Way back in the pre-pandemic world, we had a long and varied chat with Becca Hoddinott - founder of The Natural Cook Company.
If you thought a cooking school was just for learning to cook, then think again. From building confidence to providing social support, we discovered a whole world of benefits.
Amongst other things, we also discovered the importance of valuing your own time, of succeeding in the right way, and of looking past just the obvious cash costs in making the right decisions.
Could you tell us a little about your background and the reasons you started The Natural Cook Company?
I spent 20 years working for investment banks and was working very long hours. It would be early starts and late finishes, and I've got young children. So when my eldest was about to start school, I was getting kind of itchy feet. I didn't want to keep missing things. I wouldn't get home till sometimes one o'clock in the morning and I was quite conscious I wanted to be there with them. So I extricated myself from the city, and just didn't really know what I was going to do.
So when I left, my best friend since I was eight years old was working for a small cookery school - and they needed someone helping out for just 20 hours a week. I thought “I’ll just kind of take this to tide me through”. And it was fun.
But it was just as the law was changing about employees and your responsibility as an employer, and the owner of the business said she needed us to go self-employed. So I said to my friend “Actually, why don’t you just go do it for yourself? Don't do it for her because then you’re just giving her all the profit.”
It felt like a really big step and she thought she couldn't possibly do that, so I naively said “Well, I'll do it with you. I’ll run the business side, you do the cooking – we’ll be brilliant.”
"I extricated myself from the city, and just didn't really know what I was going to do."
What is it like going in to business with a good friend?
It’s a real eye-opener. When I had the initial idea, I thought “We’ve never annoyed each other in all the years we’ve been friends – we will be absolutely fine.”
And actually we were for a long time, because we were just doing it part time and I was supplementing by doing other things. Looking back on it we were playing, but we were also testing the market. It was subconscious market research. We were just enjoying working together. We didn't set up with a business plan and we didn't do it officially - we weren't strategic at all at that stage, because we were just enjoying working together. It was just a case of carrying on a model that she'd been doing from before but tweaking it and making it better - but it was very part time.
What happened then of course was that there was a massive ramp-up of running a full-time business - but trying to do it in part time hours or flexible hours because we both have kids. So I would work a lot in the evenings and was flat out at the weekends to keep what was essentially a full time role - and the discrepancy of hours being put in became quite significant. So, after a while of trying to make it work and then realising actually sometimes a friendship’s more important than that, she chose to step down.
She's an amazing teacher and an amazing cook, but her response when I first suggested she did it for herself was that she'd always been an employee and she was worried about setting up and becoming a business owner. Looking back, in our enthusiasm to work together I dismissed that too easily at the start. I should have actually listened to her to begin with, because that's where a lot of the frustration came around.
We also fell into the trap of not valuing each other's skill equally. We had complementary skill sets, but because one was more back office and one more client facing there was a long period of time where we felt that she should get more because she was the one client facing. Yet I would be the one doing more hours trying to do everything else and in order to justify my pay I felt I had to be present at the courses too. It's very tricky to raise the issue but we did get to the point of splitting the pay equally in the end, but the hours were still not equal.
"We fell into the trap of not valuing each other's skill equally."
Is there a lesson in there about valuing your time?
Even though I was doing it, and I could see the hours I was putting in, I was still undervaluing how important that was. Even I bought into the idea that it was the cooking and being in the room that really mattered. In reality, though, it might be a two hour course - two hours’ worth of time in a room with people - and yet there's everything else around it: the planning, booking the venue, advertising and getting the people in, dealing with enquiries, doing the accounts, doing the shopping, printing out the recipes, setting up, clearing down, everything.
A huge amount goes in to making it successful.
"A huge amount goes in to making it successful."
What was your motivation for setting up The Natural Cook Company?
Well I had 20 years in corporate finance, and it's a very money driven, materialistic environment - even to the kind of shoes that people are wearing. It's ridiculous. It didn't ever sit quite right with me. So, I think I always knew that I wanted to do something else, but I literally left the city with no clue about what I wanted to do. I had no clue, but I knew that I wanted to help people in some way.
