The Wray Organic story: When Deborah Wray was faced with a challenge that threatened the health of a loved one, she not only conquered the challenge, but has produced a legacy that grows the capacity of others
Imagine you have a teenager – a wonderful, bright young kid, really committed to his schoolwork – who starts coming home from school so exhausted that he goes straight to bed and doesn’t wake up ‘til the following morning. His immune system is shot and he’s just running on empty. This was the situation facing Deborah Wray 14 years ago with her son, Errin. A trip to the doctor resulted in a raft of allergy tests that showed Errin had allergies to dust mites and similar types of things, but it also revealed that he was allergic to things like bread improver and Marmite! Allergies to dairy products and other things were also identified by the tests.
The doctor advised Deborah to buy organic, wherever she could, particularly with meat. A trip to the supermarket that evening was very revealing. As a widow with two children and working a full-time job, Deborah had been a regular user of convenience food: prepared cook-in sauces, frozen pizza and so on. Now, however, she began to ask questions about what was in these foods. She went to her regular supermarket and began looking at the labels of everyday items that she often bought; things like mayonnaise and peanut butter.
Organic fruit and vegetables are always fresh – what’s on the shelf is only what’s currently in season
What she discovered made her realise how little she knew about what went into these products; the additives and preservatives – usually listed by number – made her wonder: “Oh, is that the bread improver?” Her son, being a bit of a fussy eater, was especially fond of chicken wings in a soy marinade, so Deborah went to the supplier and enquired about the ingredients. What she discovered was a list of numbers that seemed to go on and on! She began to realise that quite often we don’t really know what’s in our food, particularly those items from a butcher or chicken store where we don’t know what ingredients have been added or how it’s been processed.
The more she learned, the less she bought from the supermarket!
As a mother, with a sick child, Deborah was keen to learn as quickly as possible; she began making things from scratch: buying organic chicken, soy sauce (checking what was in it), getting the honey and ginger, etc. Within six months of Errin eating this organic food, she had her son back. The doctor was able to treat his gastrointestinal issues, but he was being fed good quality, organic food. Deborah had also been eating organically and began to notice that she hadn’t been sick, she’d lost weight and she had all this energy. She felt she’d discovered a higher level of living that most people just never realise.
Through this process, Deborah had discovered that going completely organic was a time consuming and expensive process. “I’m going to this shop, and then this shop … this market and that market”. Supermarkets had a very small range of organic produce – at that time – and many ‘health food’ shops had shelves stocked with vitamins and supplements, but little else. The quality of available organic produce was often very poor and she was appalled at how expensive it was. Also, stocking up at the markets often involved getting up at the crack of dawn in order not to miss out.
She began to realise that there was a need for a one-stop shop where people could get everything they needed, at a time that was convenient to them. Having built a successful business for a Brisbane family, which had been sold to a larger company, Deborah needed a new challenge. She had met Gary, a professional man with his own business, and together they decided to take the plunge and open their own organic grocery store. Gary sold his business, Deborah sold her beautiful big Queenslander – the banks weren’t likely to offer them a loan – and together they opened their first store at Palm Beach in 2005.
The first customer through the newly opened North Lakes store with her gift
Image supplied by Wray Organic
Since then the business has gone from strength to strength. The Palm Beach store was embraced by locals and in 2008 needed to move to larger premises. In 2007 the first Brisbane store was opened in Newmarket, followed by one in Indooroopilly in 2008 and then in April 2011 the Ipswich store opened. 2012 was a busy year with stores opening in Cannon Hill (June), Toowoomba (August), Cleveland (September) and Mt Gravatt (November). North Lakes opened in April this year (2014).
After opening four stores they realised they needed to expand and bring other people on board. They recognised that that what really worked for their business was having the owner in the store so, using the franchise model means that they can introduce people to the business, train them and show them how to do it. Not surprisingly, all the current storeowners are actually previous customers! Listening to customer requests is also an important factor in how they run their business.
When establishing that first store, Deborah and Gary knew what it should be – Deborah brought her experience as a mother and regular grocery shopper – and they worked on the principle of what they would like in the store. Early on they decided that vitamins and other supplements would not be a big focus, believing that while supplementation can be important, it is best done under professional guidance. Deborah was inspired by Hippocrates, who said, “Let food be thy medicine”; that’s what she believes in. After their third store opened they added a café, giving customers somewhere to eat out, while staying ‘organic’. There’s no menu; what’s in their food cabinets will depend on what seasonal fruits and vegetables are available at the time – but it’s all guaranteed Certified Organic.
Calling themselves Wray Organic meant customers didn’t need to wonder how ‘organic’ they were. Stocking only Australian Certified Organic produce – which also excludes Genetically Modified (GM) ingredients – Deborah is still very much a label Nazi and investigates new products thoroughly before introducing them to the stores. She discovered all those years ago that there is a difference between ‘natural’ products, available at supermarkets and health food stores, and Australian Certified Organic products. For example, nuts sourced from overseas may be labelled as ‘natural’, but will have been treated with methyl bromide. “So how natural’s that?” she comments.
Deborah’s passion for healthy, clean and nutritious food is infectious. A great believer in educating others about living organic she spends time in her kitchen inventing quick and easy recipes – customers comment on how fabulous they are – recognising that we live in a time-poor society. Available from their newsletter and online via their website – www.wrayorganic.com.au – these recipes often use less ingredients because, as Deborah says “these foods have so much flavour” that you don’t need to add fancy sauces.
With exciting plans for the future – there’s a lot of interest from places like Sydney and Melbourne which don’t have any stores providing a similar service – Deborah shows no signs of slowing down. People often ask her who buys organic; her response: “loads of ordinary people”. A dear old customer in her 90s once said to Deborah: “I’d rather pay the miller than the doctor!” That’s the passion that drives Deborah onwards. And it all started with a sick teenager whose mum was determined to see him get better!
Photos: © Jackson Stapylton