When I was asked to give a 15 minute presentation designed to inform people interested in starting their own food business, I could not help but think about my own evolution from newbie to confident food business owner. It was not without its mistakes but I have learnt a lot along the way.
The "journey" started back in 1998 when we grew our first blackcurrants. Blackcurrant jam is my husband's favourite and, having picked a couple of pounds of currants from our bushes, I decided I ought to find out how to make jam. It wasn't tricky to find a recipe. It called for a "large pan" so I borrowed one from a friend. And off I went, cooking the fruit, stirring in the sugar and setting it onto a rolling boil. The recipe said it might take 10 minutes before the setting point was reached so I decided that probably gave me enough time to go and water my hanging basket and window box. When I returned to the kitchen there was molten red liquid pulsing out of the pan and oozing down the front of my cooker. It looked like someone had been murdered! That day I learnt what it had actually meant by "big pan" and that sometimes it's better not to attempt to multi-task. These were the first lessons on my way to becoming a food business owner but they were by no means my last.
That experience, fortunately, did not put me off jam making and over the next few years I learnt a lot about growing my own fruit and vegetables and how to make them into all sorts of delicious things, not least jam and chutney. Back then I would save the jars from other things and I only ever used the preserves myself or gave away a hotchpotch hamper of goodies to my family at Christmas. Over those years the preserves improved, as did the presentation of my products and my skills and list of equipment grew. Importantly, my enthusiasm for it never waned. In fact, I quickly found my enthusiasm outstripped my family's ability to eat it all!
It was December 2002 when I had my first stall at a craft fair, under the name Hazel's Homegrown. I remember the year distinctly because I'd had my first child in the October of that year and this was the first time that I had left her with my parents. I shared the table with my friend Judy, who made items out of fabric, and I mostly had on my half gardening related products and crafts. It was both exciting and terrifying and we felt like frauds and wondered why anyone would buy anything from us. They did of course buy from us but that feeling of not really knowing what we were doing hung around for quite a few craft fairs after that.
For the next 5 years I dabbled in craft fairs whilst juggling caring for two babies and having a job as a secondary school teacher. Over time I started to make preserves to sell on my stall. By then I had started to buy jars especially for the purpose and had worked out how to print my own labels. However, it was also during that time that I found out, mainly from other stallholders, that my labeling didn't contain all the legally required information and that I should be registered with Environmental Health.
In April 2007 I left my teaching job and became officially self-employed. This was when I properly sorted myself out. I told the Inland Revenue that I was self-employed and went on a free half-day course on how to file a tax return. I have been filing a tax return annually ever since. It doesn't matter how little you earn or even if you make a loss, you still need to declare this to Inland Revenue and let them tell you if or what you owe in tax. Should you be fortunate enough to make a decent profit then I strongly recommend that you put money away each month so that in January you have funds available to pay your tax bill otherwise it can be a bit of shocker straight after Christmas!
The next thing I did was register with Environmental Health. This needs to be done at least 28 days before you intend to sell any food to the public. It is essential for any food business but it can seem like a daunting task and the thought of having your kitchen inspected can be scary. Even the WI selling at a church fete has to be registered with Environmental Health if they are selling food to the public - there are no exceptions and no loopholes so if you intend to sell any kind of food to the public, get yourself registered and make sure you understand what you have to do regarding hygiene and paperwork. The paperwork side of it is probably the most important as you are likely to be inspected only rarely and the paperwork is your evidence that you are following procedures when the inspectors are not there. I also went on a basic hygiene one day course at MK College and got a certificate. This is very straight forward but does help you make sure you are thinking hygienically whilst you work. The paperwork can also help form your evidence should someone wish to sue you as it demonstrates that you have been paying "due diligence". Talking of being sued, it is important also to take out Public Liability Insurance (and Product Liability Insurance) so that if something should go wrong and someone tries to sue you, your insurance will pay and you won't have to sell your house to pay their damages!
Environmental Health make a distinction between "high" and "low" risk food producers. So if you make things such as jams, cakes, fudge or bread then you will be considered low risk and will only be inspected about once every 5 years. If you sell hot food, raw food or food that needs refrigerating then you will be high risk and will be inspected more often and will need more rigorous procedures. If you want to know more about registering with Environmental Health, what is expected and so on, then have a read of this bit I wrote back in my Hazel's Homegrown days.
Once you are registered with Environmental Health, depending on what sort of business you have, they are likely to pass on your details to Trading Standards who may pop round to inspect your labels. What is legally required on your labels depends on what you are selling and how you are selling it. It is a good idea to research the food labeling standards that affects your products. Note, however, that there is a distinct difference between "direct" and "indirect" selling and your labeling requirements may well differ depending on what you are doing.
