In an interview, Seven Sisters Spices’ Chloe Edwards reveals how setting up a food delivery business & cookery practice helped her through the trauma of having a child diagnosed with cancer
How does she do it?
There are few days when Sussex based business owner Chloe Edwards isn’t on my radar.
Chloe is a solopreneur who appears to have it all. She’s turned a love of food into a thriving business. Also, she’s set up and runs a popular Women in Business collaborative networking group. If that’s not all, Chloe has built a strong social media presence and following.
Words to describe Chloe are relaxed,confident and a master of time management. But there’s more to Chloe’s story.
When her daughter was diagnosed with cancer aged seven, it was like an atom bomb going off in her life. Chloe has always been a planner. Suddenly control was taken out of her hands.
This week I got the chance to interview Chloe in her homely kitchen. The setting was made even cosier by the warmth of her Aga. Here she told me the story of how setting up her Seven Sisters Spices food delivery business and cookery practice kept her sane during the most turbulent and traumatic period of her life.
Chloe, thank you for your time. Your situation was life-changing. What was the immediate impact on your professional life?
I like structure. I work best when I have a plan. When suddenly someone near you becomes critically ill, you realise you can’t plan the next five minutes, let alone the next three months.
I asked myself, what could I do with that part of my brain? It’s usually so actively planning.
In the midst of this turmoil, how and when did you manage to start Seven Sisters Spices?
We were lucky to have had savings. And to have taken out life insurance, with critical illness cover. It meant that following the diagnosis I didn’t have to work, and I could stay at home and support my daughter.
But I knew if I didn’t do something, I’d go mad. So my business endeavours grew out of my need to be doing something.
My first response to Aggie’s illness was not understanding the protocol. I’ve been lucky to have had a fortunate life… I’ve had a good education. I’m able to grasp situations pretty quickly. But the cancer protocol is incomprehensible. Words we had never heard of filled our lives for two and a half years. Forms, diagrams and charts. The new set of rules were mind-bending.
I realised food would be important for all of us. Moreover, food was a thing I could understand and control.
But I realised if I stayed in the kitchen cooking we’d get enormous. So the thought occurred to me that if I could register my kitchen with the council, perhaps I could find an outlet to sell the food that I made.
So that was the manifestation of it. And that was about five years ago.
Was it easy to register your kitchen?
If you’re establishing an external unit, you need to play by the book. Because I run my business from my home kitchen, I had fewer rules to adhere to. As a result, it was fairly straightforward to set up.
The challenge for me was finding the information I needed to make sure I met the requirements. Food/health standards and public liability insurance can be quite intimidating.
The one piece of advice I would give to anyone thinking about a similar venture is to ring your Environmental Health Officer. I found them helpful and willing to provide advice. An Environmental Health Officer will visit you before you even start doing anything.
What did your initial business plan look like?
I knew that spices were going to play a significant part in my business. And I initially planned to sell through local markets.
At first, I wanted to make curry paste and spice blends. But upon further research, I found that if you sell products with a moisture content over a certain percentage, you need to meet specific pathology requirements.
Because my brain was traumatised, I didn’t want to spend the time going further with this idea.
So I applied to sell my wares at the Friday Food and Farmer’s markets. However, here I was stopped in my tracks again, As spices make up my main ingredient, the markets didn’t consider my business to be local enough. Consequently, my applications were rejected.
It was at this time I had a Twitter chat with a local butcher. I tweeted something like, “I’m just going to get myself a wheelbarrow and wheel myself up and down the High Street.”
That’s when the idea to get a vehicle hit me.
I started thinking about ideas for a Friday Lunch. An end of week treat for local businesses. I would publicise a menu in advance.
A ‘Peddler’s license’ turned this idea into a reality.
From what you did before in your life, what would you say helped you do what you do today?
That’s a really good question. One of the things I love about what I do now is that I use so many of my previous skills. Seven Sisters Spices feels like the ultimate manifestation of my past experiences.
I started with a degree in fine arts textiles. With that under my belt, I spent 5-6 years running a small designer/maker business. The creative aspect of my training and running this business help me today with my social media. In particular with my photography.
A short time after my son Billy was born, I met a good friend who happens to be deaf. To help me communicate with her, I signed up for a Sign Language course. I learnt through the course that there’s a real shortfall of people qualified to help deaf adults in education. This knowledge inspired me to retrain. As a result, my cookery teaching is very much informed by my teaching training.
[Claire] I attended your pickle making course. I was impressed by how much we managed to achieve (7 dishes!) in the space of a few hours.
Seven Sisters Spices has such as distinctive brand. From where did the inspiration behind it come?
I’ve always loved Asian Spice Packaging. It’s quite garish. I also knew I wanted something a little bit reminiscent of vintage railway posters. I pitched my original label which included the cliff image to Malcolm Trollope-Davis of Lewes Map. He came up with the brilliant idea of also referencing the Brighton Pavilion with little diamonds. He cleverly mirrored the spices font to the text I’d used on my Seven Sisters Spices pram. Every aspect of my brand was connected.
