Friends Nancy Gardener and Rebecca Coke met at the gates of their children’s school in Bath. Rebecca originally trained as a Cordon Bleu cook and set up her own interiors business in Widcombe and Nancy had always loved to cook for her family. As they sat in Rebecca’s kitchen one day they hatched a plan: to set up a business where they would cook great family take away and frozen meals with ingredients sourced from their long standing local suppliers.
They started off by making small batches of soups, stews and casseroles as well as cakes, and selling them at local greengrocer’s shop Eades in Crescent Lane, who is also their fresh produce supplier.
Demand for their cooking outstripped supply from day one and they realised they were onto a winning formula.
There is a growing trend for what food magazines call “slow fast food”, which means freezer ready or containerised artisan food that has been prepared and cooked slowly with good provenance of ingredients and care and attention in the methodology. These ladies are filling a gap in the market that is born from modern-day work-life pressures.
While Rebecca was busy cooking lunch, Nancy told me about the ethos behind their business, “Cavendish Cooks of Bath”.
“There are so many full time working parents who do not have time to cook every single day. They do not want to compromise on quality food for their family, and they certainly do not want to buy ready meals from a supermarket, where they have no idea of what is inside the container. We know exactly every single ingredient that goes into our food and we make certain they are all ingredients we would want to eat ourselves and feed our children. For example, we source meat from Newton Farm, on the Newton St. Loe estate south of Bath, which belongs to the Duchy of Cornwall, which we have known for years. They stock our meals because they know the quality of the meat is excellent!”
They found premises in what was originally an old post office at 8 St.James Street at the northern end of the centre of Bath, beyond the Royal Crescent, and they commissioned builders to redecorate and refurbish the shop into a big kitchen and sales area.
“But customers kept walking past and smelling the food we were cooking and they wanted to eat it there and then, not just take it away. So that was how we decided to start serving lunches three days a week.”
Rebecca’s interior design expertise came to good use and the inside of Cavendish Cooks, named after Cavendish Road where Rebecca lives, is now a stylish and homely dining room. As you enter there are three roomy tables all laid in an open-plan kitchen-dining area. The walls are a very rich, metallic shade of kohl eyeliner, and the dining room floor is check-board black and white, with a huge window shining light into a long, tall-ceilinged room. The industrial lights were bought from Ikea.
“We sourced as much as possible from vintage places like Rolfeys in Bear Flats in Bath, as well as re-painting shelves that were here, buying mismatched china from local shops and our builder sourced our big mirror from a bathroom he was renovating.”
The pair did not borrow any money, all the start-up finance came directly from their own savings and they have been very careful about budgeting correctly. There are five members of staff in total, including the two owners.
“The best thing about this business is that there is absolutely no waste at all, all the food gets cooked in fresh batches and either frozen or served at lunch times on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. We know how many people are booked in to eat with us, and we know our ready meal order numbers too, so we shop accordingly.”
Customers sit snugly around the tables, just as if they were sitting inside a friend’s kitchen, fresh bread and water are handed round, candles flicker and small bunches of pretty white flowers and lime-green foliage bedeck each table. There are shelves filled with sparkling San Pellegrino water bottles, beautiful green maiolica hand painted bowls, magazines and recipe books and a handsome fruit tart and chocolate cake sit proudly on the front counter.
The smell of coq au vin with all the trimmings fill the air and as we all sit waiting for lunch to be served you can hear the gentle putter of giant stainless steel pots simmering on the Rayburn cooker, against a backdrop of classical music and the chopping of fresh parsley on a wooden chopping board.
For the take-away, frozen meals side of the business Nancy and Caroline have analysed carefully which types of dishes freeze really well, so that they retain flavour, improve in taste and are easy to re-heat once thawed. They have a core menu, written on a flier and a blackboard. As I peer into the big freezer I can see towers of very neatly stacked aluminium food containers with hand written labels that includes Boeuf Bourguignon, Indulgent Fish Pie, Mushroom Lasagna, Chicken Tagine, Pork with Sherry and Cream, Cauliflower Cheese, Beef Wellington and Salmon en Croute. They change the dishes according to the seasons, and are going to introduce big bowls of Ottolenghi style salads and fresh fruit salads in the Summer.
For puddings you can choose between Sticky Toffee Pudding, Fruit Crumbles, Toffee, Pecan and Apple Pudding or Whiskey Marmalade Bread and Butter pudding. You can even take away jars of the cooks’ jams and chutneys.
The business has not paid for any marketing or PR because Nancy and Rebecca wanted to “walk before we started running”, they told me. They tried small batches of different recipes, experimenting and adding different varieties. Word of mouth soon spread in the foodie enclaves of Bath that Cavendish Cooks were serving fine-dining at £9 a plate. Do not dream of coming here without booking a table because, sadly, they will have to turn you away, they are so popular. They also organise private, candle-lit dinner parties, and you can see the photos on their Twitter stream @cavendishcooks.
“We love doing the lunches because we get to meet customers and it allows people to taste our food before they buy it, but our long term business plan is to supply farm shops. We have a refrigerated van to make deliveries and we are making a list of all the farm shops in and around the area that would be suitable for one of our freezers.”
The freezers are branded with the “Cavendish Cooks of Bath” logo of kitchen utensils. The font was inspired by House and Garden magazine.
During my lunch I read the “Visitors Book” that has been left for customers that wish to comment on their meal. For a middle-England, middle-class city such as Bath the gushing superlatives cannot fail to make me smile. Yet underlying the exuberant customer feedback is the simple human realisation that it takes such courage, hard work and sheer determination to establish and succeed in a venture of this kind. The augurs of economic security would have us all believe that small, artisanal food and drink businesses face an uncertain future. Yet the Cavendish ladies are firing on all pistons, and their lucky customers are not holding back on accolades.
Cavendish Cooks of Bath: www.cavendishcooks.co.uk
Follow Nancy and Rebecca on Twitter: @cavendishcooks