Direct selling is when you are there in person, behind the table/counter and are there to answer any questions that your customers may have. Indirect selling is when someone else is selling on your behalf or you are selling over the internet. This requires more detailed information on your label because you are not there to answer the questions so the customer needs to be able to find the information on the label. Anyone who reads labels on the food they buy will have a fair idea what is required but it's things such as product name, weight, ingredients, allergens, contact information. Don't think you can trade anonymously because people have to be able to contact you in the event of a problem. In 9 years of trading as a business I have only had one person contact me to complain, although I have also had a handful ring me up to praise my products! There is more information on Trading Standards requires that I wrote previously here.
So, having registered with Inland Revenue, Environmental Health and Trading Standards, I was happy to make jams and chutneys to sell to the public at craft fairs and this is what I did for a while. Then at the beginning of 2011 I decided what I really wanted to do was get my products into shops. This was, of course, indirect selling, so I had to improve my labeling, including working out the percentage sugar in the end product for any batch of jam. This can only be determined by using a sugar refractometer and not having one or knowing how to use one had been a stumbling block to my progress for a while so I decided to bite the bullet and soon discovered that refractometers can be purchased for as little as £20 and are very easy to use.
I was also having a crisis of image at this point and found that "Hazel's Homegrown" just wasn't interesting enough for the customers. Instead I wanted something that made more of the fact that I made jam and chutney in Milton Keynes from fruit and vegetables grown in Milton Keynes. I wanted to position myself as a Milton Keynes brand and tap into the local food movement and the tourist industry. It was at this point that a friend suggested the name Jammy Cow, giving a nod to the famous concrete cows of MK. So I underwent a re-branding.
My next stumbling point was not having bar codes. With the way modern shops work, it seemed impossible to me to get my products into shops without a bar code. I looked into this and found that you can buy bar codes online, although often you have to buy them in bulk and they can work out quite expensive for a small business like mine. In the end, I decided to approach businesses that don't necessarily use bar codes such as bakeries, butchers, cafes and hotels. I also approached Frosts Garden Centre and when I raised the matter of bar codes they said that they could put that on my products along with the price label. It seemed that bar codes were not the brickwall I had imagined either.
And so, over the next couple of years I traded under the name Jammy Cow, positioning myself as a Milton Keynes based food business and getting my products into shops as well as attending craft fairs. I also created a webpage, facebook page, twitter account, blog and gave talks on growing fruit and vegetables and making jam. I felt confident about what I was doing and proud of what I had created.
Then in January 2014, I was contacted by a woman who told me that she had trade-marked the name Jammy Cow and asked that I ceased trading under it or face prosecution. This was a horrible moment as I had worked hard to build my business under that name. However, a search in the Intellectual Property Office webpages determined that she had indeed registered this name as a trademark before I had ever started using it and that, although she had never traded under that name and had no internet presence that I could have detected, she was well within her rights to ask me to stop using it. So after a rapid re-branding Jam Moo Kow was created, the labels given a new lease of life and my positioning as a Milton Keynes brand made stronger. And business resumed as normal, if not a little stronger, prouder and more determined.
So, from those early days to now I have learnt a lot and have watched several food businesses come and go. I have made mistakes, and overcome issues that I didn't even know about at first, others that had seemed a big deal but turned out not to be and some that I really didn't see coming. From those I have created a "tick-list" of things that anyone contemplating starting a food business should check first - something I wished I'd had. Although they might seem daunting, mostly they are not and once you have ticked them off you feel better and more confident and able to grow both as a person and a business.
1) Make sure that you choose something that you are confident about doing and that you are sure you can do over and over again without losing enthusiasm and that can be fitted in around your life. What seemed like fun when doing it as a hobby can become a chore when you have to do it over and over. If your products need to be made fresh, can you dedicate the time to it before an event? Are you able to give up your weekends and evenings to attend events?
2) Register with Environmental Health and consider taking a course in basic hygiene.
3) Tell Inland Revenue that you are self-employed and find out what filing an annual tax return involves so that you keep all the relevant receipts from the start.
4) Research the food regulations that apply to your area and make sure your labeling is legal. Also make sure your labels look professional and appealing. People buy on the basis of appearance not on flavour.
5) Buy public liability insurance and if you are selling products that they take home with them make sure it also includes product liability insurance.
6) Think carefully about your brand, your target market and your unique selling point. Choose a really great business name and check with the Intellectual Property Office to ensure it is not trade marked. If you really think it is great, consider trade marking it yourself.
7) Get yourself online, onto social media, to events and collaborate with other businesses to get yourself out there, doing what you love and making a business out of it.