The Lewes Transition Town Enterprise Group has been itching to put some
of its ideas into practice since it formed a short while ago.  One of
the themes we kept coming back to was how we might help new and would-be
entrepreneurs.  We also agreed that local food producers would be key
to the resilient local economy that we were dreaming into being.


This is how we came up with the idea of inviting  a range of local food producers, who had managed to start and run businesses successfully and in a sustainable way, to come and talk with nascent enterprisers about the practicalities, the challenges and the pleasures of running a local food business.

Three of Lewes’ best-known food entrepreneurs generously agreed to take part – David Stechler from Lewes Smokehouse – a specialist in smoking everything from nuts to fish, Fiona Kay of the award-winning Cheese Please and Tanya Laporte who has been running her eponymous café and shop in Lewes for seven years. For an extra perspective on running a business, we were also delighted to secure ‘conscious business’ consultant Pete Burden of SeeStep.

So what sort of things did we learn from these assembled food business owners?  First that it seems you can come from any background and succeed as a food enterpriser. David Stechler from the Lewes Smokehouse had careers in travel, teaching and IT before setting up his food smoking business. Fiona Kay from Cheese Please had a career as a teacher before she lost her voice and had to find an alternative profession.  Only Tanya Laporte seemed predestined for a life in food, with a grandfather who had a restaurant on the Champs Elysees in Paris and a career that has included training and teaching at the French Cooking School in Littlington.
 
Second that none had started with a business plan! All our food enterprise panellists opined that it was very difficult to write a plan about a business that you had no experience in, but acknowledged that it was the kind of thing that would be important if you want to borrow money or grow your business in a certain way.

We asked how important it was that their produce came from the local area (30 miles or less).  All said that the wishes of their customers drove their stocking of local produce.  Tanya said that she had been committed to stocking produce that is local, fairtrade or organic right from the start and that that has been a key selling point of her business.

We also talk briefly of the definition of “local” as David said that the salmon for his smoked salmon came from Scotland – so, it was not always easy to source certain ingredients from within a 30-mile radius.

Questions also arose about the nitty-gritty of running a food business – such as health and hygiene. All our panellists agreed it is much easier to liaise with your local hygiene officer in advance and let them know what kind of business you are planning.  Their advice will often save money in the long run as the local officer can help you get up to standard before you spend money on building your food preparation area.

In common with all business sectors, everyone stressed the need to be both knowledgeable and organised.  As a small business owner there are always a multitude of different roles that you will have to take on – from stock control to book keeping, running errands, marketing and sales.  The only way to succeed is to be very organised with your time.  Pete Burden also recommended thinking about finding business partners who can do the jobs you dislike or are not particularly good at. Both Tanya and Fiona vouched for the value of employing a book keeper or qualified accountant. There was also strong support for using other specialists like marketing experts to help free up more to do other jobs

As far as developing new products or services, opinion was divided whether it should be heavily researched or whether it was important to just go on gut feeling.  Everyone agreed that enterprisers should be prepared to be flexible and admit when something isn’t working.

Linked to this topic was the importance of educating customers – by talking to them or offering things like courses or free tastings.  If people understand why shopping locally and supporting the local economy and local produce are so important, then they are more likely to doit.  For example a pound that is spent in a large supermarket is just a pound – as most profit earned will leave the area and go to head office.

Conversely, every pound that is spent in a local shop is worth approximately £2 to the local economy – as it buys the produce and the profit earned will be spent locally.

Unsurprisingly, all these issues led to highly lively debate with the audience – with topics for the rest of the evening ranging from the impact of local property prices on the ability to make a feasible living from a food enterprise to how to expand a customer-base to commuters and others who may not be around in the daytime to shop at local Lewes stores.

We hope this is the first of many TTL Enterprise Evenings. To learn about more – or if you’d like to get involved in future enterprise events in the Lewes area, go to www.transitiontownlewes.org/enterprise.