Devon kitchen table start ups
- Credit: Archant
Small businesses are the lifeblood of the Westcountry, especially in the food industry where enthusiastic people are turning a hobby into a way of making living. SU CARROLL discovered eight fledgling companies which started, literally, on the kitchen table and asked them the same five questions…
Paloma Hermoso moved to Devon three years ago from her home in Spain, driven by economic necessity. The psychologist and her architect husband arrived in Exeter with their two young sons, Javier and Quique, looking for work in the wake of the Spanish recession. She has had a fascination for jam in tiny pots ever since seeing them while on holiday in a hotel with her parents when she was a teenager. She then started collecting small pots of jam and making her own preserves and, when forced to leave several hundred of her prized pots behind when she left Spain, she began making her own jam to remind her of home.Investing an unexpected windfall in the form of a tax refund, she set up the business in October 2013 making jams in small batches from her own recipes, choosing ingredients she thinks will go well together. She tries them out on her husband and sons first and if they pass the test, they go on sale. “In the really early days I was a newborn but it’s going very, very well. My husband helps, but I am still a one-man band,” says Paloma. “I deal with everything from suppliers to customers, I make all the jams and even design the labels. The process is really long and there are so many different steps I have to go through.“It can be tiring – I had to make 500 pots to take to Exeter Festival. And I still have a full-time job. Am I mad? Maybe a bit,” she laughs. Paloma must be doing something right. In her first year she was a winner in the Devon Life Food and Drink Awards and she’s since won a Dalemain Marmalade Award and a Fairtrade Single Product Award this year. She has developed the product range to around 60 or 70 flavours, although they are never all available at any one time. What she makes varies according to the season and there are a few staples. She also developed a range for retailer Darts Farm which includes a rhubarb and ginger and a rhubarb, lime and vanilla. She has not lost her initial excitement about her business. “It’s something I really enjoy doing and I’m passionate about it. It’s all so exciting.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in setting up the business? How long the day is! It feels like 30 hours or more.
What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a food business? Do it! The main obstacle is yourself. Just trust in yourself. You can do it.
Any regrets? Not really. I’m happy so far.
Biggest mistake? Some of the flavours have been a big mistake! I’ve felt disappointed and angry at times, but everything has made me stronger and I’ve learned from it. So it’s worth it.
And your future plans… I have had a couple of investment offers, which I have refused. I want to produce something natural, healthy and homemade. You can only manage these things if you manage the business. I keep it small because I want to keep the best quality. It’s the most amazing job in the world, but it can be boring sometimes… like when I’m up at 3am labelling!
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Zimbabwean-born chef, Kumbirai Gundidza, known as Kumbi, persuaded his grandmother to let him join her in the kitchen of her home in Harare during childhood holidays. Finding himself in England, he remembered the tastes and flavours of Africa and decided to set up a stall in Covent Garden selling tiny jars of homemade spicy sauces from his grandmother’s recipes. He took 20 jars and they had all sold in less than half an hour. When he moved to Dawlish with his wife and twin daughters, he continued making the sauces, selling them at Totnes market and the monthly food market at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Favourites with his customers include his grandmother JJ’s dovi sauce, chimichuri, chakalaka, chisa, piri-piri and Scotch bonnet.Last year he was fairly new to the business when he took part in the Powderham Food Festival and says he learned a lot since then.“There have been negative bits and positive bits and I have changed my approach to the business for the better. I now know how big I want to get. I have registered the business all over again and I am moving into new premises. I am now going into more shops, responding to approaches people have made to me. And I am studying things like marketing and learning to enjoy the process. This year I’m beginning to see results.” You can order the sauces online on Kumbi’s Facebook page, Kumbites.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in setting up the business? When I started it was to keep my cheffing skills alive while I was looking after the children and because we needed the money. Covent Garden was the answer to the financial issue. But I did spend the first year not looking at it as a business. Now I have opened my mind and allowed myself to learn the ropes.
What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a food business? You have to believe in yourself to start with and then understand what business is about. It’s not about what you want to make, but what is needed. So listen to your customers.
Any regrets? No. If anything, I look for problems. I don’t want to be comfortable, I want to be on the back foot. That’s when my creative streak comes out.
Biggest mistake? Do we call them mistakes or learning curves? The things I did not knowing made me realise what I need to do.
And your future plans.. I’m putting in place measures to help me develop, like employing an accountant and getting a business mentor for advice. You have to spend money to make money and I want to invest in myself.
Chocolatier Rosie Butler and her architect husband Martin were forced by the economic downturn to look for other ways of making money and realised that their herd of three goats could produce milk and butter. Then Rosie began experimenting with chocolates and Caprine Capers was born in 2010. Using goats milk means that the chocolates have no cows milk content so are good for people who are lactose intolerant, and they’re gluten free too. The Butlers, who live in Torrington, use good quality chocolate from Spain which is guaranteed nut free. They now have 34 goats and the business is a firm favourite at food festivals where the couple love the chance to meet their customers. The online side of their business is going well, although Rosie admits that Christmas left her feeling shattered. “I’m amazed at the number of people who have found out about us,” says Rosie. “I had a lady email from New York asking where our shop was and another asked me to send chocolate to her daughter in Greece. We are true artisans and the chocolates are totally handmade. We don’t get enough backing for the leg-up that we need. We would be in the position of taking on someone else. The goats don’t have a weekend off, and they don’t know about Bank Holidays, Christmas or weekends!” You can order online at caprinecapers.talktalk.net.
