Ep16: The right recipe for starting a food business

Suzy Lowe, Rustic Cakes Cornwall

Suzy Lowe, founder of Rustic Cakes Cornwall, talks about the right recipe for starting a food business in Cornwall
Photo courtesy of Cornwall Food & Drink

What’s the right recipe for starting a successful food business?

Here in Cornwall, the food industry is booming, and full of innovative, and delicious, food based small businesses. 

It’s become a very distinctive sector to do business in, so we discuss some top tips for a successful food business start-up with Suzy Lowe, founder of the wonderful Rustic Cakes Cornwall. 

Suzy shares her insights on getting started, shaping and pivoting your business and staying true to your business’ core values. A must-listen for anyone just starting their business journey, especially if you want to know the right recipe for starting a food business successfully.

Listen online using the player below or search ‘Outset Podcast’ in your favourite podcast app.

Find out more about Rustic Cakes Cornwall at https://www.rusticcakescornwall.com

We hope you enjoy this episode. Get in touch for more information on how we can support your business start-up journey.

Read the full transcript here

Introducer (00:01):

Welcome to the Outset Podcast, the business start-up podcast from Outset Cornwall for support and inspiration to start, run and grow your business. Here’s your host Rich Gunton.

Rich Gunton (00:15):

Welcome to the Outset Podcast. We’re today in for a treat, yours is maybe a chocolate murder, Victoria sponge, or a coffee and walnut. When it comes to cake there’s one person in particular that knows her stuff. Suzy Lowe is the founder of Rustic Cakes based in St. Agnes, turned 50 this year, got a couple of boys aged eight and 15 and favorite cake? Well, Suzy, tell us what are your favorite cakes?

Suzy Lowe (00:45):

Hello. Well, I would say most definitely a crumble cake with lots of lovely fruit and a homemade crumble on the top with some vanilla sponge beneath, it makes for a perfect cake, particularly this time of year.

Rich Gunton (00:57):

Oh, wow. Yeah. As I’ve got my half full box of salad here on my desk, <laugh> it makes me feel a little hungry. No, fantastic. Fabulous. So, as I said there in our, in our little intro, you are, are, are running a business. It’s a cake business. Do you want to give us a very brief overview of when you started and how and why?

Suzy Lowe (01:17):

Yes. So I started back in 2015. The core of the business was really born from trying to establish something that I could fit around being a, a mom and, and juggling the child care and also the school runs. And so I have previously baked in various cafes in my career. So it just seemed like an obvious choice and something that I could start off at home. I set up at home, baked in and around juggling the children and it seemed, it became quite popular. Got lots of people to drive things, picked up some wholesale accounts, and then, the business progressed from there. And so ultimately after about sort of six months to a year, I was in a position to be able to move into a unit.

Rich Gunton (02:00):

Ah, fantastic. So going back to those early stages then, and early days of, of starting from home, did you put together a business plan? Did you have a bit of a, well, this is my sort of 12 to 24 month plan, or did you just go right. Going to make some cakes and see what happens?

Suzy Lowe (02:15):

I think I formulated a plan initially, not necessarily on the back of a packet, but certainly just the odd notebook where I’d scribble various ideas down and how I wanted to shape the business. But it was more about being able to shape the business around my family and my lifestyle than it was about figures. Initially it was a kind of, of course I needed to make some money out of it, but essentially the driver for me was to, to make sure that it would enable me the flexibility that I needed as a mum. So then I just started to make various products, cakes that I knew were popular in the cafe industry. Having kind of been a general manager of larger cafes in the past and tried those out on colleagues at the time when I was working and various friends and family. One of the sole things that I really wanted to achieve was to bring in a unique product.

Suzy Lowe (03:09):

And so what I see in cafes quite often is great, big, large cakes that get sliced up. They dry because of that. They’re handled by lots of different staff and they can be wrongly portioned. What I wanted to do was establish something new. So I started to bake individual cakes in their own little cases, not cupcakes, they’re kind of individual because they’re not just a sponge base, they are actually different recipes and they go into their own individual case that I bake into, which means the next person that touches it is the customer, which was good for portioning, good for freezing ,lots of different advantages to doing it that way. Most importantly, for me at that time was that I could cook lots of them in my smaller oven at home and offer a good diversity of products. That’s where I started with that product. And then the flexibility around the family and then grew from there.

