Food for Thought

By at home

Food for thought Sell: Turning a passion for a particular food into a business is the perfect way to combine work with pleasure, as these three couples discovered.

‘We genuinely love the food we make’Giles Henschel, 43, and his wife Annie, 42, set up Olives Et Al after they returned from travelling. Today they employ 27 people from their premises in Sturminster Newton, Dorset.

‘We got married and went travelling in the early 90s. I’d been in the Army for 10 years and had taken a short-term contract as a charitable fundraiser in London’s Covent Garden. Annie had been a dancer and then worked for the airlines. We didn’t know what we’d do once we were married but we wanted to take a gap year.

We decided to dismantle our past lives and start with a completely clean slate. We were married on July 4, 1992 and then sold everything, ending up with a bit of a bank balance and the clothes we stood up in. We bought two motorbikes and set off.

Instead of hacking around the world, we decided to circumnavigate the Mediterranean basin. We went through Italy, across to Turkey, into Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, to Israel, Sinai, Cairo, up the Nile, into Libya and back through Syria and Cyprus. And everywhere we went, we tasted olives and olive oil, and dishes made from them.

We’d be invited into people’s kitchens and we helped with olive harvests. We picked up a lot of information about the way olives are produced commercially, which is completely different to the way they’re prepared in people’s homes.

When we got back and were horribly depressed and living in a bedsit in Southampton, we decided to have a nice meal but we couldn’t find any prepared olives to serve at all. We ended up buying some from a door-to-door salesman and we fermented and spiced them ourselves. Friends said they weredelicious – and we decided to set up a business based on the olive recipes we’d found when we were travelling.

We started with just three recipes but now the whole range has expanded to include tapenades, pestos and infused dressings. If you understand the toxicology of a product you can make it without preservatives and I know exactly how long things will last without any chemical additives.

We’ve never borrowed any money, never been overdrawn and we own everything we have. At the start we had no big aspirations, just a small business plan to invest everything back into the business and go from hand to mouth. We wanted to see where it took us.

We hit the market at exactly the right moment in the summer of 1993 – there was something about it that appealed to people. We started with a battered old van and a couple of trestle tables selling directly to consumers at events like the Rural Living Show in Bath. You’ve no idea who you’re sellingto but there was one chap who stuck his fingers in the bowl of olives – tomy dismay – and said they were the best he’d ever tasted. We’re still supplying his cheese shop today.

We still don’t seek big exposure because we’re trying to grow fairly organically and under our own control. We now employ 27 people, includingme, and our turnover is about £2.7 million.

Behind it all is a real passion for what we do. There’s no huge plan to dominate the olive world, we genuinely love the food we make and have a philosophy that puts our customers first. We won’t supply the big supermarkets, we sell into good delis and farm shops. I want to make sure we end up with a thriving high street and I want to change people’s attitudes about how they shop.’

Giles’ advice:* When you take on your first member of staff, don’t get an assistant – get somebody who’s good at running your business for you. * Work with people for their personality. If they don’t fit in with your ethos and passion, it will all end in tears. * It’s about how you do it rather than what you actually do, and the most important things to keep in mind are the values that underpin your ethics.

+ For further information, contact www.olivesetal.co.uk, tel. 01258 474300

‘We have fantastically creative staff’Caroline Pring, 33, and Paul Leach, 49, set up The Chocolate Alchemist in 2002 after they moved to the Sussex countryside, and the business has gone from strength to strength.

‘Paul was finance director for a ladies’ fashion company and fed up with commuting so we decided to move to the country and start our own business. I’d done all sorts of things including personnel management but I’d also worked as a chocolatier at one time, and as we both adore chocolate we thought this would be the way to go.

We wrote ourselves a business plan, setting our sights quite high. We hadfantastic plans. We had one investor lined up for the entire £200,000 we needed but at the last minute he pulled out. We were back at square one and decided we could either wait and find another investor or start on a smaller scale.

We scraped together all our savings and begged, borrowed and stole from parents and family. One friend of ours is a builder and he helped us convert a garage on an industrial unit into a factory. Another gave us variouspieces of equipment. We only had a small budget of £40,000 and we needed to buy fridges and make the factory safe for food, because it was filthy. Chocolate machinery is quite expensive, and just a couple of bits cost about£7,000. We also had to buy stock and moulds, and get everything shipped over from Belgium.

We started the business in October 2002 and were up and running by Christmas, experimenting with chocolate and trying to get a small range together, which we sold to friends and family. We made the grand total of£150!

At the start of 2003 we went to the International Food Exhibition to get customers, and it was fantastic for us. Things have been going well ever since.

For the first nine months there were just the two of us, but now we have about 12 staff. We’ve had to move to larger premises, too. We took a small business loan to fund the expansion at the start of 2005. It was in theregion of £100,000 but we felt we had our customer base sorted out as we were supplying places like Harvey Nichols, Liberty and the Eden Project. This year we’ve gone into larger branches of Waitrose and John Lewis, and we now have about 120-150 regular customers.

