Blogcast #21: Claire Ladkin of All About The Cooks

Rebecca: Welcome to the Entrepreneurial Journey. Today I have Claire Ladkin with me. Hello Claire. How are you?

Claire: Hi, Rebecca. Very well, thank you.

Rebecca: Good, good. Now, you’re the founder of All About The  Cooks, which is a fascinating business model, tell us what it’s all about.

Claire: Okay, All About The  Cooks enables talented home cooks to sell their food to local people. We’re not a delivery food delivery app or anything like that. We simply make the whole process easier by enabling people to send their customers from Facebook, WhatsApp groups and so on. Two, their All About The  Cook’s page to choose, order and pay for the food. And because all the food is pre-ordered and this is people cooking it in their home kitchens, the delivery and collection element is done between the cook and the buyer is usually hyperlocal and you can book a delivery or collection slot according to the Cook’s arrangements when you make your purchase at checkout.

Rebecca: Genius idea, how did you come up with it?

Claire: I’ve been involved in the food sector in Bristol for some time. My background is advertising agencies and marketing and branding in particular in that respect. And when I had my kids, I did quite a lot of consultancy and that quite naturally led me towards the food sector Through my own interest, I ended up chairing an organisation called Bristol Food Connections, which is a sort of two week long festival in Bristol showcasing everything that is in the city. So rather than having a cluster of marquees in the park or whatever, the point was to drive people into the communities, into the restaurants, into the place where the work was being done. And it wasn’t just sort of fine dining and restaurant stuff, it was about really grassroots and growing and education and so on as well. And so that put me in this really sort of position where my thing has always been about eating real food. It was when my kids were growing up, when I went off to uni, there were three things. It was have safe sex, don’t do drugs and eat real food. I’m sure they broke all the rules, but that’s what you’ve got to say, isn’t it? But eating real food has been a core value of mine through my life.

Rebecca: It’s really important. It’s so important. Yeah, it is. For healthy body, mind and soul real food. I think no matter what’s going on in the world, if you’re sitting down to have real food at the end of the day, then you can sort of press the reset button, can’t you? And just go, right, okay, no matter what happened today, I can sit down and eat a decent meal prepared properly and I shall be fortified to face whatever challenges are coming next. Yeah.

Claire: Yes, you’re quite right. And you’re right to mention Soul in there as well because that’s a really important part of what we do and that’s a benefit to the buyers and the sellers because the people are cooks, they want to make people happy, and they want positive affirmation of knowing they please people. So they often go the further mile. For some of them, the money is really important and we don’t underestimate the role we’ve had in empowering people to earn money in a different way. But for a lot of people, the actual, the act of pleasing people is the most important driver.

Rebecca: It’s lovely. It’s a really nice concept. How long has it been going for?

Claire: Well, we launched very late in 2020 and it was a bit of a full start really, because Covid then reared its ugly head again. And we had so much change that we almost parked it for a while. We sort of ticked away quietly because so many of our cooks have children. The children were home from school, they were back at school. There’s a relationship to do with hospitality. And hospitality was open and shut and we had to eat out help out and bubbles of six and all that stuff. So there was no consistent period on which we could test the concept. And that was what we were looking for at that stage was proof of concept. Do people want to buy and sell home cooked food from local people? And we didn’t believe that things had settled enough until quite late in 21, early 22 to say that we had that proof of concept and the numbers to back it up. So we then went to Crowd Queue with some lead investment and topped up there. And then that really feels like where our journey really began when we had some money to make some things happen, to see some growth.

Rebecca: I think they call it product market fit, don’t they? In those early days to make sure. Yes.

Claire: And I don’t know whether we’re entirely there yet, but we’re certainly a lot further down the line than we were.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s an iteration and I don’t think you ever stop tweaking because your market will change. Just when you think you’ve got it sourced or the method of contacting your market will change or something, the algorithm will change. Something will change and they’ll have to tweak once again. Definitely. Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.

Claire: And the more you learn, the more nuance you can put into it as well.

Rebecca: That’s nice. So whereabouts in the country do you have this service?

Claire: So we are in Bristol. That’s my hometown. And Bristol also happens to be a particularly foodie city and I’m very proud to have been part of that food culture. It’s been very welcoming to us. We now have about 70 cooks in the Bristol and Bath region selling their food through the platform. But we recently said it has always been go big or go home, and we’ve kind of been kicking the can on the launching a little bit further afield until quite recently where we were runners up for A BBC Food and Farming Award as Food community champion. And this meant that as a result we had a couple of minutes on morning live, BBC, daytime tv. And as a result of that, even though we were presented as a business that was in Bristol, we have had several cook inquiries. And actually there’s no reason why we can’t be doing it everywhere. And so now we are welcoming inquiries from people who are interested in selling their food through the platform from anywhere in the uk. The technology is just the same. We don’t touch the food. We are a suite of tools that makes it happen in a really easy way. I can explain a bit more about that if that’s something you’d like to know more about.

