Like so many successful entrepreneurs, Nornie Bero failed the very subject at school that she now based her flourishing business upon. While her teacher said she’d never cook professionally, her beloved father always believed Nornie would become a chef. Now she is the head chef, CEO and owner of Mabu Mabu, which means “help yourself” in the Torres Strait.
“A lot of people in my community, we didn’t get asked that question, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’” she tells us. Luckily her father – a passionately cultural and entrepreneurial man – encouraged her and led by example. When growing up in St Pauls on Moa Island, Nornie’s dad transformed their house into a hybrid home and business. “He put up a bamboo wall, turned half our house into a tuckshop,” she says. Along with pumpkin damper and buns, they would sell fish burgers to locals. “I used to work in the shop, and he used to pay me in marbles,” Nornie explains. “So those were my first early days of cooking with my dad – learning about being a baker, about being entrepreneurial.”After spending six years in London, traveling through Europe and working in various fields, Nornie says the idea for Mabu Mabu grew organically from a catering company. “All of our gay friends’ parents hired us to do their birthdays and anniversaries,” she says. But she and her business partner had talked often of opening a market shop in order to celebrate Indigenous food culture and utilise native ingredients, so when a space became available at the coveted South Melbourne Market, they knew they had to act fast. “One day we were at breakfast and saw that a spot was available, but we had to apply for it that day because they don’t come up often,” she explains. “They accepted us and, all of a sudden, we had to make all this product. We had this idea and it all looked great on paper, but then they were like, ‘Can we taste it all?’” With no place to cook, as she was renovating her house, Nornie had to create every single product they were going to sell at the market for three taste testing sessions in order to be accepted.
A similarly lightning-paced decision led to Mabu Mabu’s Yarraville location. “When I found our spot in Yarraville,” she says, “I saw it on a Saturday, I got my business partner to come and have a look on Monday, and we put our offer in on Tuesday. By the end of that week, they said yes. Another two months and the café was open… We work really quickly, and my business partner, he’s very talented. We know that the quicker you move, the better the outcome is. When you think too much, it becomes more complicated.”
This openness to take risks and ability to make fast decisions are crucial to owning a business. “The main thing I think young people should realise is that, you need to be game,” Nornie says. “And don’t get me wrong, we barely had any money so every single cent that we earnt went back into the business. You have got to be smart and quick and understand the costs… I came from no money you know, and Mabu Mabu started off with nothing. It wasn’t like we had anything, we just had an idea.”
That idea was to create something that not only celebrated Indigenous food culture and native ingredients, but also fostered community. The resulting space reflects Nornie’s childhood. “Every time our families get together, everybody sits around and you yarn, and you laugh, and you hang out and you have your cups of tea. I just wanted to recreate that, where everybody comes and feels comfortable and they can have a yarn and there’s no rush to leave. You can still have some traditional sop sop… you come and have damper. It gives that nostalgic feel of home. It’s a bit of a warm hug that you get from your culture. Especially for kids.”
But even once established, there are always challenges. As Nornie explains, “Look, a woman in business, as well? Men find that difficult. My business partner, he only owns 20% but… a lot of the guys would come in and go to shake his hand and he’d be like, ‘It’s not me, you’ll have to see her over there.’ They’d be very surprised that a woman owns something… especially an Indigenous Black woman. People were surprised I could have something this substantial.”
Nornie believes loving what you do and having fun is the secret to pushing through the challenges – another lesson from her dad. “I always found him to be a very humorous man and I think maybe that’s what has kept me going all these years – knowing how to have fun,” she says. “You’ve got to grab every opportunity that comes your way and have fun as well – have a lot of fun doing it. Because if you don’t love what you’re doing, change it up, change it up all the time.”
Even through the pandemic and lockdown, Nornie’s sense of fun has remained intrinsically linked to her business acumen and she reopened the cafe as Mabu Mabu Tuckshop and is teaching online damper-cooking lessons. “Keep that joyous thing going on because you will get hit with so much hard stuff,” she says. “It is really hard to start up your own business and keep it going forward, but at least have some fun doing it and enjoy the moments that you can because it is so worth it, and I wouldn’t change anything.”