Two Years In – The True Cost of Food

This week, on the 26 July 2018, The Edible Flower is two years old. Happy Birthday to Us!

After the amazing response to last year’s “One Year In” blog, we thought we’d follow up a year later with something similar, though no VAT discussions in this one!….

To date, The Edible Flower has cooked 4,293 meals. We’ve bought and prepared £25,434 of ingredients (not including the many kilos of organic vegetables and salad we’ve grown). A big part of what we do is make decisions about what food we buy.

 

It turns out that buying food is a very tricky thing to do when you want to do it right. It feels like everything we buy has some hidden cost. It’s our job to figure out the best compromise, while trying to make a living out of what we love.

The Hidden Costs of Food

Food is cheap. Fifty years ago we used to spend, on average, a third of our income on food – now it’s down to as little as 10%. So it should be easier than ever for us to feed ourselves well. And yet it’s never been harder. With the abundance of food choices available to many of us, and endless “advice” on what is good and bad, it’s never been more difficult to make a decision about what we should or shouldn’t be eating.

Things that Jo worries about all the time….

  • The Soil – Humans are depleting the world’s soil. Organic is good, but not THE answer.
  • Energy Costs – Food makes up about 20% of our carbon footprint. The stats vary but (according to the awesome Michael Pollan at least) each calorie of food takes 10 calories of energy to produce. Madness
  • Chickens and Pigs – We’re lucky in NI to have access to amazing grass-fed beef. The same can’t be said of chicken and pigs. It’s easy/tempting to ignore but I don’t want to be eating animals that have had a terrible life.
  • Humans – The food production, food processing and hospitality industries are full of poorly paid, undesirable jobs. I wish they weren’t.
  • Plastic – Packaging. Do I need to say any more?
  • The Health of Our Nation – Erin and I (cue smug face) avoid processed food and eat a good balance of pretty much everything else. And we’re both lucky enough to have a good, healthy relationship with food. We eat food, we stay alive and healthy, and we love it. However, it feels in generally the diets of the western world are storing up some pretty dreadful health issues (both physical and mental) for us all to deal with in the decades to come.

When you buy cheap food, processed food, well-travelled food, almost any food, there are inevitably these hidden costs – maybe all of them, maybe just some of them. We would love to buy everything local, unpackaged, organic, free-range, artisan and free-trade but that often isn’t an option, and even if it was, we’d be the most expensive catering company ever! It’s a stressful business, this catering lark! A careful balancing act.

Understanding The True Cost of Food

We’ve spent the last two years exploring what it takes to produce food. Growing vegetables and fruit. Raising animals for meat. Making cheese. Producing sea salt. Pickling. Foraging. Literally blood, sweat and (so many) tears have gone into this journey. Making food, from scratch, with no hidden costs, is exhausting, time-consuming, skilled and infuriating. But ultimately the most satisfying thing we can think of to do with our lives.

 

But we didn’t just cry, bleed and sweat for the last 12 months. Here are the headlines from Year 2 of The Edible Flower:

  • We got some help! Shannon (our event organiser) started working for us 3 days a week. Catherine (our garden helper) started working half a day each week.
  • We got pigs.
  • Ottolenghi came to one of our supper clubs (I know!!!!!!!!!)
  • We launched our grandly-titled “Future of Food” supper club series, exploring some of the issues above.
  • We built a clay pizza oven in our cow byre.
  • We ran our first ever cooking classes, twilight gardening sessions, pizza evenings and more homebrew workshops.
  • We got pregnant (yes – in case you didn’t know – Erin is pregnant with twins, due at the end of September – The Edible Flower is expanding in many ways!).

And of course, loads of interesting catering jobs and supper clubs keeping us entertained almost every weekend of the year.

photo-2018-05-31-17-21-57.jpgPhoto credit: Martha + Pine Photography

Two Years In – A financial overview

In two years we’ve created a business, with a cumulative turnover of £102k and a “profit” of £18k. Comparing to last year, we’ve done a little bit better in terms of turnover, but much better in terms of profit – £4k profit in Year 1, £14k in Year 2, so over three times better. We’re definitely heading in the right direction.

So, what has changed? We are charging a bit more for what we do (you may have noticed are supper clubs are regularly £40 per person now, an increase of £5 or so) but the main thing we’ve done is turn down the jobs that take hundreds of hours but make us very little money.

Income Piechart

The chart above shows what kind of things we do to make money. You may wish to compare it to the cumulative income chart in last year’s blog. The proportions aren’t very different – about 1/3 of our income from supper clubs, 1/2 on catering jobs of various sizes and the rest from other little bits and pieces.

Great stuff you might think!

However, that £18k of profit is on the basis that two people (Erin and me) are working their arses off full-time (and then some) for free. If you run those numbers again, including our time spent working directly on events at minimum wage (£7.83 per hour), The Edible Flower would have made an overall loss of £28k in those two years. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of hours spent running the business, doing social media, designing and creating a website, blogging, growing vegetables, brewing, testing recipes, doing the finances, preparing catering quotes, stressing about GDPR, insurance, and all that fun stuff…

It’s not that we mind working hard, doing what we love for not much money. It’s almost worth it for the leftovers. The issue is that we want to pay staff a decent wage and we want to expand. I fluctuate constantly between thinking we’re doing something brilliant, really well and should keep going – and thinking we’re idiots kidding ourselves and we should just go and get a proper job!

From October (when the twins arrive) we simply won’t be able to both work for the business for free. This will force us to prioritise, get more help from others (watch out in the next few weeks – we are recruiting) and will no doubt change everything.

Some Options….

  • Charge more – We definitely need to get our pricing right. But it’s a constant stress and battle explaining to people why things cost what they do. We will charge more eventually, but hopefully always have a range of price points for Edible Flower events.
  • Buy cheaper food – Not really an option (see above). Sorry.
  • Hire cheaper staff – We pay our staff more than minimum wage. We expect our staff to be totally awesome (and they are – we are very lucky). We don’t want minimum standards of service and behaviour from our staff so we’re not about to pay them less.
  • Scale up – Yup. That’s the plan! Spread our overheads over more jobs, more events priced right. One day it’ll all add up…. Right?!

What to expect next year…

Well, none of this means anything unless we keep on producing delicious, inspiring food. Expect more fab supper clubs and workshops – especially at our place in Saintfield. Expect more vegetables (perhaps also mushrooms) that you can actually buy from us.  Expect chickens.

And always expect more beer. We’re going to need it.

edibleflower_-101Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

3 thoughts on “Two Years In – The True Cost of Food

  1. Excellent and very interesting review of the first 2 years. Particularly enjoyed the refreshing openness about business finances and pricing.
    Pricing is one of the hardest things in business, I am glad you can make the essential decisions to raise prices.
    Good luck for the next exciting months and your home grown workforce!

    Like

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