Rebecca: I’m going to do a search when we’ve finished. I’m going to do a search in Edinburgh. Do you have any cooks in Edinburgh yet?

Claire: No one in Edinburgh yet. In fact, this is only just started. We’ve had a waiting list of people waiting for it to happen in other places. But we’ve sort of reframed the offering a little bit because where we add most value and the cooks that are doing really well are the people who are sending their customers from their social media accounts, from their neighbor’s WhatsApps, from the PTA newsletter or the office notice board to go to their all about Cook’s page to choose buy, pay and so on. And they’re the ones who are doing really well and that’s the model that we are following going forward.

Rebecca: And we’ll start again. So tell me about the technology that’s involved in connecting the cooks and the people who buy the Cooks food.

[NOTE: DUE TO TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES, THE REMAINDER OF THE PODCAST DID NOT HAVE AUDIO OF REBECCA ASKING QUESTIONS,  BUT YOU’LL UNDERSTAND EASILY AS CLAIRE DISCUSSES MORE ABOUT HER BUSINESS BELOW…]

Claire: How does it work? What we’ve noticed as we’ve been learning more and more about how people behave is that the cooks that do really well are the people who send their customers from their Facebook groups, from their neighbor’s WhatsApp, from their Instagram to go and look at their menus, order and pay through All About The  Cooks page. So in a way it acts almost like their own website, except it’s much easier for a lay person, somebody who’s probably better at making cakes than tech to use. So all their orders and payments are all managed in a very straightforward way. And if you could think how chaotic it must get if you are taking orders, it’s bad enough in normal life where you’ve got WhatsApp and messages and things on Instagram going backwards and forwards. But if you’ve got food orders coming in on multiple channels, that gets really chaotic. Equally, if you are taking cash for some payments and you have to check the bank transfers before you hand them food over and things like that, that all gets really complicated. So running it all through one source is where we add real value to cooks.

So we’ve tweaked some of the technology to make that even easier so that, I don’t want to say idiot proof, but it’s really straightforward for cooks to use and then they can put themselves on holiday and add new products and things like that quite independently. Yes. Well thank you. It’s going well where we are anyway. And it’ll be really exciting to see some cooks joining from other areas, which is actually launching on the 1st of February. Yes. To my surprise, it was the innovation award of the Southwest, which was particularly pleasing actually, because there are probably a lot more innovative technology organisations that were put forward for it. But as a concept, I think it was for us, it was really lovely to get the innovation award because of the innovation innovative concept that is All About The  cooks. So it was a surprise and I wasn’t well, so I hadn’t even gone to the event.

I might have made the effort if I thought we were going to win. It was very nice to be sitting on my over in my pyjamas getting messages saying You won. Well, yes, and it is true. I do think that what we’re doing is quite new and one of the things that’s innovative is that we are trying very hard to keep it very simple. It’s a concept that isn’t as old as the hills, that the people that are good at certain things within a community do it with the rest of the community.

Claire: Yeah, it’s interesting because we are not a delivery app and that this delivery collection takes place between individuals. What we’ve learned is that well actually we call them the DDIs in the office, the delightful doorstep interactions, and they enrich the whole experience so much. And of all the reviews and feedback that we get about the food, we’re constantly hearing that it was so nice to meet the person who cooked for me or that I cooked for. And this would be quite different, this sort of relationship building. And what we do is pretty hyper-local. You are going around to collect your food. People aren’t, the food isn’t being sent halfway across the country in ice pack boxes. You are finding people who live near you, which is lovely. So we were really keen to retain our social impact wherever we can, which meant that we wanted to keep barriers to entry really low from the outset and at least in the very early stages. So everything at the moment is commission based, but as we start growing, we are likely to bring in a subscription model, which will make a lot more sense for some cooks. And I think it’s quite likely that there’ll be various hybrids as we grow between commission and subscription or thresholds for subscription rates, which is fine. So it is early days for us. So we’ve been based on commission only so far.

