The Pesto Princess fairytale

Some call it pesto, I call it magic green happy-making stuff

What a lucky day it was when I met the Pesto Princess. There’s no industry behind the company, but a person, a lady, a princess. "I’m just an ordinary woman. Someone’s mother, someone’s wife. I had a totally different career; I was a classical musician and an opera singer."

Kathleen Quillinan is a character. When you meet her, the Pesto Princess logo, the name, the vision – all make sense. For me, pesto is magic stuff. You might know it from Fruit & Veg City or Pick n Pay – yes, they made it that far. Within 10-years, the small pesto-making kitchen has become a factory, but has remained truly artisan. It’s time to uncover the princess behind the product.

Capetonian Kathleen Quillinan doesn’t have any professional culinary training. Her first passion was always music, her second passion is food, and her third passion people.

"I was halfway through life and needed cash. I taught opera and music and was at a point of being empty. It was time for a change." After going back to college to train her own voice, Kathleen didn’t have a salary anymore. She was also married and had a 6-year-old child. "I needed some pocket money to get by." So she started cooking, since she wanted to do something quiet. Jam, Greek yogurt cake, bottled peppers, deli products and ... pesto. Selling her goodies at the veranda of her son’s Waldorf School in Kenilworth, she found that everyone came back for the pesto. "It kept me liquid" she says. And as people were encouraging they asked her "Why don’t you sell this to a shop?” Naturally ambitious and fearless, Kathleen did it: jumped off the edge and ... made it. 

Hey pesto!

Starting to sell pesto at Fruit & Veg City Access Park, in Kenilworth in ‘98, the product looked homemade with its handwritten labels and got accepted by the manager, who cautiously took some on consignment. One week later, all the little pesto jars were sold out. This lead to selling to another Fruit & Veg and then to another one, and so on. The first restaurant that became a Pesto Princess partner was Mr. Pickwicks on Long Street. It all happened by word-of-mouth. Everything was made by Kathleen in her kitchen in Observatory and her char, who became her pesto-assistant. The team grew quickly and soon took over Kathleen’s whole house. In 2002 Kathleen had her second child and it became impossible to work from home.

From 2004 on, Kathleen and the Pesto Princess team (12 people) rented premises in Diep River and enjoyed the luxury of bigger fridges and even employed a food technologist. Until then, Kathleen still taught singing and gave accordion gigs with her husband to keep up the cash flow for making the pesto.

Since then, a lot has happened. The Pesto Princess bought her own premises in 2008 in Muizenberg. And today, Kathleen and her team of 30 produce 7 tons of pesto a month and are found at all major retailers: Pick n Pays, Checkers, Spar, Fruit & Veg City, Melissa's and at many selected delis in the Western Cape. Starting off with sweet basil pesto, five other flavours of fresh pesto also developed [Thai (coriander and chili), Greek (with feta and olives), Rocket & Walnut, Red (sweet red peppers and sun dried tomatoes) and Aubergine & Olive] plus five exotic sauces. All products are free of preservatives, that’s why you have to look out for them in the fridges of the supermarkets.

Based on an Italian recipe, which Kathleen Quillinan industrialised, the pesto is still filled with hand-processes: peeling the garlic, destalking the basil and grating the Parmesan or Pecorino.

"Our ambition is to have a pesto in every fridge in South Africa"

"Where we’re at now, a good idea and product has turned into an ethical business. Our ambition is to have a pesto in every fridge in South Africa." Pesto Princess Foods, known for consistent high quality, has the vision of building the brand into a much loved household name, maintaining the quality while at the same time increasing the output. And to remain a trend-setter and trend-spotter.

Through all these years it was her staff that kept Kathleen going. "We have a nurturing staff-environment, where people with no experience can work, with no education – we give them a chance." The next step has already been taken, after much prompting from loyal Pesto Princess groupies: to go national. Ten years in the Western Cape, now the Pesto Princess also sells her products at Pick n Pay’s nationwide and hopefully soon at all major retailers all over South Africa. With lots of loyal followers this might quickly happen. Feedback from a guy saying "Man, this is the closest thing to world peace" or a lady saying "You should have heard me scream when I found you at my local Pick n Pay", this is more than just a product.

Some call it pesto, I call it magic green happy-making stuff.

by Antonia Heil

Guess what? We watched the Pesto Princess make pesto in her kitchen. Watch the video and find the recipe here.

Pesto Princess Foods | Unit B1 & B2 | Enterprise Village | Capricorn Drive | Capricorn Park | Muizenberg 7945 | Cape Town | +27 (0)21 709 0915

Find Pesto Princess Foods at Saturday morning markets at: Neighbour Goods Market, Woodstock; Porters Estate Market, Tokai; Willowbridge Slow Food Market, Durbanville; Stellenbosch Slow Food Market, Oude Libertas.

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