In September 2014 I rang the tax office to tell them I was setting up a business. I rang the Environmental Health team to let them know I was opening a cookery school. I created a website. I told my friends about it on Facebook and then in January 2015 I ran my first bread making course at my sister’s house in Clunton, South Shropshire.
When I look back now I wonder how I managed to be so brave.
If you had told me even at the start of 2014 that I would open a cookery school I would have looked at you in disbelief.
How did I get here?
Even, I don’t know the answer to this one… In 2009 I was working for a public sector venture capital fund supporting small and medium sized creative businesses in the West Midlands. It was a job I loved and that offered lots of great opportunities to influence policy decisions and speak at international conferences. I also had two small girls, aged three and five. The changes in the economy and in national policy meant that the job I had was under threat and, to be frank, I was exhausted. Since completing a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies in 2005 I had worked freelance. This meant that I had chosen not to take maternity leave with either of the girls. Although the job was only part time, trying to manage everything was a strain. Something had to give. We decided that I should take a career break for a short while so I could focus on the girls; make sure I was there to take them to and from nursery and school.
Little did I know how huge this change would be for me. I had been used to being career driven. My identity was forged around who I was at work. Not having that was destabilising. I quickly lost all of my confidence. I went from being a confident public speaker to someone who could barely leave the house. To combat this I set up a food blog, The Ordinary Cook. Whilst the girls were at nursery or school I set about creating, testing and sharing recipes. I made friends with people, virtually of course, from all over the world. It gave me a purpose again. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish having had this time to be a full time parent, spending hours with the girls, fitting everything around them. I would not change that for anything. However, I did feel a bit lost and I had huge guilt that I wasn’t using the skills and the knowledge that I had acquired through my years of study and work. That guilt is still with me even now. I am fairly sure you don’t need a PhD to run a cookery school. Although, with reflection I have come to understand that I use the skills I developed then every day in this business.
I have always loved to cook and bake. My mum has always cooked everything from scratch and I learned most of my kitchen skills from watching her. My head was often to be found in a cookery book, even when I was young. I loved the Dairy Book of Family Cookery that we had from the milkman and Delia’s Complete Cookery Course was read from cover to cover.
What I really wanted to do in 2009 was write a recipe book but no-one ever tells you how to do that, so I started to research it and instead found the world of food blogs. It was the perfect way to share my recipes with others and keep my hand in, learning new skills such as creating and managing a website.
Making cakes has always seemed easy to me, but making bread, or indeed anything with yeast was an entirely different matter. I was hopeless at it. I turned out a lot of bricks of bread. However, not being one to give up on anything easily I started to see bread as a challenge, to prove to myself that I could do it. I read a lot of bread books and practiced a lot and worked out where I was going wrong and eventually cracked it and started making delicious bread. I became obsessed with bread, in fact.
In 2014, it became obvious that our household needed more than one income. I started to look for work. However, the very thought of going to an interview terrified me. Surely, they would see my years of study and deem me overqualified for absolutely everything? They would see the five year gap in my CV and decide I didn’t have enough recent experience? I faced a crisis of confidence. Despite this, or maybe because of it, when my sister suggested I should teach people to make bread it seemed like something that I could definitely do. She offered me use of her home to get started and so the plans were made.
So, the question remains, how did I get here? I have no idea… Where did the sudden confidence that I could run a cookery school come from? Still, no idea. I am glad I did though. The first people to come on our inaugural course (after the initial test course) were my friend Marie and her mum and sister in law. I was so very grateful for her support and it was such a success (thankfully) that they still talk about it today.
What happened next?
For the first 18 months I ran the courses at my sister’s house and in the evenings at Little Wenlock Village Hall. It soon became apparent that if the business was to progress I needed to find my own premises. I started to look around for somewhere suitable when my Dad, very sensibly, suggested that we could convert the outbuilding attached to our garage. It was, at this point, filled with plant pots, old furniture and bits of wood that might come in handy one day. We set about converting it into the very special place that is our cookery school.
It is so wonderful to have the cookery school literally on our doorstep. Although it can mean that grumpy teenagers have full access to their mother even when she is working.
Once we had a permanent base the cookery school went from strength to strength. One of my greatest achievements is having people come back for another course. Quite a number of people have been to all of the courses that I offer, some have even repeated the same course they love it so much.
At the beginning of 2020 everything was looking great, the courses were filling up a couple of months in advance, it looked like we were about to finally make a decent profit. The business has always been small, making a minor contribution to the household income, but growing each year. It was enough to justify the work I was putting in when I considered the flexibility it offered us as a family. The profit from the business helped pay for the maintenance of and the fuel in my car and for clothes for the teenagers and contributed to the annual holiday. I knew I could earn a lot more in a proper, full time job but then I wouldn’t have the flexibility and I know that I wouldn’t love it nearly as much as I love teaching people to make bread.
The impact of COVID
The cookery school is small and can cater for up to 5 students. For me, this is part of its charm. Small groups allow me to really focus on everyone and make sure that they are understanding everything that I am teaching. However, being this small does not allow the cookery school to make a large profit and neither does it allow for social distancing.
