Borough Talks: secrets of a successful food start-up

Categories: News and previews

In the second of a series of Borough Talks, our panellists tackle the question: what does it take to create a successful food business in modern Britain?

“This must be one of the best times ever to set up a food business,” said Sybil Kapoor, as she introduced her expert panel of entrepreneurs. And judging by the speed with which this particular session of the Borough Talks programme sold out, it’s a statement with which a lot of people out there seem to agree.

“Today, if you want to start something, there are many different ways that you can raise money,” she continued, “and many different ways that you can get your ideas out there, whether it’s a pop-up restaurant, a supper club, a blog, or a market stall.”

The evening’s debate would explore many of those avenues by tapping into the varied experiences of four panellists, all of whom have established successful food businesses: Bonnie Chung of Miso Tasty, Britain’s first high quality miso manufacturer; Jenny Dawson of Rubies in the Rubble, a social enterprise that tackles food waste; Claire Ptak of Violet, a much-lauded bakery; and Jordan Frieda of Trullo and Padella, Borough’s most popular new restaurant.

The germ of an idea
Every start-up begins with the germ of an idea. So how, asked Sybil, do you know that your idea is worth pursuing?

All of the panellists emphasised the importance of trusting your own convictions. “It’s very difficult to know whether the thing that you dream about, the thing that you look out into the world and see doesn’t exist, is as amazing as you think it is,” said Jordan.

“But if it’s something that moves you deeply, if it’s something you find exciting, and if no one is doing it the way you think it should be done, unless you’re a moron, probably a lot of other people are sharing that feeling with you.”

Completely unique
Jenny cautioned against the widespread belief that a good idea has to be a new one. “You’ll never be completely unique,” she said. “It’s likely that someone else is doing it, but I don’t think that matters. It’s the way you do something that matters.”

Next, they spoke about how they had started out. Bonnie’s first hurdle had been the length of time taken to create miso, which takes up to a year to ferment. “If you’re developing a product, the first step is to create a successful prototype, and that took me three years. I always felt that it was just around the corner.”

Jordan and his business partner Tim ran a one-night pop-up to test their concept—something that any aspiring restaurateur would now see as a logical step. “For anyone opening a restaurant in London now, that’s obviously the established route. You can do it for very little money,” he said. “But this was before the whole pop-up craze had started. We did it in my uncle’s small cafe.”

Jenny Dawson

Instant feedback
Jordan spoke of how restaurants allow you to come into direct contact with customers, who provide instant feedback. The same is true of market stalls. Claire, who began Violet bakery with a small stall at Broadway Market, said: “When it’s your own stall, people see how tired you are and they feel this connection. They want to be involved.”

She used that connection to adapt her own previously rigid view of what her bakery should offer. “At the beginning I refused to make carrot cake, banana bread, things like that. But every day it was: ‘Do you do carrot cake? Do you have banana bread?’ So I made it my challenge to make those things, but make them the best I could.”

Jenny Dawson’s Rubies in the Rubble began with a sudden epiphany rather than any kind of strategic plan. After reading a newspaper article about food waste, she spent a night at a wholesale fruit and veg market, where she fell in love with the energy and buzz of the place, but was appalled by the mountains of discarded but perfectly edible produce.

Flopped and failed
Within days she had resigned from her job at a hedge fund. It was at this point that she was given some advice that stuck with her: “I was 25, working my notice, and my boss said: ‘Give it one year, and really go for it. Put your all into it. At the end of that year if you’ve flopped and failed, you’ll know it wasn’t because you did it half-heartedly.’ I found that really powerful. I really went for it.”

Next, the knotty subject of financing. Claire had worked as a food stylist for most of the week, while gradually building her baking business via the market stall. “I didn’t want to borrow any money,” she explained. “I didn’t want to owe anyone, or have anyone tell me how to run my business. I saved money from the stall and I did it all myself.”

Jenny had, similarly, worked a second job and lived in a “shoe box”, and is only now, years later, seeking a first round of investment to expand the business.