The thing I really enjoy most with all of this is helping people. When I have to define what I do, I say “I help people gain confidence and find fun in home cooking” - because that's what it is. I'm not training chefs, and that's why I'll work with 2 year olds right up to 82 year olds - because it's all about making them confident. The fact that it’s delicious food too is sort of irrelevant.
I still remember there was a middle aged man who had never really cooked before and he was shaking so much. It was pure nerves. He was in tears by the end of the day because actually he could now create meals. He was just blown away that he’d gone from being a nervous wreck to so proud that he just couldn't believe it. And that was a one day course - six hours. How rewarding is that?
"I help people gain confidence and find fun in home cooking."
So it’s more than just cooking?
Initially, I thought what I do is help people have fun and widen their recipe repertoire - but actually it’s about confidence and it’s about the social side too.
For example, we're doing a social monthly lunch that we want to become a friend group that come in and cook to try and combat social isolation. So then it does become somewhere where confidence grows as friendships grow as well.
I quite often think that there are a bazillion recipes available free online, YouTube videos, magazines, there are even recipes on the back of a packet that you buy in the supermarket. So I’m thinking “Am I fighting a lost cause?”. But then I hear from the people coming in here, and they tell me that it's invaluable to just be in the room and to hear those tips or to see it for yourself.
I work with some amazing speciality cooks and bow down to their skills when they come in and teach because I will be stood in the room and just think "wow!" I learn something every day. Even if you're an amazing cook, different people cook in different ways. Take Bolognese for example. I love Bolognese, and I find it truly fascinating that I've not met one person that does it exactly the same way. It's a classic dish, but there's so many variations of it.
"I learn something every day.
Even if you're an amazing cook, different people cook in different ways."
How do you define success?
Success for me would be that the name The Natural Cook Company is the name that people think of when they think “Oh, let's do something a bit different”, or “Oh, let's have a kid's birthday”. If my name is one of the first things they think of when they want a holiday activity for kids or a birthday party or a present for someone as an adult, then I will feel that I've succeeded.
Another definition of success for me will be having several income streams running together. So, at a weekend I might have a chef providing food for a retreat over at that venue, I then might have courses running here with another cook, and I might have some online courses that people are able to buy into. So there’ll be revenue coming in from all of that and I can be sat at my desk doing normal business development work. That to me would be success. The business is able to earn money from multiple streams at one given hour.
It’s also important for my customers to be diverse. Success is a balanced distribution of customers right across the week, not just all focused on school holidays or the weekend.
"[Success for me would be] the business is able to earn money from multiple streams at one given hour."
What are the barriers to achieving that?
The thing I've learned is, in my previous life I had teams underneath me – so my role was strategic planning and project management and delegating and overseeing, and it was great. So I totally recognise the need for that.
However, when it's your own business then you are the one on the ground doing it all as well. I wish I had a team today, because I can see the need for it. I can see that I should sit down and do some strategic planning, but you just don't have time – there’s only so many hours in the day so you have to find that balance.
It's too easy when it's your own business to think “I'll just do this, I'll just do this” – and you can’t switch off. My husband forced me to down tools over last Christmas, and I did I take two weeks off because I was getting quite ill. Unfortunately, there was an error that happened in that time because I didn't double check something and I realised that “okay, it's fine to down tools - I really needed that break - but I need to have processes in place to make sure that when I do step away, mistakes aren't going to happen”.
Not only that, but it took a few weeks of chasing my tail to try and catch up on the fact that I took two weeks off. So I would like to plan it a little bit better next time.
"I should sit down and do some strategic planning, but.....there’s only so many hours in the day.
You have to find that balance."
It sounds like you think established processes are important – what else did you learn from that period?
Well it was a real lesson that no one's perfect. When things go wrong it's more about how you deal with them than trying to imagine that nothing's ever going to go wrong. Don’t think that you can work on your business to such an extent that you can't possibly ever go wrong, because that's not achievable either. You will just run yourself in to the ground.
