……I originally came up with the idea of a portable camping box while working as a mule packer and guide for hunters and tourists in the Cascade Wilderness of North Western America. I’d lead a string of up to 9 mules carrying supplies and equipment wrapped in canvas ‘mannies’. We’d also carry a set of storage box/kitchens specially made for loading and carrying on a mule. (see TRIP TO AMERICA under trips page) I adopted the idea of a compact box and incorporated a gas stove and fold out shelves to create the original DRIFTA Camping Kitchen
…….But it was on a trip round Australia with my brothers Ben and Dutchy that I first started thinking about some sort of travelling kitchen. We travelled round Australia in my old XD panelvan. (see ROUND AUSTRALIA WITH BEN AND DUTCHY under trips page) For over a month and three meals a day we’d have to pull just about everything out of the XD to prepare a meal on the ground. You can see our camp in the photo underneath. It was pretty unorganised. We didn’t even have a table to prepare our food on. I was often thinking ‘there’s gotta be a better way’.
DRIFTA Camping Kitchens
est. August 2000.
……This was in 1995 when I built my first kitchen although I had no idea it would be a product that I could sell. But over the next few years travelling around Australia I came to realise just how handy a travelling kitchen was, and I was able to make some necessary improvements in the design as I built No. 2 in Broome. I also had quite a few people comment on my camping box asking where I got it or could I make them one. It was then that I started thinking this may be something I could make to sell. But at the time we were living in a caravan in Broome and I didn’t have the equipment to start building them, also Broome was a bit out of the way. Anyway the following year after Kiyomi and I got married, work started to dry up so we decided to travel back to Blayney to live for a while, where I grew up .
Then on a trip to Tasmania in April 2000 with a good mate Andy Goodacre, the number 2 box had another good workout. Andy was convinced that the box would sell. I always had my doubts whether anyone would buy them as I hadn’t ever had anything to do with selling before. But Andy was really excited and encouraged me to give it a go. So after we got back from Tasmania, Andy came around one weekend, we opened a few beers and fixed up a few more design problems and built No. 3. This design is now basically as it is today.
……I needed a name for the kitchen and decided on ‘Drifta’. When I was working in the Atherton Tablelands Nth QLD as a horseriding tourguide with my brother Tim several years ago, my boss Mick Trout used to call me the Drifta. I remember him leaning out the window of his truck and saying ” hey Drifta, go and get them horses in.” this name sort of stuck, and became really my nickname. This seemed the perfect name for my kitchens, so we applied to IP Australia for a design patent, and registered the tradename “Drifta”.
A lot of people had advised us that we would have to wholesale our product to camping shops, saying that you’ll go broke trying to both manufacture and retail a product yourselves. There’s been plenty of times since, when I’ve been inclined to agree with them, but like most things, we decided to give it a go and retail the Drifta’s ourselves.
……After carrying about a dozen boxes to some small country shows in a box trailer with tarps flying everywhere, I soon realised I needed a proper trailer. On the way to a camping show in Gosford I was passed on the highway by another bloke going to a show, Bob Burrage from Wollongong. Bob makes swags, was also headed to the show and towing a fantastic looking trailer with signwriting and pictures all over it. I remember looking at Kiyomi and saying “thats what we need!” We decided to build one, and I bought an old 5′ x 11′ box trailer from a pig farmer and worked out how to build it.
…… That was around Christmas time, and Dutchy turned up for a few weeks which was perfect cause he’s a boiler maker and a really good welder. . We built it up over the next few weeks, gave it a paint and got some signwriting done, just in time for the first show of 2001 at Wollongong.
……After about two years selling Drifta’s, mainly at trade shows, I realised there was a market for purpose built camping trailer kitchens. Using similar designs as the Drifta 200’s, I created first our DSO tailgate kitchen. After about 3 months I again realised the need for a pull out kitchen, and it was the long drive back from the Adelaide show that I developed the idea in my head for the DPOR style kitchen. It was exciting building the first one as I knew I was onto something big. It still took , like any of the designs, several months and dozens of models before I was completely happy with everything, and didn’t have to make or worry about any more changes.
Tim my brother finished up building drifta’s in 2003. Mission beach where he lived was just too far away from the market in Brisbane, and the early years it was very difficult. Those first 3- 4 years were really tough. We actually never made any money, all our dollars went on show fees, diesel and materials. The shows were very hard, travelling all over the country, then having to quickly make more kitchens when we got back ready for the next show. .. Driving to say Adelaide, paying about a $1000 for diesel, then $3000 for show fees, selling several camping kitchens, then having to be in say Melbourne in two weeks time really took its toll from us physically and financially. Sometimes the show would get rained out, and I’d have to borrow money for diesel to get home. We worked flat out, basically seven days a week for 4 years, built about 1500 kitchens, drove to about 15 – 20 shows a year, and made not a cent. I’d given it a good shot, but we were ready to give up.