Rich Gunton (03:59):

I think it’s such an interesting approach, I suppose, in, in the individual size cakes and thinking, and having the, sort of the foresight to think about that kind of production at home and, and what will fit in your oven as well as the, the freezing element of it for the cafes and the shops, I guess that then sell it on the handling of it, you know, versus the traditional way of doing it. There’s a, a nice, great, big sort of doomed glass and high plate or whatever you have on the front of it, a cafe and they’re all slice stuff now. And they portion correctly. I think that’s a, a really interesting approach and something that could potentially be taken from the world of cake business. And, and actually, you know, as, as listeners of this podcast can maybe think of their own business and not always following suit or traditional ways of doing things, you know, there’s people have been baking, I suspect and selling bread and cakes and those sorts of things for generations, but there’s you being able to think slightly differently on one particular way of doing it? I think it’s very interesting, isn’t it?

Suzy Lowe (04:59):

Yeah. The interesting thing too, is that the cases that I’ve sourced I’ve become recognized for, which is lovely because when they are out and about in various cafes, people recognize my cakes because of the case and, and because of the, the style of presentation. And now to this day, the, the most popular product that we sell is a mixed box of six, because it’s a little bit like, I guess having your chocolate box in that people can come into my unit, look at a real big range of flavors, both across gluten free, vegan, dairy free, and regular cakes, and they can choose what they would like, so they can put together their own box of flavors. So it kind of offers that diversity for people who have got all sorts of tastes, so you don’t have to buy one, one big cake, obviously you can, and we do make those, but the mix box of six has become the thing that I’m probably known for the most. And we get people that will seek us out just because of that. They’ll zip across. And just say, I’d like one of those mix boxes, please. And then of course, they’ve got all the, the cakes in front of them to, to tailor their own tastes, which is again, you know, something that I’m really proud of. It’s a, a really good all round product for people.

Rich Gunton (06:10):

I think a mix of, of six for anyone that’s got well kids or a family, or just a big appetite <laugh> or they just, or they just can’t make a decision. I think that’s such a great way to go. And obviously you’ve, you’ve mentioned about catering for the vegan gluten-free sort of space as well. It’s interesting as well. Because when you were mentioning right at the beginning about starting at home, you went on a sort of a six to 12 month journey and then you moved into your unit and got a couple of wholesale accounts. It did make me think of another podcast with Cecily Mills who has created her own vegan or dairy free ice creams and her journey. She actually went on to Dragons Den, but didn’t go down that road in the end. And it’s very interesting to sort of think about diets and the way that we look at food in perhaps a slightly different way now than even a decade or so ago, you know, it’s quite an interesting way to go. So those wholesale accounts then how did you sort of go about approaching people to basically sell your product for you then?

Suzy Lowe (07:07):

Well, interestingly just as I was setting my business up, there was another cafe business opening in the village in St. Agnes called the sorting office and I met the owner and she said, do you, you don’t know of a cake supplier, do you <laugh>? I just said, well, funny you should say that. And so the two of us set up at the same time and through my product being in her cafe, I’ve definitely picked up recommendations and I picked up recommendations very quickly and I’m quite happy to say that I haven’t really had to go and seek too much business. In fact, it’s the opposite in that, now I’m in a position where I very carefully think about who I take on as a wholesale account. And some of that has been driven by COVID in that pre COVID, I was working crazy hours baking for lots of other people.

Suzy Lowe (07:56):

Once we had the lockdown, it gave me that time, which was the, probably the most precious time I could have ever been afforded where I was able to walk around my village and just think about where I was, what I wanted. And I did feel at that time, things were straying away from me in that the business was driving me rather than me driving the business and I needed to pull the reins a little bit and go back to those core values and decide what it is that I really wanted moving forward. And at that point, I, I had a look into starting to sell online for survival as much as, as shaping the business in a different way coming out of COVID have, have since kind of now got different income streams in that I’ve opened a little shop from my units.

Suzy Lowe (08:42):

We sell daily from here. In addition, we are selling online. And so I’ve reduced the amount of wholesale clients that I have. So I just now bake for smaller businesses. It did get to the point where I was baking for larger businesses. I went through a phase baking for Waterstones for about a year and a half. And I felt like I was on some kind of a hamster wheel, just churning cake out. And I just thought, actually, this is not the essence of why I’ve got Rustic Cakes, the whole point of Rustic Cakes. Cool more is that small batch is a small business. It supports other small businesses and I can still take the pride and care in what I’m doing. And I never want to be automated. I always want to be able to produce the product that I make in a wholesome way if you’d like, so therefore now I’m becoming more retail so that I address my customers direct.