The other big eye opener for me is that I kept thinking that the business needed to hit a certain point – a certain revenue stream - before I could employ or outsource to someone to help me. I had that mindset for a long time. If only I could be more successful then I could have help.
Actually what happened is that I was trying to find some cooks, but in doing that I made connections with people who could help me with other things. And actually, someone came along who just gets me, gets the business, understands it, and is amazing. She's phenomenal. She's very organised and her personality suits me - she gives me the odd kick when I need it.
So really it was a case of I didn't want to lose her, and she didn't want to do the cooking. I could see that there were certain things she could help me with anyway so I just kind of bit the bullet and thought “I can't afford this but I'm going to do it.”
And because I found the right person, what's happened is that due to the work she has done the income stream has come in to cover her time and will continue to grow and grow to the point where she's making me money by being here rather than costing me money.
That was a real lesson, that sometimes you do have to be brave and you do have to speculate to accumulate. Knowing when the right time to take risk is key. If I had carried on waiting I would have lost money rather than gained money, because I’d had a couple of emails which I just hadn't seen and they ended up booking something else.
"Don’t think that you can work on your business to such an extent that you can't possibly ever go wrong.
That's not achievable."
"Knowing when the right time to take risk is key."
You touch on something interesting there – there’s a risk to not doing it just as much as doing it?
There are different costs in business: there is the hard cash costs of something, there's the emotional costs, there's the physical and mental costs, and there's the business reputation costs. I was suffering on all those other three to try and keep the hard cash, and that's where the risk was outweighed.
Even if I do find that at the end of the month I'm paying however much it was, the emotional cost, the physical cost of my health, and the reputational costs would have been saved so that's what made me jump.
You do have to be brave. You do have to think about risk you're taking and weigh out that risk as I just said. In that first year of me running the business, I was fully aware that I wasn't brave enough to do the analysis of how things are going.
I knew I was investing, and I knew I wasn’t keeping track of the hours I was working, so that was very much head in the sand for a whole year. At the start of this year I realised I can't afford to do that because I've taken these risks, so I've got the related overheads and there are things happening. I'm cross with myself that in that first year I was making decisions, and then I was kind of letting them run with it.
I was spending money on things that I thought I needed but I wasn't taking the time to research, and then I would stick my head in the sand and ignore it and hope that it would work because I was so busy. It wasn't being obtuse, I was just so busy that I didn't have time to circle back round to it.
So the other thing I've learned is: be brave and make decisions, but make time to review those decisions. Adapt them, change them, update them, or just reverse them if needs be. Don't leave it until you then sit down to do your half-yearly or yearly accounts, and then realise that actually one small decision has cost you money versus making money because you've just ignored it. It's easy to get caught up in being too busy and ignore some quite simple things.
Always schedule time in your diary to review things. You will never find the time if you don't schedule it in. Just schedule some time in and do a little business process review - and just think “is this working, is that working?”
A great example: We have two dishwashers on site - one works brilliantly, the other one works but not very well, so I just wasn't using it. So eventually, I said I'm going to buy a new dishwasher. Now I spend a lot less time washing up because I can do two dishwasher loads. It sounds so basic but it was thinking “I can't spend money because I've got something that works.” But of course I can, because it’s not working the way I need it to work. It’s costing me time which is costing me money, and it’s costing me family time which is costing me heartache. So actually - buy a new dishwasher.
"Be brave and make decisions, but make time to review those decisions."
"I was thinking: 'I can't spend money because I've got something that works.'
But of course I can, because it’s not working the way I need it to work."
This is back to valuing your time again isn’t it?
Absolutely – it is so important. It's hard to sit down and work out what your hourly rate is, and anyone who does that is brilliant. There are certain things I do that I wouldn't even know how to value against them, but one thing I do know is that no one is better at selling my company than I am. No one knows the strategy better than I do because quite often I haven’t written it down, so it has to be me!
