How a move to Tassie made a career change happen

James Phelps swapped an office job in Brisbane, for building a small artisanal soy business in Tasmania. Here’s his inspirational story.

James Phelps, owner of Soyoyoy, pictured in Tasmania
  • James Phelps, a former marketing professional, swapped his office job in Brisbane for running an artisanal soy business in Tasmania.
  • His move south bucks the trend of Australians heading north: in 2022, according to the Regional Movers Index powered by CommBank data, four of the top five regional migration hotspots were in Queensland.
  • He emphasises the importance of getting to know customers, establishing regulars, and forming connections that go beyond transactions.
  • Business incubator programs like Seedlab Tasmania have provided training and mentoring to help transform his business.
  • Camaraderie is also key: he connects directly with competitors, as they understand the unique challenges of building a niche business

Swapping the Sunshine State for the Apple Isle has been a fruitful career change for this small business owner.

James Phelps’ bedroom window overlooks a lush green valley and an apple orchard on the outskirts of Kettering, 30 minutes south of Hobart/nipaluna. It’s postcard-perfect Tasmania. This is the view that greets him every morning when he wakes up early to take his four dogs (and the neighbour’s Jack Russell) for a walk through the forest fire trails that surround his property. And it’s the view that welcomes him home after a hard day’s work at his commercial kitchen down the road at Oyster Cove Marina, where he runs his artisanal tofu business, Soyoyoy.

James Phelps with his dogs

“The kitchen looks out over the marina so I wave through the window at my mates taking their yachts out for a sail while I’m at work,” says James from his “office”, which is 100 metres from where the ferry takes day-trippers to Bruny Island.

It’s certainly a different outlook from his past life when he lived in Brisbane/Meanjin and worked in marketing for Moët Hennessy’s luxury wine, champagne and spirits brands. “Our life in Brisbane was great fun but we missed the four seasons and felt like a bit of a change,” says James. In 2006, he made the move with his interior designer partner, Loz Abberton. “We’d been visiting Tassie for 25 years and had always wanted to move here.”

Wide open spaces in Tasmania

The perfect place to start a business – and enjoy your life

The couple’s relocation south bucked the migration trend of people heading north. In 2022, four of the top five regional hotspots for migration inflows were in Queensland – the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Fraser Coast and Bundaberg – according to the Regional Movers Index powered by CommBank data.

While most people chase sunshine, James and Loz set out in search of winter, wide open spaces and quiet. “There’s not a lot of white noise down here,” says James, who sold up in Brisbane and bought acreage on the south-east coast of the island, seeking a simpler life. “We’ve never regretted the move, not once. If you want to become a painter, write a book or start a business, the opportunities are here in Tassie.”

Case in point: Soyoyoy. James’ tofu and tempeh business had humble beginnings in his home kitchen. “I got really into making tofu and tempeh at home and then some friends who owned a café in North Hobart asked me to start supplying to them. One of their regular diners owns three Japanese restaurants and they started using our tofu, too, which was really flattering.” When he set up a stall at Farm Gate Market in Hobart in 2018, “I started making tofu commercially and now it’s a seven-day-a-week business. Well, it’s not even a business; it’s a lifestyle.”

Truth be told, it’s both. Back in 2018, he was selling 30-odd blocks of tofu at the markets and not breaking even after adding up the cost of ingredients, production, travel and the market site. In the five years since, Soyoyoy has expanded on its signature tofu and tempeh range to include soy milk and plant-based cheeses UnFeta’d and Brie’zy. As well as selling at Farm Gate Market in Hobart each Sunday, James and “chief cheese mistress” Loz are now seeing their products stocked in local supermarkets and independent stores, including Salamanca Fresh and Hill St Grocer. Last year, Soyoyoy took out four gold and two silver medals at the Royal Tasmanian Fine Food Awards. “We’ve kept our product range really tight because we haven’t had the business structure, infrastructure, finance or time to do more,” says James, who invested $80,000 in a “proper” tofu machine a year ago. “There wasn’t anyone else making tofu down here in Tasmania so there was an opportunity. We decided if we were going to do it, we would need to be in boots and all.”

Selling Soyoyoy at a local market

James – and his boots – are firmly planted in his new home in Tassie. And he sure doesn’t miss Brisbane’s humidity. “I’ve never felt more at home than I do here. It’s not just the landscape, the nature or MONA, it’s the people – and lack thereof. I feel like I’m part of the community here.”

“Our life in Brisbane was great fun but we missed the four seasons and felt like a bit of a change.”

James’ top tips for building a community through a small business

  • Learn peoples’ names and engage with your local community. “Getting to know people at the market on weekends has been great. We have regular customers – both individuals and restaurant stockists – who have been with us from the start. I know most – not all – of our customers by name and a lot have become personal friends. I don’t know if you could do that in mainland areas because people’s lives are more frenetic and they just don’t have time. That’s the beauty of life in Tassie.”
  • Seek small business support: “There’s a business incubator and accelerator program called Seedlab Tasmania, which provides training for small businesses. We went through the incubator and it completely changed how we approached things and gave us a lot of support and mentoring within the business community.”
  • Connect with your competition and develop your network. “The tofu scene is similar to the wine industry; you never hear a winemaker speaking poorly of another one. Since starting out, I’ve met three other tofu-makers in the market and each one has given me a hug because they understand the frustrations and appreciate how difficult it is to build a business in the tofu game. It’s a lot of fun connecting with people in the community on social media.”

More from Brighter magazine: Can you make money from a side hustle?

This article was originally published in Brighter magazine

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