has expanded its repertoire as corporate courier and is also virtual tea lady.

“We could see that the Global Financial Crisis was coming our way and we needed to be more than a one-trick-pony with fruit,” says Halphen.

“What we didn’t know when we decided to move into fresh milk supply was that specialised coffee machines/pod machines would become cheaper, and daily coffee intake would rise so quickly.”

And despite the humility in that comment, one gets a very real sense of the grit and hard work in which this former lawyer, come corporate fruiterer, has led The Fruit Box growth.

“You need to be prepared to listen to your customer and react in the right way.  I have been very, very close to all aspects of the business.

“And what it is, in fact, is a service.  We’ve turned products into services.  Orders are broken up by tea room, by office, by site.  We give the tea lady service and do all the hard work so that the milk is in the fridge when it’s needed, the fruit (and good quality fruit) is there waiting.  We make things easy for corporate businesses to access the flexibility of delivery and convenience.”


From those early days racing across the suburbs to deliver $30 orders, to that of modern day tea lady supplying corporate towers across the country, it will be interesting to watch where The Fruit Box tale of success goes.