What has been the biggest surprise in setting up the business? Really, the way that it took off. We were worried that people would say that the chocolates “taste goaty” so I’ve been amazed at how people support us. And how loyal customers are. I always worried, but Michael Caines told me our chocolates were really wonderful.
What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up? Don’t start a small business! I suppose, be prepared to put in a lot of hard graft.
Any regrets? Sometimes. You never get any time to yourself, especially with goats. You need to get that life/work balance.
Biggest mistake? I don’t think we’ve actually made one. We did make a kirsch truffle and didn’t feel it was quite right. Our customers told us to put a whole kirsch cherry in. So you can make little mistakes which you can then rectify.
And your future plans… Developing the range. We’re doing a Plain Jane truffle, which is amazing, and also a lime one with the zest and juice in which is really nice. And salted caramels… I can never make enough of them. I’d really like to get the chocolates in shops like Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. The Bon Gout in Exeter have been the most amazing people to deal with. They tell us we’re outselling everyone else.
Best friends Francesca Gigg of Honiton and Andie Stansell of Cullompton bonded over their shared passion for food and started making macarons in their own kitchens. They were both working full-time, giving up evenings and weekends to bake, when they realised that they had a business on their hands. “It started by us both doing something we loved – baking,” says Fran. “In 2013 we registered the business as a limited company and gave up our jobs. Then Andie’s husband, Mark, joined us too.” Macarons are regarded as difficult to make so no wonder that customers are happy for Fran and Andie to create these sweet, indulgent treats. Flavours include the award-winning Classic Collection which has six of their favourite macarons, including Double Pistachio, Lemon Meringue and Salted Caramel. Frandie Macarons are seen at foodie festivals and have now branched out into making wedding favours and stunning macaron towers. There’s also a new range of sauces.“We’ve just been getting busier and busier and busier,” says Fran. “We are still doing everything ourselves. Andie does most of the marketing and social networking and Mark is the master baker. I deal with the weddings side of things. Last year we did 16 weddings, this year there will be nearly 30.
What has been the biggest surprise? I think it’s how successful it can be. We have a local following, which is lovely. I’m more modest than the other two. Andie always knew it would be big.
What advice would you give? Just go for it if you’ve got a passion and are self-motivated. Life’s too short.
Any regrets? No. A lot of people say never go into business with friends, but the three of us work well together.
Biggest mistake? We spend our entire life saying you live and learn. We just keep evolving. I suppose the biggest mistake is that we didn’t do this sooner.
And your future plans… We’re now looking for a unit because we need to get out of our houses and we’re looking to expand. Gloop! Dessert sauces is a new product we launched last year that’s going down really well and we’re going to be running cooking courses.
Farmer’s wife Helen Spooncer of Foxcombe Farm, near Okehampton, had always enjoyed baking so when she was approached by WI Country Markets in 1999 to make cakes for them she was happy to supplement the income she already had from baking for her own farm shop. Within four years she was supplying two WI country markets – in Launceston and Tavistock – and was being asked to supply retail outlets too, such as Lifton Village Shop.“It has gradually grown from there,” says Helen. “When the family needed more money, I’d just find more shops. We reach as far as Somerset, Dorset and Cornwall now. We use traditional recipes, the kind of stuff my mum and my gran taught me, and fresh ingredients – we never use packet mixes. I have a couple of lovely ladies from the village working with us now and we make everything on a small scale, baking about 40 cakes at a time. We have a much bigger mixer than you get in a domestic kitchen and our ovens are a little larger, but we still crack all our eggs by hand, five dozen at a time. And we still seal all our packets with sellotape! “It’s kitchen table philosophies and method.” Find out more on Foxcombe Bakehouse’s page on Facebook.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in setting up the business? It’s how much you don’t know in terms of business. Where you get the knowledge from is by talking to people and people are always happy to help.
What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a food business? Always keep in mind why you chose to do it.
Any regrets? I’m not one for regrets, although at times the work has taken me away from the family.
Biggest mistake? Not asking for advice soon enough.
And your future plans… Developing the range to go national.