So the most important elements of your brand are the Asian spices, the localness of the product and the homemade aspect. And you’ve made sure your brand is communicated right across your website, packaging and social media profiles. Did you get help pulling this together?
No… I did it all myself.
I’d like to ask you about that lovely video you’ve pinned to the top of your social profiles. How did you put that together?
The video was handmade. In fact, I filmed it in my back garden.,To get the aerial shot, I tied my phone to a phone tripod. Then I gaffa taped the tripod to a broom handle. I was lucky. I managed to shoot the video in one take. Of course, I can see a couple of bits that are not quite right (Claire: The viewer wouldn’t notice!), But I like the freshness of it. It’s funny though. A shop in Brighton has recently started stocking my products. But I can’t get too close to them. I’m worried I’ll see the flaws! But Marisa (my business coach) made the point that lack of perfection is something people quite like about my brand and respond to it. I don’t need everything I do to be super slick and perfect.
[Claire] Nowadays video plays an important role in marketing communications. A few years ago, video came with a large price tag attached to it. But today, technology allows us to do it ourselves. I like the fact you have pinned the post. It is the first thing people see when they visit your profile.
So first off was Fruity Friday. How did you expand to running workshops?
I discovered the Lewes Community Kitchen. It offers excellent courses in cookery leader training. Courses that sit well with my initial PGCE training. This was training I started but had to defer. Throughout Aggie’s illness, I felt my brain was dis-functioning. I found it hard to process information. The University of Brighton kindly allowed me to defer my PGCE course for four years. For me, the PGCE is a valuable qualification. My previous employer had paid for me to do the first year. So I decided to use some of my savings to finish it.
From the word go, I fell in love with cookery teaching. I held my first few workshops in the Community Kitchen. Soon I realised it would be logistically easier to run my workshops from my own home.
I was quite nervous about changing the venue of my workshops. But it has worked out so well. I think there’s something fundamental about human beings cooking food together. It’s a lovely experience. Even though I’m leading and responsible for the courses, I find them moving. By the time we’ve finished cooking, and we sit down to eat, we’re enjoying being in a relaxed atmosphere.
[Claire] When I attended your workshop, I couldn’t believe how much we managed to get done, while at the same time enjoying a nice chat!
Of course, another part of my teaching practice is reinforcing the learning. At the end of my workshops, I give attendees tasks to take home and try for themselves. Homework, if you like. The purpose is to reinforce the confidence you gained in the workshop. I love that add-on.
How did you come up with the idea for a Spice Club?
I set my Spice Club up about eight months ago. It was an idea I had to secure a regular income. My long-term aim is to get about 100 members. The regular monthly subscriptions will help support the other endeavours that I have.
What steps did you take to launch the Spice Club?
Initially, I offered a gift subscription to attract members.
Then, after sending my first spice packet, I followed up with a member located in Lincolnshire who had bought a subscription for his wife.
His uncertainty about having received the packet prompted me to source a box able to fit through a large letter-box. I was concerned with postal costs and making sure people are in to take receipt of the package. It worked.
PayPal’s repeat payments button has made the administration of sign-ups easy. PayPal allows you to insert a subscribe button on your website.
Elsewhere I set up a collaborative giveaway campaign with a local retailer, Lewes Maps.
My January box will include a video of me cooking one of the dishes. The idea is to show the recipient how easy it is.
On my to-do list is publicising my spice boxes via the press. I want to contact food bloggers so that they can help me get people talking about it.
Although membership is growing, I’ve realised I need to make it clear what my offer is and how I’ve differentiated it from other similar offerings.
I want people to be aware that my packaging is entirely biodegradable. More importantly, I want people to understand that signing up to my Spice Club is a bit like signing up to a correspondence course. The spices you receive completely tie up with the recipes. Plus each month recipients will receive instructions about how to create a main course, a side dish, a carbs dish, and a pickle/chutney. You can choose to make each item independently. Alternatively, you can make them all together.
What would you say your biggest challenges have been with setting up and running Seven Sisters Spices?
I would say my biggest challenge has been my Friday Food delivery service. I love it, but it’s such a lot of work. I’m challenged with servicing 40-50 orders a week. The thing is if I were running a café, I wouldn’t have to get 40-50 covers out all at the same time. Because I’m doing a delivery, they all have to go at once. Intermittently I’ve had people working for me. But moreover, the work falls to me.
And of course, there’s that thing of expanding. I need to work out how I can get a bit more capital so that I can buy in larger quantities, reduce my costs and make my time more profitable. Luckily I’m working with a fantastic business coach who is helping me through this challenge.
Is there anything you wish you knew before getting started with Seven Sisters Spices?
That’s a really good question. I think the answer is no. I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to grow my business organically. The way my business has developed has almost been like the process of cooking itself.
Can you describe your routine for me?
The first thing I do every day, and I kinda wish I didn’t is engage with social media.
