Sometimes when thinking about starting a business, the timing never seems to be quite right. This was the case for Rebecca Jones, who launched Village Kitchen in 2015 when her children were just two, five and six.
She’d had the seed of the idea for a couple of years but the impetus to start her business came from a book by Australian entrepreneur Lisa Messenger, Daring and Disruptive, which urged its readers to go out and do it.
“It asked what you were waiting for,” and that resonated with Rebecca. It’s a lesson she’s taken to heart.
“Just start, you don’t have to shout from the rooftops… just quietly get on with it.”
The business delivers fresh, ready-made healthy dinners to its customers’ doors each day.
The meals are made with free range, ethically sourced ingredients, “ensuring healthy, wholesome deliciousness” for time-poor customers who can choose the number of meals they need on the day/s they need them. All meals have vegetarian and gluten-free/paleo options.
But it has been far from smooth sailing and earlier this year Rebecca completely restructured the business and her pricing model.
Rebecca’s a “big foodie” but when launching didn’t feel she could do it alone – so she convinced her mother, Penny Jones, who is a great cook, to help out.
They rented the kitchen at the Officers Mess at Fort Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore, from well-known chef and cookbook author Jeremy Schmid.
Jeremy has since become a trusted mentor offering guidance with kitchen efficiencies, packaging and meal ideas.
One reason why Rebecca set up Village Kitchen was because, on a personal domestic level, she had struggled to put wholesome, healthy meals on the table – juggling three children under five and a chronic gastro illness which flared up periodically.
She says life was difficult and she knows many young mums feel overwhelmed.
“I would dream that someone would knock on the door each evening and say ‘here’s your delicious, healthy dinner’.”
The meals are cooked fresh each day, packaged up and delivered. Initially, this was mainly around her home suburb of Devonport.
The business grew quickly via word-of-mouth and within three to four months they had orders for 60 to 70 meals a day, building up to 120 to 150 orders a day.
But she says in hindsight they were far too cheap – charging $16 for an individual portion and $26 for a double. A family pack was $45 or $11.25 per portion. And those prices had to cover premium ingredients, rent, packaging and her mum’s salary.
In the first year, they moved premises twice, going into local sports clubs to cook their often 12-hour slow-cooked meals. While switching between club kitchens and back to the Officers Mess Rebecca realised she had to do something it was too much work and the days were too long.
“It was crazy, we were running around like headless chooks. Jeremy would see us running around and producing these amazing meals but we had no systems and were just doing whatever it took. He kept saying ‘work smarter, not harder’, and I did realise it was not sustainable.
“It took me another year to wake up to that fact that I was running my business like a community service. If I was to continue on this path we were going to go out of business -— I owed it to my business to give it value.”
Time to restructure
Her mother retired at the end of March this year. Rebecca then made the decision to restructure the business to make it more efficient. After three months of market research prices were raised to $19.90 for a single serving or $37. 80 for a double.
She believes she has now honed in on her actual customers and accepts she can’t be all things to everybody.
“This makes it so much easier to market to our customers. It was very easy when starting off to say yes to everyone. I have realised you can’t please everyone and that has been a good lesson to learn.”
Rebecca realised she needed to move into central Auckland and Jeremy recommended a high-end catering company where she could outsource production. That company now has a chef dedicated to Village Kitchen who, Rebecca says, is incredible.
For the first three months of the outsourcing she was at the kitchen five days a week.
“I did find the transition challenging. These guys are experienced, trained chefs, but at the same time this was my product and it needed to go out the way I knew my customers expected it to.”
Today the business has an increasing daily output, with further growth projected.
“It comes back to the two stages of our business, when we made the change it was almost like starting again. Now, I have a viable business model that is scalable. Now it’s a real business.”
The website takes care of the ordering and Rebecca works on the recipes, menus, administration, customer service, sales and marketing.
“I really don’t know how I did it before. I love this business like a fourth child and live and breathe it. I know what a difference this makes in people’s lives.”
While she admires My Food Bag and other large food delivery companies Rebecca sees her company as in a different market. She is the point of contact for customers and likes to get to know them.
Expansion is certainly on the cards and a PR campaign is about to go live. It’s Village Kitchen’s first foray into marketing and Rebecca’s confident she’s now capable of expanding as needed.
With the relaunch she initially just offered a weekly roll-over subscription service for however many days of the week customers wanted. But some customers also wanted the one-off service, where they could order as they pleased, so she quickly reverted to offering both options.
Rebecca’s now in the kitchen with the chef three times a week and has engaged a delivery partner.
Rebecca believes she’s perhaps not the right person to advise other start-ups.
“I probably did it the wrong way around. I didn’t have huge financial backing or a detailed business plan. I just started. So I was wary of over-promising, then not being able to deliver.”
But she says a business must be something you believe in with your whole self; otherwise how can you do it well?
With husband Eelco, the business has been self-funded, and Rebecca has learnt how important the numbers are. “You have to be able to understand the numbers to get a full understanding of the business.”
And don’t focus too much on what the competition is doing, just stay focused on your own vision. As she sees it the world is her oyster; she is chipping away at the business and is still there for her customers, talking and listening to them.