A debilitating illness didn’t stop Sharna McElligott from managing her own plant-based Tauranga café, The Nourished Eatery. Now she’s inspiring other women in business across the Bay of Plenty.
As careers go, it began rather unremarkably. Invercargill girl Sharna McElligott started out in the travel business, working for an agent in Sydney, before ‘falling in love with’ and studying health and nutritional medicine.
But after two years of study Sharna was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) – or chronic fatigue syndrome – an illness that has no cure and affects around 20,000 sufferers in New Zealand.
ME attacks the nervous and immune system – resulting in extreme tiredness, memory loss, and muscle and nerve pain.
Back in New Zealand with her family, aged just 23, she moved to Auckland to study, but soon found herself working for a North Shore café and running her own vegan cake business, marketing cakes on her Instagram account @thenourishingbaker.
After orders exceeded production capacity, Sharna decided it was time to open her own café – Tauranga was her city of choice.
“It all sort of just happened,” she recalls. “My partner Hayden had his Vigour and Vitality business in Tauranga and a spare room in his factory. My dad built me a hole-in-the-wall type café out of pallets, which went really well until
we were too busy and needed to move into a larger location.”
She opened The Nourished Eatery number two in the city in November 2016 and everything in the café, from the produce to the tables and chairs is sourced locally.
At first Sharna tried to do everything herself but, in dealing with ME, found herself burning out and having to delegate more jobs.
So how is she coping today?
“I now find staff that have multiple-talents for my business,” she explains. “For example, someone good at art can do our drinks board art during quiet times. The chef is also a barista so if it’s quiet in the kitchen, he can make coffee. The barista is also a chef, so she can help the chef if he gets too busy.”
Sharna has three days off a week during which she usually works from bed.
“I sometimes struggle when working but have great staff and a great partner that help me so much.
“I’m lucky I have staff I can trust to run the show if I do need more time off. I practice personal development nearly every day and have become so mentally strong I really think I can make anything happen,” she says proudly.
Sharna opted for a vegan diet out of necessity. “A diet without animal products
is the easiest for my body to run off,” she explains.
Two years ago there weren’t many vegan options in town, and in developing the business, Sharna says she wanted to create a place people could go to and feel at home and enjoy food that looked and tasted similar to non-vegan food, such as burgers, pizza, donuts and brownies.
A large social media following also helped get the café established.
She puts her success down to social media, and the rising popularity of vegan diets.
Highs and lows
Like any business, The Nourished Eatery has produced its highs and lows.
The highs, says Sharna, are the days when she finds herself in a position to help those who can’t help themselves.
“People tell me I’ve helped change their life. It’s insane to me that I help inspire people.”
She clearly remembers her toughest day in business – the day a letter from an ex-staff member’s lawyer arrived. “It asked for a large sum of money because I’d let her go within the 90-day trial period without realising the 90-day trial was void because she didn’t have her [employment] contract on the day she started working for me.
“I had to swallow my pride and pay.
“It’s painful moments like that which make me want to help others – so they don’t have to feel the same pain as I did. I absolutely wanted to give up.”
So how exactly do you build a business while dealing with a debilitating illness?
Sharna’s attitude is – you can do it.
“My advice is to be honest with your customers; talk about your struggles on your platforms. We’re all human and if people can recognise your struggles – we all have them – they can personally relate, and they feel like your friend.
“If you can afford to, hire a manager. They can write rosters, interview new staff, train, set systems in place, and so on. Or at least find a business coach who can mentor you though the tough times.
“Sometimes you need someone who will listen to you moan, and help you see your struggles from a different perspective.
“I had a business coach right at the beginning, and I still remember to this day some of the advice he gave me.”
No shortage of support Sharna is far from alone in her business journey. There’s support from many other women business owners in the Bay, her parents, and her social media followers.
“It’s incredible the lovely messages I get!
“And for everyday café dramas my two café neighbours help me out,” she says. “They’ve been in the cafe industry much longer than me so they always look after me.”
Sharna is also close to publishing her own book through her Facebook and Instagram pages. “It’s about how I started my business; it’s to inspire anyone wanting to do the same thing.
“I also share all the customers’ favourite recipes, my tips and tricks, and loads of beautiful photographs.”
There are plans to open a second Nourished Eatery later this year or early in 2019.
“[This time] we need a larger kitchen and more customer parks.”
She’s open to finding a business partner at some stage too.
“I hope to keep growing month by month and remain true to myself,” she adds.
There’s much to admire about this budding young entrepreneur with the ‘can do’ attitude.