On the up · 27 October 2016

Cactus Kitchens: Award-winning cookery lessons from Michel Roux Jr

cookery-school
The cookery school offers experiences with Michelin starred chef Michel Roux Jr

Offering an innovative approach to teaching in what is a crowded cookery school space, Cactus Kitchens has become a market leader within just four years of business.

Founded and led by Anna Ratcliffe, the company now offers a unique and versatile events space while collaborating with a range of celebrity chefs.

Business Advice caught up with Ratcliffe to find out more about how Cactus Kitchens came to cultivate the combination of award-winning cooking experiences with its forward-thinking workplace ethos.

(1) Who are you and what’s your business?

I’m Anna Ratcliffe, the director of Cactus Kitchens. We are a cookery school and events space based in an old chapel tucked away off Clapham High Street in South West London.

(2) How long have you been around for?

The business was set up in 2012 and began trading in 2013.

(3) How do you make money?

We’re the home of the Michel Roux Jr Cookery School where we offer cooking experiences with Michelin starred chef Michel Roux Jr and Roux trained chefs.

Our guests can cook – and eat – their way through a three-course menu, or learn essential kitchen crafts like knife skills, bread-making, and how to make stocks and sauces.

We also design bespoke corporate cooking events, have a thriving corporate hospitality business, as well as a venue-hire service for food-themed product launches, photoshoots and events.

(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?

We believe that sharing great food in good company is one of life’s greatest pleasures. For us, the experience of cooking and eating together around our dining table informs the way we organise our experiences and classes.

Making our guests feel welcome and at home enables them to relax. Once they feel comfortable, they are more likely to truly enjoy the experience of cooking, picking up lots of valuable skills and tips along the way.

We also have a Happiness Officer, whose role it is to look after all of our customers in the lead up to their visit, and then who greets all of our guests upon arrival, helping to create a welcoming, inviting and familiar environment.

Until very recently we were an all-female team; we only took on our first male employee this autumn. We are also a very young team – the majority of us are under 30 years old.

(5) What was key in terms of getting started?

The real key in terms of setting the business on a path for growth was meeting Alasdair Inglis from We Are Grow at a British Library masterclass. He suggested that we apply for the Growth Accelerator Scheme that the government was running back in 2013.

Through this scheme we were given grants towards funding training workshops with a finance mentor, and worked with Alasdair as our marketing mentor. Having that outside input and support to bounce ideas off with experienced business people was invaluable for our initial phase of growth.

cookery-school-of-the-year
The Cactus Kitchens team

(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?

Cactus Kitchens being named “Cookery School of the Year 2016” in the Food and Travel Magazine Reader Awards.

It’s voted for entirely by the readers. We were up against well-established cookery schools who have been around a lot longer than us, and it’s been a real boost for the team to receive the accolade, and rewarding to know that our customers love what we’re offering.

Of course, being nominated for an Amazon Growing Business Award is also an amazing achievement.

(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?

There have been quite a few, but that’s all part of the learning experience in setting up a business – “every day is a school day”, as I like to say.

Looking back, we made the mistake of spending too much money on our first website and booking system.

I’ve since learnt – from attending the Start-up Tribe at Escape the City – that there are so many great free tools to help get your business off the ground, and that you don’t need to be perfect when you start.

Just get something out there and see what the response is. Test, learn, make changes and continue to evolve.

(8) In five years’ time, I will be…

First and foremost I hope that the team I have now continues to grow and develop as the business does. They are what makes coming to work each day fun.

As a company, I hope we will have found ways to scale our experiences and skills-based classes to encourage and enable thousands more people to enjoy the simple pleasures that can be found in cooking and eating together.

(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Seek out and take all the advice and support you can from all the fantastic organisations out there that are supporting startups in the UK. There are so many places to get help from, so suck up all the tips like a hoover.

Also, search out any local schemes giving business support and find yourself some mentors – they really are invaluable.

(10) Who are your business heroes and why?

I read Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table” years ago. He’s a New York restaurateur and CEO of the Union Square restaurant group. In his book he talks about the importance of looking after you staff first and foremost. If you treat them well they will in turn look after your customers.

Richard Branson also once said: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

I wholeheartedly believe in this ethos. Although we’re only a small team, we don’t have a limited holiday allowance.

Our staff are also encouraged to receive work experience in the kitchens, or with companies that we work with, as well as attend masterclasses and workshops to develop their skills and generally to have fun together.

Cactus Kitchens has been nominated for Micro Business of the Year at the Amazon Growing Business Awards.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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