The Edible Flower: Five Years In

I can hardly believe I’m writing this. Five years! The Edible Flower is five years old on 26th July 2021 and I’m delighted to say we’re still here – still standing and remarkably, still feeling hopeful about the future.

This last year (and particularly Spring 2021) has been by far the hardest of those five. We’ve now spent half a decade working our hardest, day after day, trying to turn the things that we’re passionate about, and the things we believe in, into a viable business – and to be honest, we’re exhausted.

We know we’re supposed to be “living the dream”. But when it still doesn’t add up, it’s very easy to just work harder and longer. We put ourselves under constant pressure to work smarter – to make everything more efficient, to make things more valuable to our customers, to think outside the box. There is no annoying boss or corporate structure to blame here at The Edible Flower. It’s all on us.

Five Years In – A Financial Summary

Here are the numbers for the last 5 years…

225 jobs including; 8,024 people fed, 45 supper clubs, 18 weddings catered.
Lockdown side-projects including: 270kg of salad leaves, 70 vegetable boxes, 106 edible flower cakes & 80 Christmas hampers.
Total income – £255k
Total costs – £184k
“Profit” (our combined salary for 5 years of work and pain and graft) – £71k

So that’s about £7k each per year on average – less in the last 12 months. And this Spring, as events started being cancelled and postponed for the second year running, it definitely didn’t feel like enough. We came so very close to giving it all up – partly because of the lack of income, but more because of how our business and its lack of financial success was making us feel.

Obviously, for anyone in a hospitality business, the last 18 months have been difficult. The planning and replanning, postponements and cancellations are unbelievably time-consuming, energy-sapping and depressing. However, there appears to be more fundamental issues with our business.

Here’s the thing. Almost everything we do, we find it is relatively easy to make around £10ph for the time we put directly into creating the thing but really quite hard to make more than that. And when you take overheads into account (insurance, electricity, equipment, website hosting, ink cartridges, cleaning products etc) we make less than £10ph (£5.00ph last year, to be exact).

So that makes it hard to pay someone else to do the thing, especially because 1) we like doing the thing, 2) we’re fast and good at doing the thing 3) we would make a loss if we paid someone else a decent wage to do it for us. So rather than getting help, it makes sense to do everything ourselves.

In some ways, this is brilliant. Back in London, when I had a good job and a good salary it didn’t make sense to do everything myself. It made sense to pay people to do things, and if I wanted or needed something, it made sense to buy it. But now, that doesn’t add up.

I really love fixing things, making things from scratch, growing things, using what we have already to make something new and useful. It means that our lives are more sustainable (by far!) and more interesting, but these things take time and energy.

When it feels like you can’t afford to pay anyone to help you with anything it’s pretty exhausting – you work longer and harder. As you get more exhausted, it can feel like there is no way anything can ever be simple or easy ever again. It’s easy to doubt your value and your abilities.

Erin is a fabulous cook. I think she strikes just the perfect balance of familiar comfort and surprising awesomeness in her food. She (and the gradual process of learning to produce food from scratch) has turned me from a very keen cook with a fairly traditional palette (very much a meat-every-meal-girl, a decade ago) into someone who absolutely loves vegetables and absolutely believes that nutritious, veggie-led, sustainable food doesn’t have to be in any way a compromise on flavour or joy.

I see it as a big part of my job to support Erin’s brilliance – by growing the veg, feeding the pigs, sorting out the finances and receipts, paying the bills, fixing the printer, costing up the recipes, ordering ingredients, taking out the bins etc (I’ve made it sound like Erin is a total diva – she’s not at all. She works just as hard as me). What I’m trying to get across is that I see it as my job to be in this supporting role and make sure we have a plan and make money from the jobs we do. And earlier this year, I definitely felt like I’d failed us. I didn’t doubt that our food, our salad bags or cakes or our recipes weren’t good. I just doubted we would ever be able to make a living from them.

Here are the (mainly non-covid related) issues with The Edible Flower as a business:

  1. We don’t want to charge more for catering / supper clubs. Partly because we’re scared, but also we always have accessibility arguments at the ready – i.e. good, clean, fair food shouldn’t be just available for rich people.
  2. We have too many projects on the go – edible flower cakes, growing and selling salad, growing vegetables / veg boxes, edible flowers, pressed flowers, our little Airbnb studio, supper clubs, cooking classes, brewing workshops, gardening workshops, private catering, food deliveries, online talks – to mention a few.
    Some are a result of lockdown forcing us to think again, but many are just because we think there is joy and value in diverse streams of interconnected work.
  3. None of our projects make us any profit. They make us money, i.e. they bring in income, but that’s not the same as profit. Profit is money left over once we’ve paid everyone including us.

We knew we had to sort it out before we started to resent every early morning, every pile of washing up and every tricky email.

Three things have happened since then that make everything feel a lot more positive.

1. The End Of Catering

Firstly, we have decided to give up private catering. For a few years we’ve been debating this, but the decision is now made.

For a while, I thought catering would (and should) be the profitable bit of our business – with all the other workstreams (supper clubs, workshops, growing vegetables etc) playing a supporting role. We know that catering could be profitable if we expanded what we do, streamlined our offer, hired a catering manager and others, and catered multiple events each week. However, it’s not what we love the most. We don’t want it enough to do it every day. Even if we employed lots of people to run it for us, it would always take a huge percentage of our mental energy to oversee it all.

We love our supper clubs, workshops and classes. Doing catering as well doesn’t leave us with enough time or energy to focus on those – not to mention the fact that wedding catering jobs get booked up months or years in advance.

