A New Business Story: Setting Up Sous Chef

Getting the business started

Sous Chef was founded in August 2011 and the site opened around two months ago.   We’re based in North London near where I grew up and live now, and at the moment the business employs just me, my husband Nick and our first employee Rachel.

My big career change

Before starting Sous Chef I trained as a strategy consultant at Mercer and then worked in venture capital for about four years, helping smaller companies grow.  One of the better-known companies I worked with was Streetcar.  I also worked with Almondy, a Scandinavian cake business, and SUSO, a healthy fizzy drink.  It was a real inspiration to work with the entrepreneurs behind those businesses, and of course invaluable experience for starting something myself.
Having decided to branch out and start ‘something in food’ I interned as a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant for four months, and spent time with a couple of food photographers, trying to learn the tricks of their trade.

Turning the business plan to reality

I’ve always been a very enthusiastic cook (as my huge collection of recipe books will attest) and had often been frustrated that I couldn’t find the ingredients needed to follow a particular recipe.  However, it wasn’t until working at the restaurant that I realised what an incredible array of ingredients and equipment are available to professional chefs.

At that point my husband and I did a great deal of research, analysing hundreds of cookbooks to identify ingredients that were difficult to find, travelling round Europe to attend trade shows and meet producers until we can tracked down the ingredients and equipment we wanted to stock.  We’ve not yet accomplished all we set out to do, of

course, as while there are some ranges I’m particularly pleased with – we have a great Japanese and Chinese selection for instance – there are other regions and techniques where we’ve barely scratched the surface yet.

There was also a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes before launch date, such as developing the website and branding, where we were lucky to find very good agencies. With regards to finance, compliance, legal and regulatory side of the business, thankfully, my husband Nick is able to deal with as he’s a chartered accountant.

Overcoming the challenges

There’s a great quote about starting a business attributed to the guy who founded LinkedIn, who says “entrepreneurship is throwing yourself off a cliff and building a plane on the way down” – and it certainly feels like that sometimes.

We’ve had a couple of pieces of very sage advice along the way from a former colleague of mine which have saved us a lot of money, but mostly you just need to figure out what’s the right solution to a particular problem as nobody else knows your business like you do.

The customer base

I’ll never forget our first customers – it’s such a tense moment when you launch a website for the first time and wonder if anybody will visit it.  Some of the first visitors were friends and family, of course, but it was great to see so many unfamiliar names in the first few weeks.  It was also a great moment we first saw repeat customers coming back – you know you’re doing something right once that happens.

We’ve designed the site with adventurous home cooks in mind, so everything is available in sizes practical for use at home. We have also tried to make the site a resource for professional chefs who perhaps want to experiment with a new cuisine or technique before putting it on the menu.  We’ve already had orders from some of our favourite restaurants which is particularly exciting.

Using social media

I think people have always enjoyed sharing their recipes, successes and failures in the kitchen, but the advent of blogs and more recently the photo sharing sites like Pinterest and Tastespotting have taken this to another level.

One of the most enjoyable parts of running Sous Chef is seeing on social media what our customers have cooked – a number have been kind enough to send us a photo or blog about their creations.  We’ve actually started doing a little round-up on the site in fact.

Growth and development of the business

It’s still very early days for us so at the moment we’re focused on spreading the word and listening intently to discover what our customers like and don’t like about the site.  With that in mind, we’ll develop the range further and make Sous Chef bigger and better.

We want Sous Chef to become ‘the online destination for adventurous cooks’, not just selling amazing products, but inspiring and helping our customers be the best cooks they can be.

Advice for aspiring food business entrepreneurs

If I had to give advice to anyone thinking of setting up a new food business, I might be tempted to say ‘learn before you leap’ – there are so many elements of the business that were totally new to us, for example online marketing, web development, food regulations, health and safety and so on. I’d point any budding entrepreneurs to the Business Link website and the British Library IP centre, both of which are invaluable sources on the technical side of starting a business.

If you tried to learn everything you needed beforehand, however, you’d never start anything. So perhaps it is better to throw yourself in at the deep end, hang on and enjoy the ride!

Further Information

Sous Chef website: www.souschef.co.uk

Follow on Twitter: @SousChefTweet

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