How business.connected and online resources helped Ela Teague launch Cook Eat Joy.
Business.connected in partnership with Enterprise Nation is an extensive online training programme that will help 150,000 small businesses boost their digital skills. The free 12-month initiative - delivered exclusively online and consisting of workshops, webinars and e-learning modules - will empower businesses to kickstart digital change, adopt new technology, and stay safe online.
We’re catching up with some of the business owners who have been taking part in the initiative to find out about how it’s benefited them so far.
Here, we talk to Ela Teague, whose business Cook Eat Joy teaches cookery skills to people who want to learn more about Gujarati Indian food. Ela tells us how online resources provided by programmes like business.connected were invaluable when she was making the switch from school teaching to running her own food business.
You were a schoolteacher for many years before you started Cook Eat Joy. What made you switch careers?
I taught IT and computer science in secondary schools for 18 years. During that time, I had children, and when that happens life takes you in different directions. I went part-time at work but began to feel side-lined and frustrated.
I wanted to be able to focus on my family and still have a fulfilling career where I could use my brain! So, I gradually reduced my working hours, to the point where I had a full day off every week. That's when I purposely started to think about what I wanted to do, because I knew I couldn't sustain teaching for another 25 years.
So, I'd spend those days off cooking, Indian food specifically. I was thinking about how much I enjoyed eating the food I grew up with. My food heritage is Gujarati Indian, so it's mainly vegetarian and vegan, without trying to be. My mum taught me how to cook from a young age, and as a mum myself I really wanted to encourage my kids to learn more about our family food heritage.
When we did birthday parties for the kids, I'd do the cooking. When we had friends over, I'd cook Indian food, and they'd ask, 'How do you make this?' And when I was teaching, we'd have work lunches where people would bring food in, and I'd always bring food I'd made at home. Even when people invited me to their houses for dinner, they'd ask me to cook!
When did the idea for the business arise?
At that point, pre-COVID, I started to go to face-to-face networking. I live in Enfield, North London, so I found a few that were local to me. At that point I didn't really have a business idea, but it was more to find out what I could do. Talking to the different women there, I realised that many of them had been in my position, working in jobs but feeling dissatisfied with what they were doing.
Some of the businesses they'd started were really random, and I thought if they can make a go of it doing something that I see as super niche, maybe I could do it. So, I started to do research.
Where did you go for your research?
There's an organisation here called Enterprise Enfield, which helps people who are thinking about starting a business. They have free workshops and things you can attend. Through them, I accessed an EU-funded programme called Inspiring Women. That was a three-month crash course on all aspects of business, from writing a business plan to doing finances to marketing. It gave me a great starting point.
I reached a point where I was asking myself, "Do I want to do this as a bit of a side business or do I want to really commit to it?" I spoke with my husband about whether we could afford for me to do it. And he said just go for it.
As a former teacher, you can always go back to it. I could do the business for a year and if it didn't work out, I could return to teaching. So that's how it all began. I stopped teaching in July 2019 and by September had started the business.
Did you feel ready? What were your strengths and weaknesses at that time?
I didn’t feel ready, but I thought if I don't do it now, I'm never going to. I felt like I had enough background knowledge to get started. I knew there were some things I was going to have to learn quickly as I went. There was so much support online – like the business.connected courses and workshops and so on – that it made it easier.
My strengths lay in knowing what I wanted to do for the recipes, and the cooking skill I had. My IT skills are good because I taught it in schools for so long. I got my website done myself, for example. I also thought I could write a business strategy I could work through that to develop a full business plan
Like many small business owners, I felt my weaknesses were probably in understanding the finances of my business. I could create a spreadsheet but keeping on top of it and making sure I had all the right information and calculating costs according to portions of ingredients was very difficult I also struggled with the marketing and PR aspect of running a business. I hadn't used Instagram before, so I had to understand what kind of content to post and how to vary it to keep things interesting. also had to tackle getting over my own self-consciousness so I could video myself. I'm still struggling with that!
How did it go in those early weeks and months?
I was doing supper clubs in the beginning. Catering wasn't my focus, but it was a way to get people interested in my food and perhaps wanting to learn how to cook it. A PR exercise of sorts.
By February 2020, I was doing my first big cooking lesson in a local café. There were about 12 people and they all cooked a couple of dishes and then we sat down and ate them together. Actually, one of the biggest benefits was that the women who attended –were all women and many of them were single older ladies who didn't usually get chance to eat with anyone else. Most of the time they eat alone, at home, so for them to be able to cook in a group and then sit down to eat with other people was really nice. That was a benefit I hadn't expected. People made friends that evening.
Once COVID came, it all changed. I moved the classes online. But I also did a local takeaway, which started quite randomly. A parent of my son's friend was bored of eating from the takeaways near us and asked me whether I'd mind cooking for them. They would pay me to cook a different meal to what they'd been eating regularly.
The woman posted it on her social media account, and then loads of my neighbours saw it and asked me whether I was offering takeaway food now! I hadn't planned on doing but that became a weekly thing. It was really good in terms of sustaining the business, by using social media, it kept me in people's minds.
What's a typical day like now?
I don't have one as such, but I always try to plan social media posts at the beginning of the week. If I have cooking lessons booked, I spend a lot of time in the supermarket, sourcing all my ingredients. Then I spend quite some time gathering recipes, testing them. On Fridays I'll try getting through my admin, making sure I'm up to date with all the food regulations, logging orders, transferring everything into my spreadsheet.
I also work with a couple of charities. An Enfield charity called Cooking Champions, who I was helping during COVID, helped provide food parcels for people in the community. I've continued that, so once a week or fortnight I'll prep loads of food, put it all together and package it. Then Cooking Champions distributes it to families.
And once a month I make lunch for a local dementia group. They meet and do quizzes and things like that, just to keep them active.
What does the future have in store for your business?
Short term, I'll keep pushing my local classes. Medium to long term, I'd like to find venues where I can host bigger classes more regularly. At the moment, I teach either in my own home or at people's houses. But I have a family and I've reached that point where I can't keep shoving them out of their home every time, I have strangers round for a cooking lesson!
I also want to focus on corporate business. I've done a few team-building events for local companies. There aren't many big businesses in Enfield but I'll keep trying to get more corporate clients as it's a nice way of earning money. Ideally, I'd use some of that money for the charity work as it's good to give back.
A lot of businesses, particularly larger companies, are focusing more on diversity now. And one way of breaking down barriers is food. I think a lot of people understand food more than they understand each other sometimes. They eat something and want to know a more about its heritage. And through that, they begin to understand the other people they work with.
Eventually, I'd like to have a premise that serves as a community kitchen. A space where I and other people could teach cooking. In many London boroughs, there are lots of people living in temporary accommodation. They don't have proper cooking facilities or places to sit and eat. To be able to provide a kitchen where they could come and cook and eat would be great.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who's considering starting their own business?
If you have an idea, don't wait for the right time. Because it never comes. If you have something you're passionate about and you think could work, go for it. But remember to do your research!
When I started, I did a lot of competitor research on the different cookery schools out there. I spoke to a couple of women, one in Manchester and one in Worcester. I asked them loads of questions about finances and marketing and food hygiene. So understanding your audience and potential customers is key.
Another key thing to embrace is networking. I found that really useful. During the pandemic there was a lot of online stuff, but now face-to-face ones are starting up again. There are so many free networking groups you can join
And what I've found is that you don't go there to sell, you go just to meet people. They may not be your target market, but later they might mention your business to someone who is your target market. I got an article in an Asian wedding magazine and that was through networking. So, it definitely works.
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