The continuing popularity of reality television cooking shows highlights the dream of many to work in the food business.
But there’s more to it than just being a good cook. It’s what you put in place before any food reaches the customer that will determine your success.
Sarah Hancox is founder of Adelaide-based corporate food company Vite! gourmet to go. When she returned to Australia after a lengthy period in England running an Australian-themed restaurant with her brother, she didn’t think she would return to the food industry but found she couldn’t stay away.
She opened a cafe in a conference centre and soon customers were asking if she would deliver to their offices. Before long her business morphed into offering outside catering services. Three months after that, she started Vite! and moved into a space with her own kitchen.
“I didn’t want to go down the path of working out of my house,” Hancox says. “I think it improves the integrity of the product to be outside your home and it’s nice to have a space that’s just for food.”
It was a leap of faith for Hancox, who says the venture has proven to be expensive.
“I largely provide to corporate clients, but occasionally if a client asks me to cater for an in-house party such as a 50th then I’ll do that,” she says. “I know my strengths; I don’t chase the wedding market, for example, as there are plenty of companies around that do that very well already.”
She says being in the food industry is difficult.
“You need a lot of flexibility, cash and staying power,” she says. “The hardest thing to understand is that your success is largely based on cash flow. There are a lot of big bills coming in but you may not get paid in one hit to deal with them.”
Hancox now offers consultancy services to small hospitality businesses.
“I learnt from my mistakes and want to help others,” she says. “When it comes to food, people put so much love into their business, but I’ve seen many people make the same mistakes over and over and it upsets me when their business goes under.”
She offers advice on anything to do with starting a business, including operations, menu planning and staffing. Below are her top 10 tips for starting a food business.
1. Know your trade. These days you need to know your strengths, whether it is cooking or in other parts of the business. If it’s not cooking, take a back seat and let your chef do it but be able to fill in for them if for any reason they can’t.
2. Understand your target market. Know who they are, how to reach them and what they want.
3. Know your key performance indicators. You need to understand your KPIs very well, especially your food and labour costs. This will help you understand your cash flow and what’s happening in your business, including whether someone is stealing from you.
4. Quality products almost always produce a quality dish. People are very educated about food these days – many through watching cooking reality shows – so don’t scrimp on quality.
5. Focus on customer service. Too many in this industry forget about the customer and instead think they are the stars of the show. If no-one is buying your product because they are not getting the right service, then the venture is pointless.
6. Value your staff. Not only should you reward good work but you should not be afraid to get rid of poorly performing staff. By looking after staff you get low turnover and consistency of product.
7. Plan your menu well. Stick to your skill set and remember who is going to be eating your food as well as where and how.
8. Be organised. There’s a lot that goes into cooking including organising storage and understanding products throughout. When you run a food business you have to wear many hats.
9. Get a good accountant. You need someone who is proactive; they don’t have to understand your industry but they need to be able to make suggestions. You should also outsource anything that you don’t have skills in, especially marketing.
10. Use social media. How successful you are with social media will often depend on the customers you are marketing to. Find out where you are getting responses and capitalise on them through targeted marketing.