We have fantastically creative staff and they all get involved when we’re deciding on new products. This year we’re doing something with chocolate and sun-dried tomatoes….

We try to be exclusively organic. This is central to our environmentally friendly policies but also the ingredients and final product simply taste better. Wherever possible we use recycled materials and we also recycle all paper, cardboard, glass, cans and plastic.

Our consumers often ask about the origins of the cocoa used in our chocolate and whether it is "Fair Trade". Many people today, quite rightly, are concerned about the exploitation and slavery in the agricultural and manufacturing chains that bring us some of our favourite foodstuffs like coffee and, of course, cocoa, but the high quality cocoa used in our chocolate is grown on small, co-operative plantations in the Dominican Republic.

We’d like to carry on expanding but we’ll see where it takes us. There’s retail, export… so many other things we could do. There are not many people out there supplying quality organic chocolate, though!’

Caroline’s advice: * Stick to your own vision, don’t be dissuaded by people who think they know better than you. Be guided by your own instincts.* Be prepared for a lot of hard work – we put in 80-hour weeks in the run-up to last Christmas. * Our investor dropping out was the best thing that happened to us in hindsight. If we’d had that money we may have made some expensive mistakes.

+ For further information contact www.thechocolatealchemist.co.uk, tel. 01798 860 995

‘We’d rather stay small and slightly exclusive’ Andrew Wiseman, now 56, was already running Sleepy Hollow Smokehouse in Mellon Charles, Ross-shire, when he met Jenny, 58. She has helped turn it into the thriving mail order business it is today.

‘Andrew grew up a quarter of a mile away from where we are now. He used to be a fisherman and when he gave that up, started supplying smoked salmon to local hotels in this part of Scotland. People who ate it at the hotels asked whereto get it, friends wanted to send it to their friends – and it snowballed from there.

I’ve been up here for 10 years. I used to stay in a little hotel in thevillage nearby where Andrew would deliver fish. He’d stay and have a drink – and that’s how we met. Two years later we ran away to Gretna Green and got married.

His business was up and running by then but he didn’t do much mail order, soI came up here specifically to work with him and to expand it. I trained at the Prue Leith Cookery School in London many years ago and I’d cooked forlots of house parties and dinner parties and made wedding cakes – but that was all before I was lured into the world of fish!

We started selling sliced smoked salmon to people, which Andrew didn’t do before and which we slice by hand, and also smoked haddock, which the hotels love because we don’t dye it. Our best seller is the 8oz pack of smokedsalmon for £5.60 (plus postage and packing).

We have a truly traditional smokehouse just 200 yards from our home and we use old-fashioned techniques and skills rather than modern, electric kilns. We hang the fish by their tails with clothes pegs, and they are smokedwithout any heat at all. It gives a really natural product.

Basically the business has funded itself. Andrew had a grant in the early days from Ross and Cromarty Enterprise, because he had to convert a derelict stone croft. Since then we’ve been self-sufficient.

Our business has gone from strength to strength. We’ve trebled our turnover in the past 10 years, an achievement we’re quite proud of as it’s just the two of us in a remote corner of Scotland. But we’re getting to the point where although we keep increasing our business we don’t want it to get sovast that we have to employ hordes of people. We’d rather stay small and slightly exclusive than employ a lot of people, which isn’t easy to do up here anyway because it’s so remote. We like it being run by just the two of us and feel we know who our customers are. Once you start getting too big, there’s a danger of losing your identity with your regular customers, and I like to know who they are.

Of course there are some times that are frantic – the first three weeks inDecember we start at midnight and finish about 6pm, fall into bed at 8pm and start again at midnight. We pack by day and slice by night. And ourprofits would be far bigger if we didn’t have such huge travel expenses –it’s 70 miles each way, for instance, to collect the gutted and filleted fish.

Andrew and I are lucky in that he has the flair to create a wonderful product and I have acquired a certain amount of marketing experience over the years (and happen to have the ability to slice smoked salmon, of course). Really, it’s all happened quite by chance!’

Jenny’s advice:* Get to know the market at which you are aiming and – this is vital – know how to access that market. There is no point having the most wonderful skill/product in the world if the world doesn’t know about it. * It’s very tempting to get grants and loans for things like new machinery,but don’t forget how long it can take to pay them back – and remember, you still have to earn a living at the same time. * It is very hard work. Even after I finish with the fish I have to do allthe paperwork – and you ignore that at your peril!

For further information contact www.sleepyhollow-smokehouse.co.uk, tel. 01445 731304

"A great business success was probably never attained by chasing the dollar, but it is due to pride in one’s work…the pride that makes business an art."

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