What time is that?
Anytime from about 4am in the morning. I have a wakeful half hour because I’m a little bit of an insomniac. I like to check in on Twitter at that point. Then I go back to sleep. I check the news and see what’s trending. I don’t necessarily post. I try to get my first post on social media before I start dealing with the teenagers in the house. Then I look at my engagement
Do you plan your posts in advance?
Not necessarily. I’ve started getting a bit better at having a bank of photos for Instagram. But I’m quite impulsive. When I take a picture, I want to post it straight away. I should point out; I do not spend ages on social media. When I look at Twitter, I look at the trending hashtags. I go no further if they don’t appeal.
I was given a whiteboard for Christmas. It’s great. Everyone should have one. While making breakfast, I write on my whiteboard my list for the day. Then I tend to have a bit of computer time. Following that, a dog walk. I start cooking mid-morning and tend to carry on until mid-afternoon depending on what catering jobs or commitments I have.
Do you theme your days?
Only in so far as Monday I plan my menu and Thursday is prep day for Friday.
What would you say your most effective marketing strategy has been?
Twitter. In fact, Twitter absolutely built Seven Sisters Spices. I’ve made so many connections through it. It’s the best platform for ‘you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours’. It drives me spare when you see people not using it properly. It’s easy to think ‘I’ve only got three likes’. But, when your market is local, it can be hugely influential. It is through Twitter that I’ve met key people. And how I launched my Friday Food delivery service.
The way I started on Twitter was by trying to see if I could write a recipe in Twitter’s 140 characters. I love the editing process. It’s really satisfying.
Recently I’ve got into Pinterest. I’m really enjoying it. It took me a while to get started, but I think there’s a lot of scope. Especially given the educational aspects of what I want to do. I think you can drum up a lot of interest.
[Claire]: Pinterest itself is a search engine. Pop in a query into Google, and you’re more than likely to see a Pinterest post in the search results.
I have to say if Twitter launched my business, then Instagram has taken my marketing to the next level. So many people tell me they follow me on Instagram.
Have you got any tips for anyone having an entrepreneurial idea and thinking about starting out on their own?
I think you’ve just got to be brave and give it a go. However, it is important to note that while it is easy to generate ideas, putting them into practice can be difficult. People often glamourise certain job roles. They don’t appreciate the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Therefore I think it is important to think through your idea first to determine if it is indeed realisable.
You always seem to get so much done in a day. Can you share any time management tips?
You know, I’m not sure that I can. Time management is part of my disposition. It’s the way that I work.
I would say though that I think I manage my time best when I’m minimally connected to my phone. It’s easy to become drawn into it.
I also believe in setting time limits. I never work after supper. I know a lot of people who work on into the evening. The times when I have done it, I’ve been exhausted. Also, there’s a risk you’ll become bored with your work.
You also find the time to run a popular networking group called Lewes Women in Business as well. How do you manage to fit that in?
My endeavours are all caught up in Aggie’s diagnosis. After the initial diagnosis, I felt my brain had been jettisoned. It was the shock. And I had a feeling of loss of control. Before the diagnosis, I worked on a ten-year planning cycle. Number one goes to school. Number 2 comes along. They go to nursery, to school and so on. I was very much able to control that.
After Aggie’s diagnosis, I would panic about work. A friend told me that part of the flight response is strategising. It resonated with me. I was subconsciously continually trying to work out ways of being away from the situation I was in. I think that my business and Lewes Women in Business both stemmed from my nervous energy and flight response.
I was really lucky that Sophie (Sophie Isachsen, a freelance marketer) and Marisa (Marisa Guthrie, a business coach) came along and provided fabulous support, drive and energy.
The idea behind Lewes Women in Business arose when I realised that predominantly all of my customers are women. And are all quite isolated. They were music producers, tea importers, graphic designers and shop proprietors. When International Women’s day came round, I used Twitter to ask the question: “Is there a Women in Business get together in Lewes?” I got a resounding answer of no. So I decided to set one up.
I think I marketed the first meeting on Twitter. It attracted 36 attendees. Since then we’ve met every single month. We do break in Augusts and Decembers. We’ve been going nearly four years now. I’m proud of that.
[Claire} At this moment, the door opened, and a stylish, nonchalant teenage girl walked in. It’s Aggie. She’s looking a picture of health and like a typical teenager. I resisted the urge to hug her. But I realised it was time for me to wrap up this interview and let this inspiring woman enjoy some precious family time.
Where can people find you, Chloe?
You can visit my website at http://www.sevensistersspices.com
You can follow Seven Sisters Spices on:
Twitter at https://twitter.com/SevenSpices
Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/sevensistersspices/
Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sevensistersspices/
Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/sevensistersspices
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About Claire Hawes
Claire Hawes is a marketing communications copywriter. She enjoys writing engaging copy that helps businesses to get noticed and attract enquiries. Claire’s experience mainly lies in the business to business sector. Her clients include both businesses and digital marketing agencies.