At the end of our first few months, and still working on the full-time day job in media, the additional hours every evening and weekend were beginning to take their toll. I retired back to the confines of the Scottish motherland for a deserved rest over the tail end of the festive period. It was good to remind myself of where the business stemmed from, and of the beauty and surrounds of my home town of Troon. The short break gave me time to plan ahead. Inspired by my surroundings and reinvigorated, I was ready for the journey back South. Indeed on returning to London and as we entered 2012, I was full of optimism and ready for a major sales drive.
To secure a market ‘pitch’ on a near-permanent basis would require commitment throughout the year. Rocking up on the first cold Saturday in January at Greenwich Market, I was determined that we would secure our spot. However, the reality of winter sales periods (effectively outdoors) is much harsher than I imagined. Competition among casual traders mean you have to get there bright and early, all wait at an allotted spot, and then catch the eye of the market manager to allow you the chance to trade. Everyone suddenly wants to fill the equivalent role of teacher’s pet, brazenly flirting, eyelids a-flutter, or just being overly ‘matey’.
Since our produce falls between the worlds of market food to go, and market gifts, there is not always an obvious site where to locate us. Not slotting in to one category or the other would prove useful flexibility, both at Greenwich and in terms of markets who would consider letting us trade. Every market though seems to have its own rules about exclusivity of, number of directly competing, and artisan contribution to food products.
Nevethleless, once you have a pitch, you might wish you hadn’t. Keeping warm when you are run off your feet in the festive season was one matter, but with umpteen layers, boots, gloves, hats and scarves, it was sheer madness to expect any sense of comfort in January through to March. The market had the air of a ghost town on some days, with only occasional custom from loyal local friends. As has been proven throughout this project, some really do go the extra mile to help. A fellow member of the ‘ex-pat Troon Sassenachs’, not only assisted on the food stall voluntarily, but did so for weeks on end. Suddenly I realised it wasn’t just me up against the world, but actually there was support all around me.
It’s such support that frankly gets you through the dark months, when revenues are minimal and any sense of festivity has long passed. That and alcohol. My six month hiatus was well and truly over.
Plenty to fill my mind though – we needed a PR strategy, we wanted to get product coverage in magazines, get food writers excited, and spread the word about Doigs’ rebirth.
If the market footfall was not going to materialise again until springtime, then we needed a second tier – online. Another skill to learn, to add to that of branding guru, chef, logistics manager, distribution gaffer and general all-round entrepreneur.
There is a theme emerging here: Being in control. My experience with freelance workers had not been good, and once again I felt I needed to lead the build of our website. Like a poor DIY practitioner, I convinced myself that of course I could put together a great website, that somehow it was better to rush ahead on my own than wait for the genuine expertise of those more knowledgeable to come to my rescue.
Many versions later, the www.doigsoftroon.co.uk website was ready – at least using a standard template version. But it had pictures, and introductions, and an e-shop, blog, forum. I was feeling terribly proud of my efforts.
With hindsight, clearly you should learn the areas within which you excel, and delegate other duties and roles to others. Building a website was a step too far, removed from the comfort zone of the kitchen, and the world of sales and marketing. For months we would be stuck with that same website. Would there ever be the budget to commission a new one?
Then the mistakes started to rack up. First with finance – the bane of any start-up’s experience. After trading through the early months of the year at a weekly loss, there was simply none left. This was a problem, and Spring couldn’t come quickly enough with hoped-for increased regular sales and money. Meanwhile, the deal with a local restaurant for use of its kitchen fell through, premises became an urgent priority. ‘Trolleygate’ resulted in exploding tyres and investment in a new one. Printing prices seemed to be rocketing, and out of season fruit prices were proving exorbitant. By the time Easter arrived the whole project seemed doomed and financially disastrous.
Planning – oh how I wish I had planned better for the trading peaks and troughs. All that quiet period when we could have been prepping stock, prepping anything to be honest. For just as we turned the corner and a glint of spring sunshine came into view, customers came out in their droves. Sales went beserk. And even online demand started to ratchet up.
A new kitchen was top of the list, new labels, new everything. At the double. The pressure was well and truly on. Looking back I must have been expecting some grand warning signal. No such thing. As soon as the clocks changed it seemed as if someone had pressed the play button, reverting from the winter status of pause.
Keeping apace with demand was suddenly impossible and money was stretched to the limit. Credit cards were full to bursting point.
So the first part of the year taught me much about seasonality, planning, budgeting. And of course juggling. Setting up your own business is one hell of a learning curve.
But finally the market stand was bustling, PR enquiries came from everywhere. All that early work was starting to pay dividends. Topping it all off was an approach from a food PR about making a TV programme. Excitement levels went through the roof. And as we neared an Olympian summer, the workload was just too much – I would need to call for back-up.
Find out how Doigs makes it through the summer, in the build up to its Sky Living TV appearance – 8pm, October 10th and 15th.