So this is something that we’ll be managing really carefully. So while we are talking about being across the UK, part of that is to demonstrate that it works. It’s not just people who know me, this is just not my mom and her friends who are all doing food. This is people who have no relationship to us. And that’s a really important part of our investor proposition actually, the fact that it will work in this organic way. So that’s part of the next step that we’ve got to prove out. We’re confident it will because there are people on the platform who are doing that already. So yes, we’re calling it a soft launch because we’re still at a learning stage, so we’re not going to suddenly next week take in thousands of new cooks. That would be silly. So we’d be doing it in a phased way.

And part of that is to make the investment proposition sound so that we can do it really well when we do it in a very broadcast way. Yes, exactly. And there are plenty of those now. It isn’t just my mom and her friends, but yeah, it is that sort of magical thing that we want to see how it happens organically. So that week was one of the worst of my life, I have to say, because cash as I’m sure that will resonate with many people, cash is our biggest challenge and continues to be our biggest challenge. And 2023 was tricky, very flat and very just not a lack of optimism around. And it was getting more and more difficult and the cash was getting tighter and tighter. I’d put the team on notice.

The notice had expired, but they were still checking in. We’ve moved out of the office and I was just thinking, well, that’s it. That was it. We tried. And then there was one person who just kept nagging at me. He said, if I invest, I’ll do something chunky. And I’d sent him a few emails and I thought he was just freezing me out and I just sent one more and he came back and said, oh, I’ve been away. Sorry, I should have told you. Yeah, I’m in. And it was just, I thought, oh my God. So I did have other offers, but I didn’t want to take any money if I didn’t think it was enough to make a difference. I didn’t want to take enough to just to bias us a few months runway that would’ve been unethical apart from anything else. But it’s also, I need these people on site.

We have to be do the right thing. And so it was brilliant that he got to be the rock star. That meant that pushed us over the edge to what was a workable amount of money. And we will be raising in 2024 and hopefully we’ll have a bit more to say for ourselves with the National Soft Launch this week. It’s a mixture really. So yes, we do have an advisory board and we have investors on that. Some of them add great value, others are quite happy to just sort of watch and offer words of encouragement and that’s fine too. It’s been really, really interesting. And we’ve also got advisors who aren’t necessarily investors. So it’s quite a mixture, but I do find us as effect here as sole founders, quite a challenge. And it is been useful to have plenty of people with different skills around that I can bring up and say Fancy a coffee. That’s been quite useful. I wouldn’t be doing this on my own of choice really, but it’s just the way it worked out. No, it’s hard, but I’m not completely on my own. And the team, although it’s very small, is great. So we have three main people on the team and we are very collaborative and I need them, they’re great.

At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I think that one of the things about All About The  Cooks actually is it sounds really sort of warm and fluffy. There’s a lot of stuff that totally stacks up in terms of exits. And our addressable market is over 5 billion even for the core of what we do, because we have such a broad demographic in our cooks and our sellers, what we’ll have is a pool of people with a certain interest who are very valuable to a lot of other businesses too. So I can see that there could be some sort of trade sale in the future. I can see that there will be a stage where the business would’ve gone as far as I can take it, and that it might be better in the hands of people who have the infrastructure to take it and really make the most of it and let them roll with it. And that’s fine too. So I’m really open-minded about what that looks like. It would be very arrogant for me to rule anything out at this stage, wouldn’t it? I can understand that, yeah.

Oh goodness. That’s really interesting. I tend to think about food and if we could choose a food ambassador, and if I talk, so 75% of our cooks are female, and 80% of our cooks are from diverse backgrounds. And I think that there are people who have somebody like Asma Khan who has women working in her restaurants. It’s about home cooked food and importantly, it’s about women cooking home cooked food rather than men cooking in restaurants. But that’s where the ethos and everything that she believes in has come through. So I would say that she would be a full food role model.

It is interesting to think of our business a character, it’s definitely not Gordon Ramsey. So when I say we are soft, we’re not as soft and fluffy as we meet, but we’re not quite the other side either. So it’s funny you should say that because I do, I am very a great advocate of Nadia Hussein, who I think has, she’s brilliant because she’s not only herself as a cook, but what she’s, her role model is for Muslim women, but also as a mental health ambassador as well. I think I’m a great fan of hers. So there are so many people doing great things, actually. It’s an inspiring place to be. Yes, and you’d have to be slightly more organised to do that. You’d have to think about it and give them some time to cook it for you. But yes, and we certainly see people are using us in that way and for parties and things that we are having people have a 40th birthday and have an Indian party or a Middle Eastern tapas or something. Yeah. Yes, please do. She sounds really typical of our sort of low hanging fruit cook. Somebody who’s already doing it a bit might like to do it a bit more, wishing it was a bit more organised.

Thank you very much. Really nice to meet you, Rebecca. See you again.