I strongly believe that one of the best ways to learn about setting up a new food business is to hear from those who have gone before you. This post is the first in a series of articles showcasing food businesses. Some of the businesses showcased will be well established and running for years while others will be new businesses who are forging ahead and creating their own niche in the food sector.
Who is Messy Faces?
First cab off the rank is Messy Faces, which is owned and run by Victoria and Emma. Victoria and Emma set up Messy Faces for fellow parents who are struggling to feed their children healthy meals in a busy life. Messy Face delivers healthy and ethical ready meals to familites in Melbourne who want to eat better.
What makes Messy Faces stand out from other ready meals is Victoria and Emma’s commitment to the quality and taste of their food. They have created delicious meals for children including fish pies, tuna mornay and apricot chicken risotto. As well as the taste, they have also focused on making sure the ingredients they use are ethical, sustainable and teach children healthy eating habits. Unlike a lot of ready meals available, they don’t use caramel or added salt. And there is no hiding of vegetables here. Instead vegetables are served in tasty sauces. Sustainable products are used including free range chicken and dolphin friendly tuna. Victoria and Emma have focused time and effort in to researching ingredients that reflect their values.
I sat down and chatted to Victoria and Emma about their experiences in setting up their business.
Setting up the Business
I was interested in finding out what Victoria and Emma were doing before they set up their business and whether they had a family history of business ownership. Messy Faces is the first business for both of them. Victoria has experience working in business development for engineering companies and before starting Messy Faces was working as an environmental insurance broker while Emma was a paediatric nurse. Neither has a family history of small business though Victoria’s father has been involved in setting up a school and founding a charity.
While neither had experience in running a business, Victoria certainly enjoyed cooking and wanted to set up her own
business. Both were looking for something to do that would fit in better with caring for after their children.
Victoria and Emma met in a mothers group after having their second children. They were finding it difficult to feed their children good healthy food – more difficult than after their first children. And as with so many good business ideas, Messy Faces was developed as a solution to this problem.
But I don’t want this to seem like a quick process. Victoria and Emma took over 8 months planning the business, making sure it would work and doing it right.
The business is very much at team effort. While Emma and Victoria have split up some of the tasks, with Emma looking after bookkeeping and Victoria the website, the big task is the cooking and both are involved in this. They may look at splitting tasks up more formally as the business grows but for now it is a team effort with support from family. On the day I spoke to Emma and Victoria, a father-in-law had been out delivering leaflets, and both do deliveries.
Getting up and running: Food safety
For many people interested in setting up a food business, food safety can often be a stumbling block. I asked Victoria and Emma what they were doing to ensure the safety of their food.
The first step in the process was finding out what the requirements were and Emma completing the food safety supervisor training required by the Victorian government. (There are different requirements depending on where you are located and what you are selling so make sure you research this thoroughly.)
Victoria and Emma have found the rules relatively easy to follow, because they are so prescriptive. They have had specific challenges in making sure their meals are delivered and remain at a safe temperature for the required period. But they have found the right products to ensure this and conduct testing on deliveries to check everything is work as expected.
Finding a place to prepare their meals was more difficult as they required a commercial kitchen that had appropriate freezer space to store their food. They looked at a shared kitchen but it was not cost effective with the freezer space they needed. Victoria and Emma have overcome this challenge by approaching a friend with a weekday café, who has allowed them to use the café after hours. If you are looking at setting up a food business it is worth investigating all options, this could be getting your home kitchen registered – difficult but not impossible, hiring space in purpose built shared kitchen, hiring your own commercial kitchen – expensive when just setting up and looking for commercial kitchens that are not fully utilized such as a café that is only open weekdays.
Getting up and running: Funding
If you don’t need to hire a kitchen and lots of expensive equipment, setting up a food business can be a relatively low cost start up. That is not to say there aren’t costs but with some savings, they can often be set up without seeking outside funding. This was certainly the case for Victoria and Emma who have self-funded their business for well under $10,000. They acknowledge they are lucky that their husbands are the main income earners in their families and so aren’t going to go bankrupt with the business.
Emma and Victoria are not yet turning a profit but hope to achieve that in the next 12 months. Key to their plans of not getting in to trouble with the business has been to start off small and grow slowly.
Getting up and running: Challenges
While the setup of Messy Faces has gone well, it has not been without challenges and problems. The biggest financial mistake they have made was ordering packaging from overseas. While the packaging was cheap, they weren’t up to speed on the importing requirements. This led to delays in getting the goods out of customs and paying storage costs. They are now looking at sourcing all items from Australia if they can.
Packaging was also a challenge in terms of finding packaging that represented their values. Emma and Victoria wanted recycled packaging that reflected their values of sustainability that they were also promoting with the food they were selecting. They wanted to take a holistic approach to the product. They have now found packaging that meets their requirements, is cost effective and is a selling point for their product.
Sourcing the ingredients in a cost effective manner has also been challenging. For Victoria and Emma it was important that their ingredients were ethical and sustainable such as free range chicken. But these ingredients are also more expensive and Messy Faces is not yet large enough to access wholesalers. But They have stuck to their guns and have managed to make the pricing work while not compromising on the quality of their ingredients.
But perhaps their biggest worry was making sure they didn’t make a child ill. But having done their research they are now much more comfortable with the food safety side of things.
What they love about being in business
Victoria and Emma have had challenges in setting up the business, so I asked them what was it they loved about running their business that made facing these challenges worthwhile. The overwhelming response from both was the reward of being in charge. Unlike in large organisations, in their small business the rewards were reflecting the effort they were putting in.
They both love the thrill of having their own business and still get a buzz of excitement when they make a new sale. It is the joy of seeing a functioning business.
Growing the Business
Even with their philosophy of starting small and growing slowly, Victoria and Emma are already planning for the
growth of their business, something you would expect from a team who have undertaken such careful research in setting up their business. Looking to the future, both would love to have their own kitchen, a long term goal. But in the short term they are investigating other ways to sell their products as delivering is an expensive method of getting product to customers. They are looking at getting in to specialty stores as an achievable next step to take. And profit after 12 months in business is a key goal.
But with growing their business, Emma and Victoria are not ignoring why they got into business in the first place, to create a family friendly work environment. So the growth plans are taking into account that they won’t go full time until their children are at school.
Advice to others
My last question was what advice would they give to others looking to set up their own food business. I was answered with a resounding ‘Just do it, take the risk’. This was then tempered by the advice to make sure you do your research, look at problems and competitors and test your product to death.
And perhaps most importantly stick to your philosophy and values.
Finally a thank you to Victoria and Emma for making the time to talk to me. If you are in Melbourne, support a local food business and pop over to their website to order some marvelous healthy meals for your children. You won’t regret it.