Suzy Lowe (09:30):

And the one thing I have found with that is I get so much more satisfaction because I get the feedback. Whereas previously I’ve literally just been kicking the cake out, not really understanding what people liked or disliked, where there was a need or a capacity for something new. And now I’ve got the direct contact with those customers. And so we get it straight away. You know, people chat to us across the counter and we can develop things on a daily basis. And if it doesn’t work, we can stop it. If it does, we can push it forward. So it’s really changing the way I’m developing Rustic Cakes for the future. And I’m definitely back where I want to be and that I can balance the business again, back within the family, keep it within the school, run, be available to my children when they need me and, and be proud of the product that I produce each day and know that there’s no nonsense in what I’m doing. It’s quality products that I’m sourcing for either local suppliers or perhaps further, further afield from an economic point of view, but generally everything is made here and sold here, but I’ve really paired it back.

Rich Gunton (10:38):

What you are saying will resonate with a number of our Outset Podcast listeners and people that come through the Outset programme in being potentially a, a mum or a dad with, with home and childcare commitments, maybe of having, having had a career before in something similar or something quite different to be able to start up from home and, and to grow and develop it into it, you know, a sustainable business that pays. But actually I think where you said before there about the going back to your core values, which is what lockdown enabled you to do is fantastic. So you are there in your, in your unit now. I I’m assuming <laugh>

Suzy Lowe (11:16):

Yeah. Yes I am. Yeah.

Rich Gunton (11:18):

Describe what it’s like then how, you know, why did you choose there? And, and what’s it like coming into there each day?

Suzy Lowe (11:23):

For me I approached this area, you know, when I was investigating, trying to get a place mainly because of the location. So I’m just on the outskirts of St. Agnes, which enables me to literally do a little loop from home to school, to work and be back again in minutes if needed. So for me to bring myself away from Truro and away from a lengthy commute was key because it just means that I’m instantly available, should my kids need me. The unit itself, as soon as I stepped through the door, I knew it was the right unit for me. It’s kind of the shape of a little house. It’s got a central door and then windows, either side and a little pointy roof. There’s lots of smaller artisan businesses around me. In addition to cakes, we also do lunches. So we all kick out some panini and soups and mac and cheese, all homemade here to feed our neighbors and the surrounding community.

Suzy Lowe (12:15):

So that’s really good. But as you step through the threshold, it is essentially what you would imagine for, for the type of Rustic Cakes Cornwall, or there’s a lot of wood. I’ve kind of got some beautiful copper lights coming from the ceiling. And it has a really friendly, warm, inclusive approach. And then the back half of the units is where we produce. So we’ve got a kind of a, a halfway wall, so we can see our customers all the time. They can see us. There’s a lot of dialogue that takes place. I have a wonderful lady called Becky who works with me two days a week and the rest of the time I’m here on my own. So between us, it’s very important that we can be as efficient as possible, but also keep that connection with our customers. And we are here kind of at the moment because it’s a bit quieter during the shoulder months. So we’re just here from 10 till to Monday to Friday throughout November, December, January. And then when we get back into kind of from February half term, then we’ll increase those hours and, and start again.

Rich Gunton (13:22):

You are listening to the outset podcast with me, Rich Gunton. Don’t forget, you can find and listen to other Outset podcasts via outset, dot org website and on other platforms such as Spotify. We’re chatting all things, sugar and spice with today’s guest Suzy Lowe of Rustic Cakes Cornwall.. And you can take a look at Susie’s website, rustic cakes Cornwall, all one word dot com. And whilst I’m on your website, Suzy, so we’ve got your address actually, cause I don’t think we’ve actually given out Unit three, the GWR yard, Pennwinick road St. Agnes, is that pronounced right?

Suzy Lowe (13:55):

Yeah. It’s sorry. The, the website online shop is rustic cakes corn wall. So it’s got the corn bit on there as well.

Rich Gunton (14:03):

Rustic cakes cornwall.com

Suzy Lowe (14:05):

Cornwall.Com. Yeah.