Good Game developed, as these things often do, with a casual conversation between three friends - Peter Woodham-Kay, Steve Williams and Jim Kingston - who were taking part in the Topsham to Morocco old banger rally in a £100 Ford Cavalier. They were all keen foodies and Steve had been sharing how much he had missed pork products when he worked in the Middle East. A discussion about making sausages evolved into an idea for a company making charcuterie. Today they make hams, salamis, coppa ham, chorizos and a venison bresaola alongside other meat products. The charcuterie uses no artificial nitrates and is dried in the Exe estuary air. Most of their pork is sourced from the local Kenniford Farm, game is generally shot by them and they buy as much as they can of the other materials they need from Devon.It’s a process which takes a lot of patience, admits Steve. “You can’t rush charcuterie. If you don’t control production you can’t just rush out and buy another ham. You have to wait nine weeks. We dry naturally so you have to know the humidity and be aware of changes in the weather. If you did that on a bigger scale, it would be more difficult.” You can buy their products from a number of Westcountry outlets including Darts Farm and the River Cottage canteens in Plymouth and Axminster. You can also buy them at regular markets (check website for dates).
What has been the biggest surprise for you in setting up the business? That people want to use an artisan supplier for food and then when they realise the cost they buy from somewhere else with a lower quality.
What advice would you give someone? Do something you love and do it really well. Also be nice to everyone.
Any regrets? I always think I would say I wish I did it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t as I didn’t know enough about business years ago.
Biggest mistake? I think we are in real danger of working too hard to get to a destination and failing to enjoy the journey!
And your future plans… Loads, just wait and see!
Rik Pedrick and Suzanne Smith set up their business in North Devon two years ago, deciding to make small tarts for a food festival and they have been “bumbling along” ever since, says Rik. “Suzanne wanted to set up a catering business for ages and we were always interested in wild food and medicinal herbs. We keep the focus on wild and foraged foods and it’s very local and seasonal.“My only background in food, is eating! I’m actually a graphic designer by day. But I’m a huge foodie and I’ve travelled a lot. Suzanne has been making fudge for quite a few years. We’re a good team. I’m the ideas person and she’s the business girl. “We decided to make the tarts because they’re something small and simple. Everyone can eat a small tart – people over 80 love them and so do kids. If they have a big pie, they’ll only get halfway through.” The tarts are locally sourced and baked in an Aga. The dairy is organic, eggs are free range, the fish is sustainable and the meat “happy”. Favourite fillings with customers include Lundy Crab, Clovelly smokies, wild Exmoor venison, Cornish chorizo, Red Ruby rump steak and black pudding and scrumpy cider. Rik says she has tried all sorts of combinations.“We made goats cheese and dandelions. I like to use as many ‘weeds’ as possible. I did make one with nettles but it didn’t sell until we called it a nettles pesto. We’re at the real food market in Barnstaple on the second Sunday of every month. It’s really a shop window for the catering business.”Check out the Big Bellys Facebook page or contact them by email at email@example.com.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in setting up the business? What continues to surprise me is people’s enthusiasm for wild food. They will eat anything if you present it in a recognisable form. People love to try new things but need to feel safe about it.
What advice would you give? Just go for it. We started with a good idea and continued with it.
Any regrets? None at all.
Biggest mistake? Leaving stuff to the last minute. That way I missed the deadline for a big food festival.
And your future plans… Focus more on the catering. The tarts do well at the shows and it’s an easy way in to the party business. We both love a good party!
Janet Sawyer shares with me a stark fact. It’s that 97% of businesses fail in the first five years. So she can breathe a sigh of relief that the business she set up at her home in Farringdon, East Devon, celebrated its fifth birthday in May this year. It started with her own enthusiasm for pure vanilla. She organised a Vanilla Day in her home village and the company was born with three aims: to promote exciting ways of using vanilla in the kitchen; to inform people about the benefits of using real vanilla and to help the communities which cultivate vanilla in fragile ecosystems. Former teacher Janet is particularly proud of two things – the book she has written telling the vanilla story and with lots of recipes and the way in which the business has supported and nurtured young people. Ten graduates have all worked for Little Pod. “The book, Vanilla, has been fantastic and it’s now out in 30 different countries. Country Life called it one of the best cookery books of the year. It’s had really good reviews. “And I’m so proud of the people I’ve worked with. When George came to me he was disappointed with his A levels. Now he’s going to go and study a BSc in food manufacturing at Chester. Clara has passed her first module toward a diploma in marketing. Sam is doing an apprenticeship in accountancy and Tom got a job with a big company in London and they are letting him spend 20 days a year at Little Pod as our brand manager.” The book, Vanilla, is published by Ryland Peters and Small and 10% of the profits goes to community projects in Madagascar.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in setting up the business? The business world seems like a very grown-up world and you think it’s going to be full of hunters and sharks. But I’ve met such a wonderful group of people who all love what they’re doing. It’s wonderful the way people all work together and support each other in the food industry.
What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a food business? Go at your own pace, especially if you’ve never done this before. You’re in charge. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you how to do it. Use advisors, but remember you’re in the driving seat.
Any regrets? Not really. I’m over 60 and a lot of my friends are retired or retiring. They all look at me as if to say ‘really’?!
Biggest mistake? Believing that it might have been possible to bring in friends to work with. I didn’t listen to advice.
And your future plans… We’re bringing out a vanilla shortbread. And we’ll have our own plantation in Indonesia. We had to get permission from the government and we’ll be harvesting our first crop in a couple of years.