So, if I want to develop my business - if I want it to succeed - I have to be the one doing certain things. It's too easy to spend your time doing everything else that needs doing, and not have that time. I couldn't leave dirty pots and pans for people to then come cook the next day. So, actually, it's far better for me to pay someone to do the things that other people can do. No one can take what's in my brain because I haven't told anyone yet, so I have to release time for that. It took me a long time to figure that one out.
"No one can take what's in my brain because I haven't told anyone yet, so I have to release time for that”.
What would you say have been your main challenges in getting to this point?
Believing that you have to be everything for everyone. Believing that any customer is a valid customer, and therefore you just have to bend over backwards and do everything you can. Those have been huge challenges.
Trying to please everyone - being a yes person and pleasing everybody - is good when you first start off. Say yes and figure it out later - that's a good theory to a degree. But there definitely comes a stage where you have to stop being a yes person.
I had a situation where I was approached by someone to do some food for a vegan retreat. It was a lovely lady that I'd love to work with but I had no one available and it was further afield. It was causing me such a headache trying to figure it out. Eventually, someone said:
“Do you want to do it?”
“Have you got someone else to do it?”
“Go back to her and say thank you very much but I can’t do it this time.”
It was those simple questions that really helped me realise. It was that realisation that sometimes you have to say no, because actually it’s better for your business. Literally about an hour afterwards, I then had another booking in for the same time period. It was meant to be.
Saying yes to everything is counterproductive. As I said earlier, I'd spent a lot of time trying to build the brand - and it muddles things and confuses people if you're doing too much. In the beginning we were kind of like “yes we can cook for your film night no problem.” Then people were not sure if we were a cookery school or a catering company. You have to be clear.
"There definitely comes a stage where you have to stop being a yes person."
"It muddles things and confuses people if you're doing too much.
You have to be clear."
How have you incorporated that in to your marketing?
I made as much use of free marketing as I could. Social media is massive, but it's very easy to get confused and bogged down and put everything into that, and actually it's only one stream.
Word of mouth is invaluable so when we got our premises we did a freebie press day. We invited some local magazines and local press and gave them the day for free. They thought it was amazing. We got editorial off the back of it, and we still get enquiries to this day. Sometimes doing something for free can be very strategic and it's worth its weight in gold. Constantly doing stuff for free doesn't get you anywhere, but if you think carefully it can really work.
Networking is important too, because when you get involved in your local community then you're more than just a business - you’re a face. You’re a personality that they buy in to and they will recommend. I can post things on Facebook and not have much impact. The moment another mum comments it has so much more impact, because it's someone they trust in the community. Even if they don't know that person, it's another parent. It's someone else rather than a business advertising - it's a recommendation.
"When you get involved in your local community then you're more than just a business - you’re a face."
What do you think the future holds, and what emerging trends do you see?
The Natural Cook name came as a bit of a play on words: it will turn you into a natural cook, but it was also because we've always been a seasonal, eco-conscious, local-based business. That was just something that was important to us. Obviously that is now a massive trend: Local, seasonal, sustainable, zero waste.
I wouldn't ever claim that we were zero waste from the start, but it's something I've become more and more aware of as time has gone on. We use refills for all of our washing up liquid, our spray cleaners, and our hand soap so we're not buying plastic bottles anymore. We run wax wraps workshops. I’ve stopped using clingfilm and I reuse plastic food bags when needed. We stopped using balloons for birthday parties and we have these paper hanging balls instead and a fabric happy birthday banner. We would never put out paper plates and cups, it would always reusable.
Corporate days and wellness is another trend. I want to push more about wellness and mindfulness because everyone knows that eating healthier food is better for your body, but cooking is also very mindful. The whole process of the logical steps and following something, and the confidence building and sense of accomplishment from producing something that then goes on to feed either yourself or your family. The mental health aspect of it is huge because it's fun, it's social, it's getting people out of the house and helping people with anxiety and depression.
There's a big thing about gut health having a huge impact on mental health as well which I think people need to understand better, so I definitely want to focus on that more from now on.
"Everyone knows that eating healthier food is better for your body, but cooking is also very mindful."