Rich Gunton (14:06):

As I scroll through, I can see some fabulously festive I suppose cakes coming, coming through is that time of the year, the photos on your website look great. And as we started talk talking earlier on, you mentioned about lock down and going back to your core values and an, an online approach. Is that a big part of your business? We’ve talked about people coming into your unit, there in St Agnes, do people find you online as well?

Suzy Lowe (14:32):

To be honest, the online shop is something that I set up myself back in May, 2020. It would’ve been wouldn’t it, the lockdown, I’m just thinking. So, yeah, so beginning of lockdown was my research time. And then I had a go at setting up, so it isn’t perfect and it does need work. And so we’re just in the process of looking at getting some professional help for that, because now I can see that it has legs and it certainly can be a very valuable income stream into the business. Interestingly though, just off the back of what I did do, I certainly did receive orders right across lockdown that I could say, which was very comforting. And it kind of just gave me hope that I was going to be able to make it through this strange period of time. But what was, has been really lovely is many of those people that ordered online have come to find me when they’ve been allowed to come on holiday to Cornwall they’ve then since sought me out and they take great delight in coming in and saying, I’ve been buying from you.

Suzy Lowe (15:28):

You know? And, and so for me, that was, it is just incredible, you know, just such a lovely thing. And so I can see that that’s an area that I need to work on and just be more accessible. So the plan will be to get that website, get it easier for people to use, to get more products on it. In fact, Becky and I today have been photographing various Christmas products that I shall pop online later on today with a view to try and generate some orders. So people can either come and collect or will do some postal bits and pieces as well. So, so yes, definitely the, those additional income streams of online orders almost click and collect, but not quite, but kind of booking and, and coming to collect their own stuff. Or actually just coming in through the door have really helped me and enabled me to step slightly away from wholesale and make my business more interesting. And it’s enabled me to employ Becky because prior to COVID I was working on my own and working a huge amount of hours. And I realize that there’s got to be a smarter way to do this doing so making those steps, it’s afforded me the opportunity to bring some, some help in.

Rich Gunton (16:34):

I suppose it to, from a brand point of view, you almost become central to that. I mean, have you given that much thought in terms of your, I mean, I love your logo and on your website it’s, it’s fantastic. And, and, and the name, do you see you being sat right in the middle of it, you know, for forever or, or how, how do you think that works?

Suzy Lowe (16:53):

Certainly this business is scalable if there was someone out there that wanted to do that, but personally I’m happy with where it sits at this time, but what I’m looking to do taking my age into account is really just continue to have the foundations of a good solid business. And I’m still having lots of fun, developing ideas, Becky and I have discussed, you know, new things that we could perhaps explore in the future. So yeah, I still am integral to the business, but I, I’m not so precious about it that I feel that I would comfortably be able to step away from it and, and pass that kind of responsibility on. And interestingly it depends on the people, doesn’t it. So at the end of the day, if you get the right people alongside you, then that process is a lot easier for you because I know I have a good reputation now, you know, I’m, I’m now in my sixth year, I, I just want really to consolidate that and then, and make the foundation as strong as possible so that ultimately Becky and I can benefit from it in the future.

Rich Gunton (17:52):

Certainly. And you’ve clearly found the recipe <laugh> for success listeners, listening to our Outset podcasts who may be Outset clients, or they may have stumbled across us because they fancy becoming self-employed and doing something for themselves, that person listening to us right now, then what do you think they should do? Could you give any sorts of little nuggets of advice, maybe your top three of what actions they should start to think about?

Suzy Lowe (18:22):

The very first one would always be to have your own self-belief. If you are talking to other people about a business idea, depending on what that person or who that person is, will shape how they think about it. And you have to kind of almost ride away from that and be true to yourself. Because I think that when you set up your own business, it’s not always a, a logical process. I think that it’s in you. I think even when the chips are down for me, I would much prefer to be working for myself than for other people, but you definitely need to stay true to yourself and go with it. If you’ve got enough gumption to come up with an idea and think you’d like to do it, you definitely have to, to make that step. I guess, secondly, with all of that said, you do have to have an eye on, on the money, because at the end of the day, if you have responsibilities like mortgages, like children, like all the other things that come with that, you do need to stay on top of the sums and do your best to look at where your costs are, to look at what kind of market you want to get into.

