The CFO with an appetite for Hollywood success > Mashuk Taher | CFO, Cucina Classica

It’s unusual for cats to live beyond 15, but there’s one feline that’s immortal in the cat world and it happens to be everyone’s favourite Hollywood Tabby, Garfield.

Jim Davis’s iconic feline turned 45 this year, and Garfield’s love of lasagne might explain the secret to his purr-fect longevity.

What’s more fascinating is how Garfield, whose always on the prowl for lasagne, found his way because of Paramount into the kitchen of Australia’s finest producer of authentic Italian foods, Cucina Classica.

The iconic cat’s love of Cucina Classica’s lasagne seals a deal for the Adelaide-based food company that delivers increased growth opportunity which 18-months ago, would have seemed improbable to CFO, Mashuk (Mark) Taher or its founder and CEO, Roberto Cardone.

Taher for the past year, has been negotiating with Garfield’s owners, Paramount, on a deal that will redefine it as a company, and fast-track its plans to expand nationally and globally.

The company’s relationship with Paramount will help position it internationally and allow it to capitalise on its newfound fame. 

What began as a fledgling café in 2000, the Adelaide Italian food business quickly sprang from café to restaurant supplier, supplying its products to multiple restaurant chains.

According to Taher, as demand grew, it needed to create a different brand for retail customers, which saw the birth of Cucina Classica in 2012.

In South Australia, Cucina Classica’s products featured in more than 230 stores before a change in management in 2020, saw its CEO, Roberto Cardone, adopt an aggressive retail growth plan.

Its products from, lasagne and pasta to sour dough, bread, coffee beans, Italian sauces, and cakes, are now in more than 730 supermarkets Australia-wide with Coles, Woolworths, Foodland, Drakes, Harris Farms and OTR being its most prominent customers.

“Our success,” Taher says, “is down to how we go about our product development and our product development team. They are consistently producing high quality product.”

Fate has a happy knack of unlocking many doors, and it was a chance purchase by Paramount’s Licensing Co-ordinator, Jae Williams, of Cucina Classica’s lasagne at her local Coles Supermarket, which set off a series of events that led to Taher and Paramount to sitting down at the negotiating table.

Williams loved it so much, she told Paramount’s Creative Director who just happens to be Italian.

According to Taher, Paramount’s love of the product began via the company’s website.

Williams placed a comment on the site which said, “Love your product. We’d like to promote it. We want it to be associated with a marketing campaign we are about to launch with Garfield, would you be interested?”

From that point, Cucina Classica found its way to Garfield’s stomach and the rest is history.

According to Taher, the company has created a platform that’s allowed it to grow organically and be in a position that helped foment the Paramount opportunity.

“For us it was a surprise. We were examining how we could market our brand, but the Garfield opportunity, was a manor from marketing heaven and confirmation of what an amazing product we have.”

Hollywood bears many surprises, and as the land of make believe, Taher’s venture into the realm where dreams can come true, was a play he had to negotiate to ensure the company came up trumps.

Taher asserts, he never believed the opportunity to negotiate and strengthen the company’s market position would come in the form of an iconic Hollywood cat. But it did!

“Prior to Paramount approaching us,” Taher says he was oblivious to who or what Garfield was. “I’d never watched an episode or knew of Garfield, but that all soon changed.”

Familiarising himself with the character, was critical, to understand the hype around Garfield and the synergies shared.

“Before any of this, I’d never watched a single episode, but I undertook some serious research – having a three-and-a-half-year-old helped, and I quickly came to understand why people who grew up in the 80’s related to Garfield and his love for lasagne.”

“In our marketing plans, we thought some cool branding would be great. An iconic Hollywood character was never part of our thinking, and I hadn’t seen a cartoon cat featuring on lasagne packaging before”.

Part of the strategy to ensure market growth was to engage a PR company we could work with that would help along the journey and deliver exactly what we wanted and advise on maximising opportunity and build key relationships.

“We searched extensively but couldn’t find the right company, until a colleague from Judo Bank recommended, we contact a company he had used previously where he’d worked prior to Judo, which he “described as brilliant and the best in the business.”

“The connection was made, we engaged and haven’t looked back since.”

According to Taher publicity and strategic media means growth. “It means revenue recognition, and it means as an established South Australian brand, it helps in our next step to achieve national and international acknowledgement of our existence.”

“It’s a step-by-step process.”

Negotiating the Paramount/Garfield deal allows Cucina Classica Taher says, to take full advantage of its position and grow in a way that is advantageous for the company’s long-term national and global aspirations.

Google’s unlimited source of accessible information allows Taher to reinforce why the Paramount/Garfield partnership is critical to the company’s next phase of evolution.

“Currently, if you Google Cucina Classica, you see we are well known in South Australia, with a bit of recognition nationally, but now the Paramount relationship changes all of that.

“To be associated with Garfield creates a paradigm shift in brand notoriety nationally and globally and it elevates the company into a new realm, where we now have to consider all aspects of our manufacturing and how we internationalise our operations – and it’s exciting.”

Internationalising the Cucina Classica brand isn’t a recent consideration, it’s something Taher and Cardone have been considering for some time. But the Garfield deal accelerates their plans.

“Going international isn’t a thought we’ve just made on the spur of the moment because of the Paramount deal. We’ve done a lot of work on exporting our meals, and as you’d expect there’s been some limitations around logistics.

“Our expansion over the last couple of years has been dramatic even during COVD, and while the pandemic posed its challenges export was a major part of our strategy, but now the dynamics have altered strategically for the company.

“We’re not only in a stronger position, but we’re in partnership with a Hollywood powerhouse and the world’s oldest and most loved cat and that creates greater leverage, greater access to different markets, greater opportunity and greater branding.”