Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.
My father used to say that a cook is the last person to be killed in a revolution, so it’s a good career choice in unstable times. My mother was a cook for the last 10 years of her paid working life but there were no revolutions – inside or outside the kitchen… as far as I know. My mum believed that making and sharing food with others was an act of love.
Which reminds me of a very old [Shakespeare-influenced] advertising slogan – ‘If music be the food of love… come and eat at Chappells’ [Chappells was a music shop in Bond Street London dating back to 1811, now re-named Yamaha Music – a sad sign of the times].
My own relationship with food is more pragmatic – I love it and can get excited about a meal for days before I actually eat it. I also ‘run to eat’ so that my affection for food isn’t too obvious in my body shape.
Which is a very roundabout* way of explaining why I was more than happy to be interviewing Sam Speller, the man behind the All Seasoned food business in Letchworth, one sunny morning a couple of weeks ago. I remember the sun – we met for the interview at the first floor premises of the All Seasoned Cafe and it was bright, light and airy – very calming for customers and staff.
Which is just as well, because All Seasoned provides catering training and work experience for people who, in Sam’s words “are in recovery from substance abuse issues… vulnerable from life choices they now regret.” Sam can empathise with them – his experience in catering was his own route to recovery.
The cafe is part of a catering business which has three elements – or should that be three courses? The Cafe – strategically attached to an art gallery in a shopping arcade; buffet catering for businesses; and The Street Cart – ‘good food on the go’ at markets around Hertfordshire. Street food may be big in London, but it seems it’s still to take off in Hertfordshire. Sam tells me that outside catering accounts for 70% of income, the cafe 30%, but “at the moment we’re lucky if we wipe our nose with the street food.” [For those with an over-active imagination this means it barely covers costs].
The All Seasoned tie-up with parent charity CRI (Crime Reduction Initiatives) means that all volunteers are training in food safety, with the option of getting experience in a commercial kitchen or in a less pressured front-of-house role (if you can’t stand the heat…etc)
The structured routine that Sam describes for the volunteers belies the care that comes with that support. “We are open about their commitment – we agree what hours are realistic, we want to get them into a routine, give them some structure in their lives. Gradually they build up confidence and hours – six months is really the minimum commitment to cement a routine, break the monotony of sitting at home, to get into the habit of coming into work, and to get comfortable in the workplace”.
I wondered whether, given his experiences (including setting up Seasoned Training before All Seasoned Catering) Sam had advice to pass on to other entrepreneurs. “Research and networking is important. I didn’t know what I was looking for at first. Look at what’s around – it will help you focus your own ideas. By researching other social enterprises (not necessary in food) I found parallels and learnt useful lessons.”
Sam has further sound advice about developing a business. “It takes time to build up reputation and loyal customers – I favour word of mouth over any other publicity. I stress with the guys that it takes a long time to build a reputation but a second – one hair in the food – to destroy it. So we’re very strict on quality control.”
As we part, I discover Sam’s not against risk-taking to get his street food noticed. “At Easter, we’re thinking about doing bunny burgers – I like a little bit of fun with food – it might not work in Letchworth, but…”
Find out more about All Seasoned Catering at www.allseasoned.org
*Appropriate as Letchworth in North Herts is the location of the UK’s first roundabout (‘built circa 1909’ the sign says).