''You can really taste the poppy seed.” Tom's right. You can taste it and also feel its texture in this piece of lemon-flavoured white chocolate, I was lucky enough to devour. It was delicious.
Tom Scully is not a food man by training. He's still consulting three days a week for Deloitte. The rest of the time he's setting up the flexible craft food subscription service Larder Fair with Ben Russell, who left his job as global finance business partner for Unilever at the beginning of 2016.
This subscription service is a little different to those you might be used to. Rather than delivering ingredients for specific meals, or a pot-luck crate of organic vegetables, Larder Fair puts the customer in control. You pay a set amount each month and pick from a selection of deli products, which range from a delicious jar of hot pepper pickle to whisky-infused salmon, Naga chilli biltong or Afghan spiced potted beef. If you don't spend all your allowance it gets rolled over to the next month. Tom and Ben spend hours sourcing goods from local suppliers and farmers' markets, which means customers are treated to an ever-evolving range of products.
Subscription services are going through the roof at the moment because people want to buy in that way.
Tom Scully, Larder Fair
The two friends, who met a decade ago at university, set up Larder Fair just last year, enlisting another friend to help with the website and an outside agency to look after their branding. They'd come up with the idea about a year before, in February 2015. It was a no-brainer. As Tom puts it: “Subscription services are going through the roof at the moment because people want to buy in that way.”
Ben had been looking to start a business and found that there was a gap in the market for a different type of food-subscription service. And they both love food. Tom stopped working full time (“to participate in a business that was going to excite me, and do it with my mate, was a great opportunity”) and soon started working at Club Workspace. He'd realised that “working from home didn't work for me... Club Workspace was great. I could go and sit in an environment where I was actually focused on work rather than everything else."
We don't have the luxury like many start-ups do of working for free. We've got mortgages to pay and everything else.
Tom Scully, Larder Fair
From there, he and Ben put together a business plan and raised £75,000 from friends and family. Tom admits this puts extra pressure on them to succeed. And it is, he goes on to say, predominantly working capital. “We know that this business will not make money for a year-and-a-half because it needs to reach a certain scale in order for us to convert what are some fairly fixed costs. We don't have the luxury like many start-ups do of working for free. We've got mortgages to pay and everything else.”
They first started packing boxes in November last year and got about 30 out for Christmas. This turns out to be all the more impressive given that they were working from a friend's shed - and while there may have been a phone signal, in order to get Wi-Fi you had to go into the house!
They eventually moved into Workspace's Riverside development in February when Ben left Unilever. Tom explains that they chose the Wandsworth office because “it’s a nice location. And mostly because of price.” It’s strangely perfect for them: there's a small office, a separate food preparation area and even a larder for goods. They have a couple of interns in the office who look after food preparation – offline and online.
With Ben's guidance, they take the photos, interview the suppliers and create the great content on the site, which will enlighten you on niche foodie topics from storing artichokes to butchering a pig. Rather than “buying” subscribers, Tom and Ben are more concerned with investing time and money in interesting content and encouraging their existing subscribers to sell the service for them.
While Ben's in charge of marketing and sales full time, Tom looks after the financial and fulfilment side. They’re both responsible for sourcing, tasting and selection. Tom is particularly excited by the opportunities they offer to small suppliers; for many of them, it's their first foray online or even into wholesale. They found the marvellously named Pished Fish, who make “booze-infused” smoked fish, in a famers’ market. Since being stocked by Larder Fair the brand has been picked up by Selfridges. Likewise Wendy, who makes delicious compotes and jams, has found a way through Larder Fair to sell her brand Fruition online. A major problem for her was shipping relatively heavy jars economically. Taking advantage of Larder Fair’s delivery service makes it considerably cheaper.
Ben and Tom have 30 suppliers at the moment and are looking forward to throwing themselves back into sales (they've been upgrading the website recently). They were working with the e-commerce software Shopify initially but then changed to ShopWired, as it supports their subscription (and roll over/top-up) model. When they reach their target of 200 orders a week they'll undoubtedly need to invest in new systems. For that, Tom is looking to raise more money and will be pitching to investors soon. “Having gone through the process once, hopefully it'll make this time a little easier...” he says. Although they like the idea of the publicity that crowdfunding would generate, they're really interested in an angel investor with experience in food.
Tom admits that Ben is the real star seller. When they had just set up Larder Fair, they set themselves a challenge to sell biltong to their friends. Tom managed five or 10 packets. Ben sold 120... “Via text”, Tom adds admiringly. It's quite a skill to learn, Ben says, selling things that taste incredible to people who won’t realise that fact until they put them in their mouth.
When I express interest in getting a subscription (the poppy seed and lemon white chocolate did it) the two friends start bantering over who gets to add the sale to their tally. It's clear that their solid business partnership is founded on a strong friendship – and a mutual respect for a packet of good-quality biltong.
Larder Fair is currently running an introductory offer of an additional £15 credit on all new customer sign-ups. Although the offer officially ended at the end of June, the offer is still available to all Workspace customers. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know you're a fellow Workspace customer (including the property and space no. of your workspace) and they'll credit the additional funds to your Larder Fair account.
Larder Fair are just one of many New and Growing Companies based in Riverside, which was formely an Airfix building. If you're interested in business space within easy reach of Wandsworth, Putney and Wimbledon town centres, click here to arrange a viewing.