Image credit: Ed Dowding 2013

The work I have been doing, for more years than I care to recall, has come together over the recent past and now forms a Manifesto for Small Food Business. This is predicated on two seemingly disparate notions:

  1. You cannot start a business unless you know who you are
  2. You learn who you really are by founding a business

First.. a bit of background…

Sophie makes fermented bar snacks in someone else’s bakery. Ian makes bread at home and delivers to local schools. Michael makes raw-milk cheese on someone else’s farm. Dinner ladies become chefs and serve amazing school-dinners for the same budget as previously. Ralph makes chutney with his wife who is Pakistani and brings wonderful spices from her home. Kate smokes venison from a local deer-park to make charcuterie. Durga makes samosas with foraged herbs. Nick and Martin and team grow organic and biodynamic vegetables. Martha and Laura have opened cafes to serve their own food and buy-in others. Sarah has a food truck. Hamid has a deal to supply sandwiches to a local business park, made using fresh local ingredients. I could go on and on and on. These are real people and real stories. The only difference between them and you is that they have done it. They have started food businesses.

Their backgrounds have nothing in common. They are all ages, education levels, wealth levels, cultures, genders, temperaments and so on. Some never worked before, leaving school with barely a GCSE, and in late teens. Some are PhDs who career change at mid-life. Some are retired but bored and want a challenge. Some are generations in the local area. Some are emigrants. Some are hands-on. Some like a distance. Some want staff. Some hate to manage or be managed. Some have run big departments. Other have run away from home.

One thing they do have in common.
They all love to eat!

Yvonne O'Donovan

Yvonne O’Donovan

I’ve realised there is no such thing as a typical company and there is no such route to success as a ‘Join the Dots’ template, by which you will be successful. Numerous business books and guides to entrepreneurs are predicated on the notion that if you only do what you are told by an ‘expert’ and do it well, then you will win. And who doesn’t want to win? We live after all in a cut-throat world of dog eat dog, where you will be fired if you fail to perform or go bankrupt if someone competes with you and sells at a cheaper price. Just watch ‘Dragon’s Den’ or ‘The Apprentice’ and read biographies of corporate founders.

But if you work with your heart as well as your head, and if you care about the source of the goods you are offering to others, then this way of thinking about business doesn’t hold.

What is it you love enough to want to make? The starting point is you.

Just like a songwriter or an artist doesn’t do a survey to ask their public what they would like to hear or see, so a true craftsperson doesn’t begin from the demand of the customer. You begin from who you are and what you care about. Everyone is unique so there will be something that is different between what you do and what someone else does.

Then once you have discovered your ‘thing’, usually after much trial and error and trying again (so low-risk at this point), you will need to be brave enough to offer it to others and charge enough money for it to be able to make more and keep some for yourself.

My definition of a hobby/micro is between £1,000 and £40,000 a year in sales. If you are selling something for £10, this would mean only 2 customers if they if they bought from you almost every week (£10 x 50weeks x 2people) at the low end and up to 80 customers (£10 x 50weeks x 80people) at the high end. Labour is usually 50% of costs in labour-intensive businesses, and all food businesses rely on the skill and talent of its people at the craft/artisan/micro-enterprise end of the industry. So beyond sales of £40,000 you would need to work with others as employees or contractors or collaborators to be able to deliver. (There are some exceptions with very high value products, but in general this will work). To pay yourself £50K you would need sales of over £120,000, assuming you did all the work yourself.

At the upper end I have worked with those who grew the business to around £5million in sales, very often to their complete surprise as things took off in unexpected directions, with about 30 staff. Beyond this you are in danger of no longer being a Small Food Business as your routes to market (logistics, delivery, refrigeration, storage etc.) force you to scale and outsource. Small really is beautiful!

There are exceptions to this where entrepreneurs like Kane Yeardley has grown significantly but kept the individual character of each pub/restaurant. At the food producer end it is trickier as the artisan maker is often key to the process of making the product.

So why would anyone in their right mind want to start a small food business?

Why would you chose to work long hours, often for low pay, worrying about all kinds of problems, dealing with your own stress in a constantly changing commercial, environmental and technological world over which you have little control?

You have to make, bake, source, sell, account, raise cash, bank, administer, promote, be legal, pay tax, be available, solve problems, make decisions, communicate, design, plan, react and still have time for sleep and loved ones.

Why indeed!

Because it is the most exciting roller-coaster ride of your life.
Because life is not a dress rehearsal and you only have one shot so why not make it a great one.
Because your character is formed far more by the mistakes you make than the success that comes easy.
Because you could transform the lives of those you feed by offering them healthy food.

Finally, if you don’t think being in business is for you, then at least go and buy from those who are local and who make their food with passion.

If you cannot make it yourself, buy from someone who can.

Yvonne & Tobi

Yvonne & Tobi

Yvonne O’Donovan @ipidi is a ‘Real Food’ Champion, who believes that if we get our food system right we will get our world right. As well as her own writing and advising she is Head of Business at the internationally-acclaimed School of Artisan Food @artisanschool at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire (part of the Sheffield City-Region) and has helped launch hundreds of small food enterprises across Great Britain and overseas.

Come and see me at Sheffield Food Festival:
On Sunday May 28th I’ll be in the Theatre Kitchen Marquee from 4.30 –5.00pm to challenge your inner entrepreneur.
How do you know if you have what it takes? Following immediately after the wonderful demo by David from the School of Artisan Food, where I run courses throughout the year
On Monday May 29th I’ll be chairing a discussion on skills and training for the food industry locally post-Brexit

Twitter: @ipidi
Email: /
Phone: 07879 697569 / 0114 2558551 (Please note that I travel and teach a lot so leave a message if not answered)

Share This