How We Started an Independent
Artisan and Ingredient Supply Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Alistair Cullen. I own with my business partner Jennifer White – Cottage Foods (Yorkshire) Ltd. We are an independent artisan and general ingredient supply based out of Halifax Yorkshire.
Every day our business delivers to over 400 coffee shops, restaurants, school and family entertainment centres across Yorkshire from our range of over 700 ingredients.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Both myself and Jennifer have a history in food, growing up and cutting our teeth working for some of the largest household food brands in the UK. We met whilst working at Genius Gluten Free.
Having worked nationally for a number of years, we saw the food service offering London being so much more diverse to that available in our home county of Yorkshire. We really saw a gap in the market where Yorkshire food service could offer the same level of diverse offering that our fellow country people enjoy ‘down south’.
With this in mind, we set about looking for an established food service provider based in Yorkshire that we could purchase as a base to deliver our vision. Cottage Foods had been established in 1989 and had a good geographical spread of customers across the county, albeit most of the customers were ‘greasy spoon’ style cafes we saw this as a good base to build on and deliver our vision.
At heart, we are both foodies who get ‘geeked out’ when we see new food brands launch! Having worked for both bluechip and start-up food manufacturers, I have been fortunate enough to travel most of Europe and America seeing the latest food trends and products.
We both love to get into the detail of food products and see how they evolve for the consumer and in turn change the consumers eating and drinking habits. We have both been fortunate enough to gain a well rounded commercial understanding of food and drink by years of experience working in a variety of commercial roles for some excellent brands such as Genius Gluten-Free, Tetley Tea, Magners Cider etc.
With both a love and interest in food, a good commercial background, the other key area we believe has taken us to this point is we are both disruptive. We hate the status quo of doing things the way they have always been done and we like to challenge ourselves as well as our approach to business to see what more we can push, how different things can be done etc.
This approach allowed us to deliver success early on in both of our careers within food and ultimately led to the decision to buy Cottage Foods and begin our journey here.
Finally we both follow a similar ‘we will not be out worked’ ethos in our day to day lives and business.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Some of the challenges we have faced over the last three years are of our own doing and some external. A quick home truth we learnt was treating the business like it was a bluechip we had previously worked for. It took a few months to realise we could not spend our way to success and that cashflow really is king! It’s a vital lesson and still one we focus on today despite our earlier hiccups.
Equally, we learnt quickly that to deliver our dream and vision, it’s not pretty… My day can vary wildly, from dealing with customers, jumping on a forklift, sweeping down a warehouse, dealing with the bank, new business, covering a delivery drivers shift, dealing with suppliers…. You have to be prepared to get down and dirty.
It’s a lesson not everyone learns and some tasks people aren’t prepared to do in their own business. For me literally doing every job yourself at some stage allows you to fully understand the business, its challenges, assets and areas for improvement.
The last 6 months have really thrown some different challenges not everyone will face. In February we were hit by the storms sweeping the UK. A river behind our warehouse burst its banks and flooded our premises causing over £250K’s worth of damage. We literally saw our stock floating down the road. It was devastating and a day I won’t forget.
It would have been really easy to pack it in that day, but, we are fortunate that we have a good little team in the business who all muck in as well as a very supportive network of family, friends and customers. So instead of crying about it, we got stuck in and didn’t miss a days trading. However…literally 8 weeks later COVID-19 hit, shutting down 90% of our customer base.
Again, another rough day and one we left feeling very uncertain about. However, we haven’t come this far to only come this far, so overnight we pivoted the business to offer home deliveries to the general public.
We have been fortunate that our backgrounds have shown us the importance of a social media presence, something a lot of Ingredient wholesalers don’t have. This foresight allowed us to gain home delivery custom in less than 24 hours of being told 90% of our food service would close.
To date, we have delivered to over 3000 homes across Yorkshire! It’s been a wild ride so far in 2020 and our biggest challenges yet. We are not out of the woods, but we feel we are in a better position than some of our competitors.
What this year has taught us, is we are good in a crisis and thinking differently along with grit to win delivers us a kick-ass attitude when faced with a problem.
Who is your target market?
Historically our business focused on ‘Cafes’ many of which we still service today, but our true customer and market mission is to focus on the more cutting edge food service outlets across Yorkshire. We actively seek out restaurants, coffee houses, pubs and bars that are on a similar mission to us in terms of being bold with ingredients, bringing the consumer new taste experiences and are as passionate as we are about the food they serve.
Our focus is on Yorkshire in terms of our delivery area. As such, we also look to deal with customers who put Yorkshire produce at the centre stage of their menus, from casual dining, to fast food with flair and Michelin star restaurants.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
It’s tough as an ingredient wholesaler as there is a lot of choice. Our service is quite unique in terms of the time put in to understand our customers’ menu and journey. It’s hard to get this across at times as a lot of our competitors peddle the same ‘chat’ but don’t always deliver.