Luckily, the website and time changed this.. i realized the shows just weren’t working anymore, stopped going to so many, put more effort into our website, and started to advertise in some magazines. . finally people started ringing up wanting to buy product. We were able to sell enough to keep us going, but didn’t have to spend all our money going to the shows. (the shows were great, in that they built our business. We only had one product, the Drifta 200 when I started. But having so many people talking to us, I quickly saw the opportunity of new products.. for example, it was at the shows that people started asking me to make them a tailgate kitchen. it all went from there… ).
……. after about two years building drifta’s in my garage, we moved out to the industrial estate in Blayney. I didn’t actually want to move, as I didn’t think I could afford the rent ($140 a week :) , but my brother Ben, who always had a lot of encouragement for me in the early days of Drifta, convinced me that if we moved, we would be able to make more kitchens, and would grow, then we could afford the rent. It took several months to convince me, and if Ben hadn’t persisted, I may of still been in my double garage today. So we moved to a rented 2 bay shed, and Ben was right, we made more kitchens more efficiently, and slowly started to grow. The camping trailer kitchens I designed started to go really well, and we also started wholesaling them to the trailer companies, which meant a bit less profit, but they were easy sales for us, and the turnover was important.
..There for only 12 months, I realised we were going to soon outgrow this shed, and we probably needed to build our own. After much searching, we were really lucky and found some land in the industrial estate in Gloucester, (northern Hunter Valley) . Banks don’t like lending money to new businesses that don’t make a profit, so it was very hard to get the money together to buy the land and build a shed. When I first met Kiyomi in 95, and she came and lived with me, I had nothing but a dept for $15k on my old troopy, and we lived in a swag in the back for a few months… I said to her one day, that we might have nothing now, but we’ll slowly improve our situation, and we’ll never go backwards. That was my promise to her, so from the back of my truck, to a tent, to a caravan in Broome, (see TRIPS) then to a flat in Blayney, then to a house I bought of mum, we slowly built our way up. But because I couldn’t borrow money from the bank, I had to sell our house. We would have to live in the end of the new shed. This was one of the hardest parts, we’d be going backwards, from a nice house to a shed, so for me it was a big gamble. We just had enough money for the shed, but couldn’t afford to concrete all the floor, so it was dirt/ gravel for a few years We ended up living back in our oztent inside the shed for about a year, until I finished off building the house part. But Gloucester was a great move, beautiful place, and a lot more convenient for people to visit. For the first few years there we employed a few boys, but now after 6 years, our factory has doubled in size, and we now employ about 18 local staff. The products continued to expand, and we realized there was a market for custom 4wd drawers, which no-one else was able to do. So then I came up with several designs of drawers for 4wd’s, using all of our experience in design and manufacturing, this has been extremely successful, and the drawers now account for about half of our work.
The exports are slowly starting to work also… we are sending kitchens to New Zealand, have a distributor in Europe, and this week, (march 2011) we are sending a 20’ container full of about 80 camping kitchens and drawers to the US, where I sell them direct from the website.
Once the business got to about 12 staff, it became very busy for myself to manage.. we had our good friend Emilia, who became our office manager, and helped organise our office systems as the business really grew. But I really needed a factory manager, and with many of our boys still too young to take on the role, it was another struggle for a few years trying to keep it all together. Then one day a backpacker from Wales turned up looking for some work. Mark Beech was a qualified tool maker on a working holiday. I didn’t have any room at the time for him to work, but said he could start building some extensions on our factory.. Beechy was such a good worker, I said that he had a job here anytime he wanted.. so over the next 18 months or so, he would travel round Aus for a bit, then come back and do some work for drifta… when he had to go home, he decided he wanted to give it a go building the Drifta’s back home in England.. it went ok for a bit, but mainly the materials were a problem, the ply, steel legs, etc just wasn’t available, and many of the other materials we needed like the plastic skids and paint was double the price as here… and like here for me in the early years, it takes a long time to establish a new product in the market…
So, lucky for me, Beechy decided to some back to Aus and work for me full time as a manager. Everyone used to say to just put on a manager, but as any businessman will tell you, finding a good manager is extremely rare, as good managers are never looking for a job. They are so valuable. It was touch and go getting Marks visa, especially as the GFC had just stuck, but with a lot of help we were able to sponsor him. So now Beechy is here as a full time manager. He builds many of the drawers, handles most of the 4wd enquiries, and helps with the day to day running of our hectic little workshop. If Mark wasn’t here, we’d have to cut back to about a dozen staff, and many of our products simply wouldn’t be available.
And Kiyomi is still working flat out as always. She is nearly qualified as a cabinetmaker, has one year to finish at tafe, and makes 4 – 5 kitchens a week, mostly the DPOR style kitchens. she loves working in the factory, and I’m very lucky she is happy to still be a part of it, cause I couldn’t cope with everything without her support.
So here we are. After now 15 years, we are still going and still growing. Ten years in business is an achievement as far as I’m concerned. If I had to close the doors tomorrow, I’d be content that we made this milestone. But, I’ll be going my hardest to keep drifta going for a long time yet, we are an Australian manufacturer, building products that you can’t buy anywhere else in the world. I’m really proud of that.. :)Rgds Luke the Drifta….