Any other food trends?
Veganism is massive, but I think more so is just knowing where your food has come from and understanding it - within budget. We’d all like to buy organic meat from local cider-fed pigs, but you have to be within budget. But there's nothing to say that a free range chicken breast from Lidl is any worse than a free range chicken breast from Waitrose.
The other thing is kids' cooking. Back in the day, it used to be just baking a cake or making some scones. Some kids coming in now - they are Master Chef quality. Thanks to all of the media available - like Junior Bake Off and Junior Master Chef - the trend for kids' cookery is huge. I run a mini Master Chef day, and every time it sells out. It's all about flavour combinations and it's their chance to show off their creativity. Normally in the kitchen - even if a child is a competent cook - at home parents will always have a recipe that they want them to follow. It’s very rare a kid gets “these are your ingredients, go for your life.” They don’t usually get that freedom.
"Some kids coming in now - they are Master Chef quality."
How do you personally deal with uncertainty?
I think there are two types of uncertainty. Day-to-day uncertainty - problems that go wrong, things that happen - I just deal with them. That’s fine.
Strategic uncertainty - like when I'm thinking about starting a series of courses - I can doubt myself. I can question myself to the point where nothing happens. So I've had to combine the two, and just think “just go with it, just do it, just take the risk, just put it out there. But then adapt if needed!”
"There are two types of uncertainty: Day-to-day uncertainty.....and Strategic uncertainty.
I've had to combine the two."
So how do you go about making decisions?
It’s somewhere between a formal process and gut instinct. I'm a very emotion-led person and gut really drives me - even if it's subconsciously. Saying that, though, there's a certain level of experience from life and I'm still learning constantly.
So, I’m gut and experience combined - but I'm also a bit of an over-thinker. So even if it's not an official sit-down review process, I will be going over things constantly.
I do all my best thinking in my car as I'm driving and I will quite often review my decisions then and get back and think I should have done this differently. I'm a big believer in learning from things for the next time. There's no wrong decisions because you might have made a complete dud decision but if you learn from it, then it's had its value.
"You might have made a complete dud decision but if you learn from it, then it's had its value."
What inspires you?
I meet so many people here that are so inspiring. People who aren’t afraid to take risks inspire me. When I see personality traits like kindness and empathy and generosity and determination that have made people succeed, that is more inspiring to me than someone who came along and made the right investments and made the right business choices. I guess people that have a bigger impact is what it comes down to. That kindness and generosity is the impact they're having on the people around them. I think kindness and humanity are the two biggest things that should make the world go round.
"I think kindness and humanity are the two biggest things that should make the world go round."
What do you think makes a good plan for business? Is a plan even necessary?
I have a very, very fluid business plan that I did when I was doing a business course, but I do recognise the need for it. If I hadn't had savings I would have needed a business plan in order to get investment.
It's important to know your brand and plan it. A lot of people think brand is about the company's logo but I don’t think it is. It's about knowing what your ethos is and what's important to you. To know what you stand for and what your company is so that everything you do reflects that - from replying to a quick message on Facebook to how you present yourself when networking. My brand ethos is friendly and natural and sustainable as much as possible, and I know that that's core to everything I do and every decision I make. For me, that's driving my strategy and my planning and my marketing – it’s everything.
"My brand ethos is friendly and natural and sustainable.
That's driving my strategy and my planning and my marketing – it’s everything".
Quick Fire Questions
Instinct or facts? Instinct
Plan or improvise? Both
Keep score or play for fun? Play for fun
Tea or coffee? Tea
Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn/Instagram? Instagram and Facebook
Sweet or savoury? Tricky question to ask a cook. Both
Wash or dry up? Wash up
Start early or finish late? Finish late
Risk lover or risk averse? I'm not a risk lover, but I do take risks. I'm a cautious risk-taker
Compete or collaborate? Collaborate. I'll stop doing something if I think it's competitive
Summer or Winter? Autumn (going in to Winter)
Do it on paper or do it on screen? Paper - I'm old school
Cat or dog? Dog
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