The famous three effs
Such an approach isn’t really viable for a restaurant, which requires significant up-front funding, so Jordan leaned instead on what he called “the famous three effs”: friends, family and fools. “We went on a big charm offensive, requisitioned my father’s dining room, invited some people, cooked them food, showed them sample menus and a business plan, got them drunk and told them all the things we wanted to believe but probably didn’t really believe.”

Asked about the accuracy of his initial financial projections, he suggested that such veracity “doesn’t really matter. It’s a presentation job”. The important thing, he said, rather than sweating over spreadsheets, is to really understand what it is that you’re seeking to do. “Investors know it might fail; what they want to know is how it might succeed.”

Bonnie cautioned that “everything takes longer and costs more than you can ever plan for”. She was, she said, extremely lucky with her funding. “I had an angel investor who believed in the idea as much as I did. You have to have that shared understanding of the business and of the risks.” She had found him by, quite literally, taking a gamble: “I met him at a poker night.”

Jordan Freida and Claire Ptak

Attracting interest and financing
Her experience suggested, she said, that being open about your plans is the best way of attracting interest and financing. “Some start-ups are quite secretive about what they plan to do, really cryptic, but don’t be too protective—I told everyone about my idea.”

As small start-ups, none of the panellists had money for professional marketing campaigns. Jenny summed up the best ways of building a buzz without a budget: “Talking a lot, to as many people as possible, being really honest, telling your story, using social media, just getting out there.”

Jordan agreed: “If you’re really good and your food really knocks people over, you can let other people talk about you.”

A particularly compelling box-set
So what do they know now that they wish they’d known at the start? Bonnie would have appreciated “a heads up on how much sacrifice is required and how much resilience you need to keep going”. She compared starting a business to watching a particularly compelling box-set. “It’s this journey that’s addictive as well as exhausting.”

Jenny’s biggest lesson had been in how competitive the food world is—“to get something onto a shelf, you have to persuade people to take something else off”—while Jordan wished that he had started with a less binary view of success and failure. “The reality is that you have multiple failures every day, and it’s a fantastic thing when you’re searching for something great. I was really scared of things not working.”

Asked by an audience member what their memories of their first year were, the panellists all told tales of adrenalised over-work. Claire said: “I used to go shopping on Thursday then bake all day Friday, 6am to 2am, sleep for maybe four hours then go to the stall and stand all day in the freezing cold.”

Moments of genius
Jenny developed “a really strong back, really strong arms, lifted a lot jars, collected a lot of fruit, burnt a lot of chutneys”, while Jordan remembered “chaos, interspersed with moments of genius and real low moments”.

Bonnie talked about how her first year taught her to become an all-rounder. “Each day was so different and there was a really steep learning curve, getting to know all the areas I didn’t know about: operations, accounting, marketing, sales. You can’t afford a big team, so you have to teach yourself everything.”

The second questioner asked the panellists when they had first felt that their business was an established one. Claire, after first suggesting that if you ever feel that you’re established, you’re in trouble, admitted that she had felt pretty good when Violet was first written about in Vogue.

Bonnie Chung

The paradigm shift
Bonnie spoke of the paradigm shift that occurred when her miso was given its first supermarket listing: “Up until that point we were selling to very niche sellers. That told me that people were ready for miso, and it meant that my team of two people was no longer enough.”

Jenny’s moment of realisation was a bitter-sweet one: when she stopped making the products herself and instead outsourced production to partners.

“It was a big step. I felt like a bit of a failure for not making it, but if you’re working with some really great people who can get those jars tasting consistently great every time, why beat yourself up about it?” she said.

A far bigger impact
“It allows me to do more to raise awareness about food waste and have a far bigger impact than I could when I was in the kitchen every day.”

Jordan had similarly mixed feelings about making the step to being a proper business. “I remember the first time I had to let someone go because they weren’t doing a good enough job. It hit home to me how serious things were. It felt proper.”

After a brief discussion on the importance of branding—Claire explained how finding a graphic designer to create a logo had been her very first step—the discussion came to an end, and the crowd dispersed; many of them heading off, no doubt, to continue along the path of setting up highly successful new businesses of their own.