The 6 Things To Etch On The Wall When Running a Business - From Ten Years of Experience

I started Sous Chef in 2012 to celebrate the joy of cooking. I sourced the best ingredients and tableware from around the world, so I could cook with them myself.

In that time we’ve had had tremendous pleasure in sharing those products with our customers and community, and seeing what you do with them too.

It feels like only yesterday that I was packing parcels together with my husband Nick

It feels like only yesterday that I was packing parcels together with my husband Nick (I begged him to join whilst the website was being built), and taking them down to the local post office ourselves.

Yet it has been 10 years! Since starting Sous Chef together together, we have renovated a house and had two children (the second now starting in primary school); I’ve been on TV and met my food heroes (several who are now friends). The business has won awards, and we’ve employed several hundred people. We’ve both learned so much.

There are so many ups and downs, and we’ve seen countless peers cease trading during that decade. 

There are so many ups and downs, and we’ve seen countless peers cease trading during that decade.

Below are a few of things I keep top of mind day-to-day…

Alternatively, if you're just here for cake, here's our ultimate foodie birthday cake recipe! It's a good one.

Happy cooking!

Nicola

Sous Chef CEO & Co-Founder

Picture of Nicola CEO & Co-Founder against a coloured background


1. Relationships are everything

 

When starting a business, my main experience of buying was in chain stores. ‘The customer is always right’ trains us to be demanding – and dare I say it – impolite consumers. Yet the moment I started buying and selling as a business, I realised that many people just want to enjoy their day-to-day – and make sure their teams do too. And so they choose who they work with carefully. Maybe this is specific to artisans, but I doubt it.

At the end of the day, business isn’t just about being nice to customers, it’s 100% about enjoying working with one’s suppliers. And colleagues too!

 

2. Retail is detail

 

This is an often-quoted maxim, to be ignored at one’s peril! We’ve always been obsessed with customer experience and product quality. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Getting the right reports, with only the useful numbers (and nothing else), in front of team members weekly, plus a process to ensure everyone in the business is doing so, is critical. That paired with always tracking actions that come up in meetings is very powerful combination. I will never again arrive to a meeting wondering what was committed to last time…

 

3. Running one’s own business is awesome

 

Sometimes it’s very, very hard. But it is never ever boring. 3,650 days later, every single day I still learn something new. I love reading through customer orders – and recognising the names who come back again and again. I adore hearing how excited people get about their orders and the dishes they cook with them. And it’s truly thrilling to meet so many people who work in food. Plus we have a fabulous team and colleagues.

Recently when travelling to Italy for work, I had to step back and remind myself ‘this is my job’. I had been tasting panettone from twenty different producers, after an evening learning to make agnolotti.

I only stay fresh by checking myself to remember what a treat this really is, and how much fun it is to cook and share food together. Even when I’m shortening the bedtime cuddles with my four-year-old to just 30 minutes, and she asks “Why do you have to work Mummy?”

 

4. Never give feedback when feeling fearful

 

Running a business isn’t always plain sailing. When things tough, we look up at a sign on the office wall ‘when it’s scary we’re making progress’.

That is always true, yet it isn’t a great time for giving feedback. Some of my biggest regrets in the last ten years have been how I’ve handled challenging conversations. Learning to check my emotions first, and foremost bringing empathy and support, has made those outcomes consistently better.

 

5. Time not working can be as useful as time at work

 

This is perhaps the hardest thing to remember. When feeling overwhelmed, it’s tempting to keep chipping away at a massive to do list. Yet with the right perspective and free time to reflect, I might cross out half those things to focus only on the most important.

Conversely that time thinking can produce a much longer list – but at least it’s a good one! Then it’s great to start at 6am and just crack on …

 

6. It’s not one order, it’s the next 100 years

 

Working in food, we see the fragility in our food system. Every year we receive letters from olive farmers explaining price increases due to drought. And right now we’re not selling large jars of mustard – there just weren’t enough mustard seeds in the last harvest for production. 

At Sous Chef, we sell long-life ingredients that don’t need refrigeration, and arrive to the UK by boat rather than by air. Combined with locally sourced fresh produce, it’s a fabulous way to enjoy world food, but without a heavy carbon footprint. We were one of the first e-commerce retailers to stop using single-use plastic in our boxes, and we’re constantly reflecting on how we can do more.

That must be front of mind for all of us in business as we look ahead to the next decade.

If you also run your own business, what are the things you remind yourself of day to day? Comment below to let us know!


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