Cait Salanson, managing director at The Little Kitchen Company, talks to Tim Wickham about setting up the bespoke caterer and why fish finger sandwiches figure on the menu.
A career at HSBC gave Cait Salanson a taste for running her own business. Her regional director role covering the south brought her in touch with plenty of SMEs. “I worked with a variety of businesses, saw how they operated, and what had been successful. The experience really helped me.”
But her work/life balance wasn’t very family friendly. Living in Winchester and commuting between there, Reading and Canary Wharf, and with a large region to cover led her to take voluntary redundancy in 2011. She started cooking up her own business from her kitchen.
“I think the lack of support for working mothers by many companies is short-sighted. I’ve recruited a number of people like me who had senior careers and, for various reasons, wanted a change from the traditional corporate world, yet still have transferable skills to offer and want to feel they are valued and making a difference at work” she said.
Organic growth, without the foams
Salanson started by catering for private dinner parties and business lunches. “I’m not professionally trained and not into overly pretentious food, but I’m a great cook. Everything we serve is handmade by our in-house chefs using mainly locally sourced produce – I’ve been outcooked now,” she said.
Business growth has always been organic without outside funding, and won largely through word-of-mouth recommendations and reputation. “I’m a risk averse kind of person. It would have made it a different offering if I had the pressure of having borrowed from banks or investors,” she said.
She moved the business out of her home in 2014, to a kitchen unit for food preparation, and soon added a separate bistro, at the state-of-the-art Winchester Golf Academy in Headbourne Worthy. Turnover has doubled, from £400,000 in 2017 to £800,000 this year. The company outsources finance and human resources functions to specialist firms, who handle the paperwork and provide professional advice.
Plenty on its plate
She may be little risk averse, but Salanson isn’t afraid of trying out new ideas. An early foray into baby foods, cooked fresh and frozen quickly to retain nutrients, didn’t take off. “I decided the market wasn’t strong enough to support sustained growth,” she said.
On the other hand, posh picnics are a huge success. The Little Kitchen Company has contracts with clients at Ascot, Goodwood, the Ageas Bowl and corporate customers. Weddings are also big business. The company was Hampshire Wedding Supplier of the Year in 2016. It also won a 2017 Winchester Business Excellence Award and has been a Rising Star and Dynamic Growth finalist in the Solent Business Awards.
In the heat of its rapid growth, an early lesson for Salanson was knowing when to say no. “It took me a while to learn that you can’t say yes to everything. Starting out, you tend take it all on to see what will work.”
Served with passion
The Little Kitchen’s 25-strong team includes six full-time chefs. It doesn’t use agency staff, even during the busy summer months, when it often handles two weddings on Saturdays as well as ones on Fridays and Sundays. Instead, Salanson relies on her close team of experienced and home-grown events staff and returning students she knows and trusts.
“This is a people business, it’s not just about food. We offer staff hospitality industry training. I want to give people a proper career, not just a job. Quality of service has to be excellent. It only takes one poor review on social media to impact your reputation,” she said.
Salanson is always on the look out for the next opportunity and always fully assesses those which come along. “Watch this space for the next announcement. I’m quite intuitive and have a clear idea of what will fit. I wouldn’t start ventures that just generated a short-term return; they have to fit with our brand, values and our wider business.”
As for fish finger sandwiches: “We make them using our own tartar sauce, crispy little gem and the freshest white bloomer bread – they’re fantastic. My personal favourite food style is Middle Eastern, with lots of spices and colours. For me, food is to be shared, in a relaxed, communal way.”