Our best marketing is literally getting in to see them and taking them through our products whilst taking the time to understand their menu and buying habits.
We also make good use of social media along with a nice brochure we have pulled together ourselves.
It terms of our selling approach it sort of goes hand in hand with our marketing, where we differ is we actively target food service outlets we want to deal with i.e Ossett Brewery in Yorkshire or The Old George Group in Barnsley. We spend time understanding the food scene in each town in Yorkshire and then target specific outlets. It’s time-consuming but fits in with our brand ethos of providing excellent customer understanding and service.
Equally our customers have a direct line to myself and Jennifer, we talk to them all regularly, eat in their outlets and spend time with them both in and outside of work. I’m not sure every MD could say the same.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Again for me, our customer service level coupled with our work rate is our key factor in attracting and retaining business. As a team, we go above and beyond. If, say, something went wrong with a delivery and a customer does not get something they ordered we ensure it is to them ASAP. We work hard to rectify problems if they occur, I think this is realised by our customers.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
We get up and kick ass every day! Is the best way to describe our culture!
We have a small but scrappy team, it’s taken a long time to build and we are always looking for individuals who have a mindset that hard work beats talent. It’s a tough business to stick at. Our drivers start at 3am and most of us from sales to finance get in very early from 4am and can sometimes still be in the office at 7pm, but, it’s what it takes.
Given we are a small team we like to look at everyone as family, birthdays are remembered and celebrated, people are excited when one of the team buys a new house or gets a new car and everyone huddles round to see it.
It’s been a bumpy road getting everyone we have in our team and its not for everyone. The nature of our work is very fast-paced and at times it can get a bit emotive, but everyone has their input and we move forward as a team.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
This is interesting… When we bought the business everything had historically been done by paper and pen, there was a custom-built order system but there was no reporting function. The business was stuck in 1980 something.
One of our big focuses has been to get everything digital. We have made quick progress and try lots of new software as it gets released to see where it can make us more productive.
We aspire to implement a SAP style system but to be frank, it’s cost-prohibitive so we have meshed together some open source systems such as Unleashed for our inventory management, Shopify for our B2C business, Circuit route planning for our drivers, the list goes on.
It’s vital to try and fit in new software if we think it will give us an edge in terms of selling, efficiency or improving the customers experience.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Everyday throughs up something new especially not knowing what the world will be like post-COVID-19, however, the main areas we have learnt from are as follows:
- Cash is king – everyone says it but it really is true. If you run out of cash or you don’t control your spending, you can be dead really fast.
- You can’t please everyone. From some customers to some members of staff trying to please everyone who might not be on the same mission as yourself is a fruitless task -focus on the mission instead!
- If you don’t know something, someone around you will. It’s taken me a while to understand this – but go out to your network frequently, chances are your friends and family will have hidden talents or know someone that can help.
- Grit your teeth. The flood and COVID-19 were out of this world unpredictable. However, our determination not to ‘die’, hard work and a badass team have got us this far.
It’s a team game but you have to lead from the front, muck in and get your hands dirty. The phrase I heard as a young lad has never been truer at Cottage Foods…. ‘Goonies never say die’
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
To be honest I’ve always been obsessed with my work. Having our own ‘gig’ so to speak allows me to indulge this obsession. Wins, sometimes, can be few and far between, but when they happen it’s a real buzz.
What myself and Jennifer are building here I feel brings our county closer to the southern part of the nation. I love the fact we can introduce products that folk in Yorkshire may not have seen for a few years at the same pace at which they launch in London. The UK has an amazing food scene. I’m humbled to be a part of it in our own little way.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Some days are tough. Just knowing if you are making the right calls or if things aren’t panning out how you envisaged, it’s hard to keep the faith. But I have a kick-ass team and business partner in Jennifer, as well as a hugely supportive network of family and friends who help keep my head on the right path.
It’s incredibly difficult to turn thinking about work off and pay attention to the other elements of your life. That takes real hard work for me. I try and look at it that taking a break from thinking about work allows me to relook at issues with a fresh pair of eyes.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
It’s not really food related but I’m slightly obsessed with the business of Disney. What has been created from one man’s dream is incredible to me. How they have kept to a strict code of service and delivery in every aspect of their business I feel really sets the benchmark.
Equally I have worked with some amazing people in my career who still influence how I look at problems today.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
COVID-19 has really thrown a spanner in the works and I feel will completely change the total UK landscape for the next few years as such our long term vision is now a bit of a moving feast. However, we get up every day with a kick-ass attitude to deliver our mission, whatever the weather…
The dream…2 to 3 years time….to be more established as the innovative ingredient partner for food service and hospitality in Yorkshire, to still be loving what we do and to still be outworking the competition.