Every Friday we will be publishing a Q&A with the founder(s) of a successful SME to learn about their start-up journey, what worked (and what didn’t, if applicable), how they overcame the biggest hurdle they encountered in getting off the ground, and how they have developed their business.
This week we spoke to Sophie Gilliat, co-founder alongside Katherine Westwood, of The Dinner Ladies – an enterprise delivering dinners to time-poor families with a love of home-cooked food.
ISB: How does The Dinner Ladies concept work?
SG: We offer a range of staple meals that are permanently available and a weekly-changing menu of specials. The most cost-effective way to benefit from our service is to order for a whole week. Families are our primary focus so the menu is very kid-friendly, after all I have three kids of my own and Katherine four! 75 per cent of customers are families with kids, but growing numbers of younger couples and singles, and some retired people who really appreciate decent, home-cooked food but are fed up with cooking after all these years, are using our service.
ISB: How and when did The Dinner Ladies come about?
SG: A friend of mine who was overworked and dealing with young kids said she’d be prepared to pay for home-cooked meals delivered to her door. The only comparable product at the time was a diet product but nobody was doing decent home-cooked food. Katherine and I started cooking in a shed in her backyard in 2007.
ISB: How did you fund the enterprise in its start-up phase?
SG: We invested $400 each from our own savings to buy metal tables from IKEA, a camp stove and a couple of big metal pots, and we borrowed a fridge from a friend. Ten years on we 30 staff altogether in a 500 sq ft production kitchen in Matraville on the north shore of Botany Bay in Sydney’s south. The business basically finances itself, the only bank finance being that we obtained for the premises.
ISB: Has the move to a bigger base extended The Dinner Ladies’ reach?
SG: In last couple of months we have expanded our service offering from metropolitan Sydney to cover the Illawarra, the Central Coast, southern highlands and Canberra. In July we’re moving into the Melbourne market, still doing all the cooking in Matraville and freighting the dinners down to a frozen goods depot in Victoria twice a week.
ISB: What was the single biggest challenge the faced in going from concept to reality?
SG: Early days the issues were practical – such as how do you rapidly cool large volumes of hot food safely. The logistics of delivering the food, they have four vans, when perhaps customers are not home when they said they would be etc. Now the company has grown to such an extent, the challenge is managing a larger organization and everything that goes with that.
ISB: So, you’ve had to upscale significantly and now cook 12,000 dinners a week, what has been the key driver of this growth?
SG: Predominately word of mouth, we could probably do more with our marketing but to date we just haven’t needed to. The expansion into Melbourne, for example, came about as a result of friends and family of our NSW customers living in the Victorian capital saying, “what a great idea, why can’t we get a similar offering down here?”
ISB: Finally, what was the most important business lesson you have learned on The Dinner Ladies journey to pass on to others with an idea they’d like to turn into a business?
SG: Our experience tells us that getting your prime offering right is key – concentrate on making a great product and providing it with great customer service, if you get those aspects right everything else is far more likely to fall into place from there.