Suzy Lowe (19:30):

So to give you an example with that, me switching from wholesale to retail has instantly meant that I make a better margin on my product because I’m selling direct to a customer rather than having to cut the price and supply it to a cafe or somewhere who then can inflate the price and actually sometimes make more on my products than I do, because whilst it’s not all about money, the economics have to fit for you to be able to do it. Otherwise it just won’t, it won’t happen. And then my third piece of advice would be not that you can, you can wish it were not that anybody would wish for a pandemic, but I think I still feel privileged to have been locked down for a month because I know had I not, I would be still on the wrong path. I think that it definitely gave me time to reflect.

Suzy Lowe (20:20):

And it took me away from a situation where I did get lots of sleep and I did get time to get my thoughts in order. So all I would say is, is that moving forward for anybody looking at their own business, they really do need to allocate some time for themselves. And I’m still trying to achieve that now that we’re back into it. But I think that reflection, that ability to jot down your notes and then make sure that you are staying true to the core of your business is probably integral in, in what you do when you are developing and moving forward.

Rich Gunton (20:55):

It’s so interesting, you know, not wanting to wish a another pandemic or, or lockdown, but identifying that key, you know, to step away from that, what becomes an all consuming environment and journey of self-employment and even pre-start as well. So write down those clear goals and objectives of why on earth, you, you are doing it in the first place, and then holding yourself, I suppose, almost to account doing that as well.

Suzy Lowe (21:19):

Absolutely. At the end of the day, you can’t get the time back. So you don’t chase the pains too much.

Rich Gunton (21:25):

Absolutely. Self-belief getting the financials right. And making time for yourself and reflecting on that. Can we just quickly touch on the financials just as we start to close our fabulous chat and our, and our Outset Podcast with you Suzy in terms of money, because that is probably one of the single and totally understandable reasons for either failure of a small business, or even failure to actually take action, to start up something for yourself, because a lot of us have either responsibilities for ourself or for a partner or for dependents or, or whatever the situation looks like at home. And it’s usually money is the route why we don’t move forward. How have you looked at that?

Suzy Lowe (22:07):

I was kind of in a fortunate position in that I had had a, a very good job previous to stepping away from employment into self-employment and starting off at home meant that I could keep my overheads relatively low. The minute I moved into a unit suddenly, yeah, the responsibilities have become greater. And also it changes the logistics of our family program, if you like, because I needed to come to a place of work and then get back home again in time to cover my husband who was going to go to work himself so that I could pick up my responsibilities with the children. So I think initially I sat down and did the numbers in terms of what did I need to achieve to really sustain all of the outgoings I had. I looked to finance the move into the unit by way of support from Outset Cornwall actually.

Suzy Lowe (22:57):

And I took on a startup business loan with them to make that move because at the time, because it was purely wholesale, I really needed the volume. And so, so hence I needed to move out of my, my tiny cooker home and get into a unit with a commercial oven. And that of course takes funding. So you either sit tight and save up, or you bite the bullet and go for it and believe in yourself, which is what I did. And I took on the loan. And so that’s a big responsibility, but in a way it’s a healthy reminder of why you are doing it. And the fact that that, you know, sometimes you do need to invest in yourself. You do need to keep revisiting, however you do it, whether it’s having a monthly P and L say profit and loss, where you are looking at the volume that you need to achieve in order to cover your costs and indeed make a salary.

Suzy Lowe (23:47):

So you need to incorporate that from the outset. You can’t expect to run a business and not take a, a salary or some form of wage from it. And I think that that can be a pitfall sometimes where people forget that they have all of these other costs in running the business and on top of paying themselves. So all I can say is, is that maybe take those steps tentatively, make sure that you understand all of the overheads of running the business that you’ve chosen to do, and then look at always driving your cost down and your sales up. And that’s really the, you know, the nugget I would, that I would pass across.

Rich Gunton (24:23):

Fantastic, fantastic. Rustic Cakes Cornwall.Com is your website. We can find you on the Great Western Railway yard, Unit three,  Penwinick road down towards St. Agnes, thank you so much for being part of the outset podcast Suzy.

Suzy Lowe (24:41):

Thank you very much for the time, and the opportunity.

Introducer (24:45):

Thanks for listening to the Outset Podcast brought to you by the Outset Cornwall programme, which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund, HM Government and the Outset Foundation, supporting people to become self-employed and start their own business. For more information, visit outset.org/cornwall.