Catering has (until lockdown) been an increasingly large bit of our business (see the red chunk in the graph above). In fact, more than half of our total 5-year turnover of £255k is from catering jobs – a total income of £138k of catering jobs. It’s a pretty big deal to stop them entirely, but although on paper it feels like they make us money, in reality it’s the catering jobs that involve so much of the extra unpaid work that we don’t like and don’t record – like preparing quotes and planning for jobs that don’t happen.

I’m so thoroughly proud of all the parties and gatherings we’ve catered for (especially all the ones post-twins when I was suddenly running the kitchen on no sleep for several months). And I’ll tell you one thing, catering a few weddings for 100 plus guests doesn’t half make other tasks in life seem like a breeze. Everyone should do it!

2. A New (Old) Kitchen & Teaching Space

Secondly, we made the decision to commit (pretty much) all our remaining savings to renovating two of our old crumbling outbuildings into a catering kitchen. Again, we’ve been debating this for ages, planning it for years, but now the decision is made and it feels good. It may seem like a mad thing to do – to build a catering kitchen just in time for giving up private catering. However, we know that whatever our business becomes, we will still want to cook food for people, teach people to cook (and grow) and share our love of food and we need a space (outside of our home) in which to do that – as our two girls get bigger it’s increasingly difficult to run the business from our own domestic kitchen.

The plan is to use the new kitchen to run supper clubs, cooking classes and workshops. But even if that plan changes in a few years, we know that we’re creating a brilliant new space with a structurally sound and water-tight roof that will be useful for decades to come. One day (pretty soon I hope) I can stop worrying about the buildings falling down and worrying about non-existent and leaking guttering.

Katie Stringer’s (from Studio Idir) impression of our new kitchen, drawn almost 2 years ago!

3. The Return of The Supper Club

And thirdly, finally, there was our Summer Solstice supper club. It was the first supper club we’d done for almost 18 months. The 85 tickets sold out in minutes (thank you so much everyone), the weather was fab. We were back in our cow byre, feeding people again – sharing the food and recipes we love. It really was a joy.

Sharon Cosgrove took some fab photos (as usual) at our Solstice Supper Club

All of those people who have been disappointed to not get tickets to our supper clubs so far this summer (we know you exist – many have messaged us!) will be glad to know that next year, we plan to do lots more supper clubs. It’s one of the things we love the most and we hope by scaling up (hopefully much easier once we have the new kitchen), doing more of them, 3 or 4 nights instead of 1 or 2 nights, we might actually be able to make money from them.

A sensible friend (Naomi Leon) once said, when you pay a professional £50ph for their time – you’re not really paying them £50 for an hour’s work, you’re paying them for the decade of experience that enables them to do what they do in that hour. But, however much of an expert I become, it’s not feasible to pay me £50ph to sow, harvest or peel carrots.

A big bit of what we do here is to produce food from our land and process that food into delicious meals for people – we don’t want to stop doing that. But we do need to think about including some scalable, profitable aspects of the business. To revisit my carrot metaphor, to make money I need to oversee a lot of people picking or peeling carrots (we don’t want to run a massive farm or massive catering company so that’s not really an option) or, I need to inspire and teach people about carrots (in this hypothetical world of me being a carrot expert, which I’m not).

Inspiring people or sharing knowledge is scalable. Teaching a room of 20 people to cook something new is about the same amount of work as teaching a room of 50 people. And if you venture online, there is potential to talk to a virtual room of hundreds. If you write something down that is of value your customers, there is potential to reach thousands.

But to achieve any of that, we need to have time to develop this side of our business. To write things down, figure out what is of value to our customers and scale our influence, so that hundreds of people might one day want to learn from our experiences, cook our recipes or buy something we’ve written.

Demeter & Persephone (our greenhouses) looking fab in the solstice sunlight

For now, we’re in the middle of a stupidly busy summer with weddings and catering jobs, supper clubs, Twilight Gardening workshops, a week in England to see my family (can not wait!), weekly dawn salad picking and regular cake-making. Soon we’ll be adding to the chaos with a major construction project on site (hopefully – we’re currently trying to save £20k or so by redesigning the roof).

This business started with two people (Erin and me) with a passion for good food, on a mission to explore what “good food” means. It feels like, for a while there, we got a bit lost – covid definitely did not help. But we’re both looking forward to a relatively quiet winter of planning, scheming and construction works, and a 2023 packed full of supper clubs, feasting and joy.

If you, like us, run a small business and have been really, really struggling this year, I hope that this has given you a wee bit of hope to keep going, keep trying to think about what really matters and to give yourself a break once in a while.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

In case you’re new to the Edible Flower, here are my financial summaries from all our previous birthdays:

9 thoughts on “The Edible Flower: Five Years In

  1. I love reading these emails Jo! They are SO relatable. Thankyou so much for sharing and for inspiring me to put pen to paper and rethink the issues I have been ignoring/just blaming covid for.
    All the best and here’s to the future at Edible Flower x

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    1. Thanks Sarah. That’s really nice to hear. I feel it’s so easy to look at other people’s businesses and feel like they have it all sorted and figured out. x

      Like

  2. And yet in the midst of all of this hard work and financial pressures you still found the time to show immense generosity to the Larder and those who use it. The world needs more people like you both. I hope this year you find your sweet spot. x

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  3. So inspirational, and very brave too. Wishing you ongoing success.
    It’s a shame we aren’t nearer, but always talk about your wonderful supper clubs in London. Maybe we’ll get to come and stay in your Airbnb one day.

    Like

  4. You have articulated so well, in your own situation the constant challenges of being self employed and trying to find the pleasure of work and financial stability and also a home life balance that makes the hard work worth it. Keep going as what you do has great foundations for continuing to build something unique and successful

    Like

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