Today I want to share something that might be helpful for anyone considering starting a food business from home. This is based on the lessons I've learned since starting my refill nut milk business from home.
It's two years in December since I had my lightbulb moment where I first considered making plant-based milks in refillable glass bottles. Since then I've learned a lot, made mistakes and met a lot of amazing people. It's only now (July 2021) when I'm on the brink of launching my milks that I feel I can talk about what I've learned so far.
I'm going to discuss five things I hope will be helpful, whether you're looking to start a business from home or interested in what goes on behind the scenes of a food business start up.
1. Know what you're legally obliged to do
There are things every business is legally required to do in order to protect the consumer and themselves.
This might relate to how a product is produced, packaged, labelled, the ingredients it contains, how the risks are managed. I only know from my experience what I was required to do and that may be different for other businesses. I suggest checking the links below. As a starting point, The Scottish Government highlight the following steps for getting started:
1. Contact your local authority.
2. Register your business, determine if you need approval.
3. Create a business plan.
4. Organise waste and recycling collection.
5. Get the right training and tools.
Something I learned early on is that not every business follows the same processes. It's important not to follow blindly what another business is doing, even if you perceive them to be well established and doing something similar to you.
Check reliable sources of information for your business (Food Standards Scotland or your local authority), speak to an expert and don't rely on what anyone else is doing. That's not to say you can't learn from others. Speaking with other business owners really helped me but make sure you check what's required for your business.
Below are a few places I went to for reliable information.
Food Standards Scotland exists to protect consumers in Scotland from food safety risks and promote healthy eating.
Food Standards Agency was set up as an independent government arm to protect the public's health and consumer's wider interests in relation to food in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Environmental Health - this is the name of the department that deals with food businesses within every Scottish local authority. This is where you go to register your food business and find out what you need to do to comply with any legalities. The Environmental Health Department will advise you what is required for your specific business.
Trading Standards - you will likely be referred to trading standards via your local authority. They protect consumers from illegal trading practices and support the business community to comply with consumer protection legislation. The main area relevant for my business was weights and measures. There are specific legal requirements I need to adhere to for a packaged product in terms of how I declare the weight and ensure accuracy.
2. Seek expert advice
Not everyone needs to hire someone for advice but I decided early on this was essential for me. Although it cost me money it saved me money in the long term. It gave me security and comfort to know I'd done things right from the beginning. As well as hiring a Food Consultant to do the practical steps - specifically my HACCP and Lab testing processes - having a consultant gave me a sounding board for all my questions and concerns.
There are many businesses who go through the process of setting up on their own. Everyone's situation and level of knowledge is different. It takes a lot of time to make sure you're following the right processes and procedures but you can do it on your own without hiring someone.
You can seek advice from organisations that won't charge you. There are many free resources and workshops available in Scotland. We're very lucky there is so much support to tap into. I've written a list below of the places where I got help without paying for it.
3. Take all the help you can get
Business Gateway - provides support to help open, adapt and rebuild your business. They run regular, free workshops and seminars covering many aspects of getting started in business. These vary from starting and planning your business, becoming an employer and Wordpress for beginners. They also offer in depth workshops around selling, marketing, strategic planning and social media.
I was fortunate to be eligible for De Minimus Funding via Business Gateway and the Business Boost program, which offer in kind support to start up businesses. This meant I could attend additional workshops and it gave me access to a business consultant for one-to-one support. All of this was free and provided a solid foundation for me to move forward.
Opportunity North East - is the private sector catalyst for economic growth diversification and renewal in the North East Scotland. The local representative has been really helpful for me. She sign posted me to many people who've helped along the way and I've attended a few of their online talks and webinars.
Scotland Food and Drink - formed in 2007 as a body to facilitate government and industry to work side by side. They "nurture, support and champion the people and products of Scotland's food and drink to help deliver continued and growing success". They offer membership to Food and Drink businesses and run a training academy to help businesses grow. Thus far I've found their free workshops and local representative to be really helpful. I haven't signed up for any of the paid services yet but will consider this as my business grows.
Interface - is the knowledge connection for business. It's a central hub that connects organisations from a wide variety of industries to all Scotland's universities, research institutes and colleges. I was referred to Interface via Business Gateway and spoke with their local representative who thought my business idea and product would fit their Innovation Voucher Program. This provides up to £5,000 worth of in kind research for businesses developing new products and services and the business itself provides in kind value in terms of time and knowledge.
We created a short pitch, which was sent to the universities in the Interface network. I received two offers of research support. I chose to go with SRUC because of their expertise and enthusiasm for my product. In the past 6 months we've developed a new version of my peanut milk that is specifically for coffee, which I'm really excited about. I've also taken part in an SRUC workshop, which focussed specifically on the market for new food and drink products.
4. Become an expert
Learn everything you can about your product, ingredients, packaging, suppliers, competitors and methods of delivery. Speak to others doing similar things and learn how they started their business, ask how they overcame the obstacles you are facing. My advice would be to speak to as many people as you can because you never know where each path will lead you and what you might learn.
5. Start as you mean to go on
I knew there were values I wanted to incorporate into my business from the start. I wanted my milks to represent what I believe and what I look for in a product.
I wanted to use 100% Organic ingredients, nuts, dates, salt and to source as ethically as I could as well as buying anything locally that was feasible. I set out to create a circular business. These thoughts were what led me to my business in the first place so I had to make sure they stayed congruent throughout my processes.
This had a knock on effect on many things.
It meant I needed to plan what I'd do with the nut pulp from my milks.
It meant I couldn't settle for cheaper ingredients.
It meant I had to find organic ingredients.
It meant I had to be selective about where my almonds were sourced, the type of salt I used and the quality of my dates.
It also meant the volume of nuts I used was higher. I couldn't reduce this because it would be cheaper. I set out to create a creamy nut milk which requires a high volume of nuts.
Sticking with my values meant compromising in other areas such as price. My milks had to become an artisan product and they are more expensive than any nut milk in the supermarket. My market is therefore smaller but I am okay with that because I believe I've created a product that is congruent with my values.
This led to the creation of an online workshop for those who'd rather learn to make their own plant-based milk at home than buy my milk.
Having an online workshop allows me to support more people around the world. This fits with my values and mission; to encourage as many people as I can to reduce their plastic consumption by making or buying plant-based refill milk.
Working on your values is important because it has a knock on effect on everything you do. Every business has different values and that's okay but if you don't know what they are in the first place you will struggle further down the road when faced with obstacles.
There is a lot more I could write about my journey but I hope some of this is helpful if you're thinking about starting a food business in Scotland.
I wish there had been more information about these practicalities two years ago because it would have saved me time and given me a better idea of what to expect.
I love meeting small business owners and if you have any questions I'd be happy to try and answer them. You can ask questions in the comments or contact me via email firstname.lastname@example.org
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