When the government order to close the business came on 23rd March 2020 the small size of the kitchen meant it wasn’t possible to reopen again until June 2021. I didn’t know this at the time though and hoped that the shut down would be for a few weeks or a month or so. Every news conference was watched, every decision by the government was assessed for what it might mean for the business. I know I wasn’t alone in this, every business up and down the country was facing similar issues. They were either closed, working from home or pushed to the absolute max whilst trying to keep their staff safe.
To keep me sane I started to bake weekly for local friends. They would place their order on the Wednesday and pick up their breads from the bottom of the drive on a Friday. This not only helped keep me sane but was also great practice in production baking and for trying out new recipes.
By July it became obvious that I couldn’t keep hoping that the cookery school was going to reopen and go back to normal any time soon and I needed to rethink the business. I was incredibly grateful for the small business rates relief grant that I had received in April from the Council and for the SEISS grants from HMRC. Without those the business would have floundered. They allowed me the space to start investing in changing the business to make it more sustainable long term.
I think every business everywhere pivoted in 2020. My pivot was towards making online courses. In an ideal world, of course, I would have had these already in place. They have been on my to-do list for a very long time. However, running the face to face courses meant that there was little time to develop another strand of the business.
I dived in head first. I took a course in how to use your iPhone to film yourself. I researched software that could host my courses for me. I practiced filming myself. For someone who is normally very camera shy it took a while to get used to talking down the barrel of a camera. It also took a while to work out how to get the angles right for filming, then there was the lighting, then the unwanted reflections, the echo…. the list goes on and and on.
The main barrier to progress was our terrible broadband connection. We may pay for superfast broadband, the broadband we actually get is anything but. Uploading a short video of 1-2 minutes can take an hour and can drop out several times and I can’t even consider uploading if anyone else in the house is using the internet for their phone, computer, telly or one of the many other items that teenagers and working from home partners rely on. This meant getting up at 5am, unplugging any other device, connecting by ethernet cable to the router and uploading as many videos as possible before anyone else is up. Sometimes I did a little dance when I managed as many as three short videos, most of the time I just got frustrated when I managed none at all. I did a lot of research into other options for better internet, none of which proved possible for our location – in a dip, in the middle of nowhere.
Before COVID the business was very small scale and worked with very little need for marketing. Most of the people came to me via word of mouth recommendation or google searches. This works great for a small, local business. It doesn’t works so well for an online business that could potentially sell online courses nationally or internationally. This meant I had to take a crash course in marketing and social media. I launched a regular newsletter (another thing on my to-do list), I set up a Facebook group (Bread Made Easy in case you haven’t already found it), I started posting on Instagram and on my YouTube channel. It has been a huge change for me – a middle aged woman with little interest in social media.
The business support mechanisms put in place to support the survival of small businesses during this difficult time have been fantastic. I have been able to access a lot of free business training in social media, strategy and marketing offered by organisations such as Enterprise Nation, Telford Enterprise and Marches Growth Hub. Hands down, the most valuable has been 12 hours of 1to1 consultancy support paid for through the COVID relief fund adminstered by Marches Growth Hub and Telford Enterprise and delivered through Buy From Shropshire. Louise from Buy From was able to objectively look at the business, understand my rambling and succinctly put in place support that has helped me develop new ways to manage and market my business. She has referred me to specialists that have trained me in various aspects including photography and how to sell. It has been an incredibly steep learning curve for me. One thing I hate to do is directly sell – I am getting better at it, little by little.
What’s the future for Veg Patch Kitchen Cookery School?
I can tell you that more than once this past year or so I wondered if there was a future for the business at all. It has been an incredibly difficult year with very little income. Without the government grants the business would not have stayed afloat. However, thanks to the grants and the business support the future looks healthy. I now have a business that is more diverse and with the potential for greater earning power. This is really important, I need the business to offer our family financial security in the coming years.
The face to face courses at Ironbridge will continue but there will be fewer of them than offered in previous years. Maintaining a social media presence, weekly newsletters, producing online courses and YouTube videos and managing the admin of the online courses has added extra dimensions to the business but also demands more of my time. I hope to grow the business sufficiently to afford additional help to take some of these tasks on for me, but for now it’s just me.
I am incredibly proud that Veg Patch Kitchen has reached the grand old age of seven. I have learned a great deal running this business and I keep on learning about both running a business and about bread. That’s the beauty of bread (and the root of my obsession) you are always experimenting and learning.
A huge thank you is owed to everyone that has supported this business for the past seven years. I am raising a glass to the next seven.
Interested in taking one of my online bread courses?
My online bread courses can be taken at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home. If you are new to bread making then my Bread Made Easy Masterclass takes you through the process of making bread step by step and shows you how easy it can be to fit it into your busy day. If you are already familiar with making bread then my Savoury Breads course shows you new ways to shape and flavour your bread so that you can make a huge variety of bread to impress family and friends.