Sharing the stories behind small businesses is one of my favourite parts of having this blog. I love finding out how they started and what the day to day looks like. Running a business as a parent with young children can be tricky to say the least but Chris and Amy Cheadle are bossing co-parenting and running a growing succesful retail brand. Amy is one of my Coffee Work Sleep Creative Community members and it’s been exciting get to know her over the past few months and to see her business go from strength to strength.
Hi, we’re Chris and Amy Cheadle, and we run the retail bakery brand The Northern Dough Co. We met at university in Leeds towards the end of our courses, and loved plotting ways that we could run a business together in the future (everything from see-through toasters to achieve the perfect colour on your bread, to running our own restaurant) but after graduation, we each secured corporate roles and carried on dreaming. After we married in 2011 (on the same day as Wils and Kate! An unplanned clash!) we realised the idea had been staring us in the face, as Chris’ family had been bakers for three generations before him. We started The Northern Dough Co. soon after.
Tell us a little bit about your business
We make a range of freshly frozen pizza dough, that’s available to purchase through supermarkets. Making pizza with fresh dough creates the freshest, crispest pizza you’ll eat at home, and you can top it in a million ways, exactly as you want to. Before we launched the company, the only way to make your own pizza was to make your own dough from scratch, and it put lots of people off as it can be tricky and time consuming. We use 100% natural, premium, store cupboard style ingredients to make our dough in the bakery the family has owned for over 100 years, freeze it as soon as its mixed, and all our customers need to do is defrost, roll, top and bake, and they have a freshly baked pizza in under 20 mins. We sell it to supermarkets across the UK, including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Ocado, Booths and Wholefoods, and its stocked in their freezer departments, meaning we don’t have to use any preservatives to keep it fresh.
Once you had the idea how did you go about turning it into a business?
One night, as we were eating pizza that we’d made using dough from the bakery, we realised that we couldn’t just go out and buy something similar in the supermarket. The bakery had supplied Italian restaurants for decades with their artisan recipes, but had never created a brand that individual shoppers could purchase in the supermarket. We realised that was our opportunity, and decided to create a brand, along with some additional products, which is where the chilli and rosemary pizza dough variants came from. We worked with the bakery team to develop new recipes, and then evenings and weekends with a friend who is a talented designer, to create the brand identity and packaging, and then booked onto a food festival in Clitheroe to test it with consumers and see what they thought. By the time we’d sold out of all our stock (twice) at Clitheroe, we knew it was worth pursuing, and Chris quit his job soon after to focus on it full time.
What careers did you have before you founded the Northern Dough Co and does the experience you gained from them apply now?
I (Amy) worked for 14 years in retail marketing and analytics, specifically with brands supplying into supermarkets, so the experience has been the best foundation for building my own brand, understanding how to pitch it to supermarkets, and understanding how to make it sell once its on the shelves. The challenge is the difference in budget, while the brands I was working with before had hundreds of thousands to spend, my budget is a lot more modest, so creativity is key! Chris worked in classic business analysis roles, before specialising in Ux for one of the leading price comparison sites, so his skills apply directly to all the processes behind the business, as well as making sure the creative side pays back in sales.
Do you have clearly defined roles and responsibilities when it comes to the day to day of running your growing business?
We’re both very hands on, and its unusual we’ll work in isolation on any single task, as there’s only the two of us who run the business (we make fantastic use of outsourced skills, and love working with independent specialists in their field, like freelance designers and independent marketing agencies) but we do tend to focus on our areas of experience, with me (Amy) working mainly on sales and marketing, and Chris on operations and finance.
Has being married and being parents influenced the way your business works?
We started the business shortly after getting married, but didn’t have children, and the biggest adjustment was getting used to being in each others’ space all the time. We’ve always been very open with each other, and being married and having no boundaries on what we can discuss has hugely helped us, as it means we get through any disagreements quickly. We had our first baby three years after the businesss started, and it changed everything. We went from being able to pull out all the stops and work around the clock when we needed to, to having to stick to schedules and tag team each other in and out of our home office, the illusion of being able to work while the baby slept certainly wasn’t true for us. The initial months were challenging, as it felt like we weren’t moving forward, but what we realised was that both being at home, and being entirely flexible for our children was a huge goal. Unlike so many Dads who work out of the home, Chris was a co-parent from day one, and continues to be so. We often say that if it all ended tomorrow, the most valuable thing would be the time we’ve both been able to have hands on with our children, despite the huge juggling act it requires.
What do you do to manage your time and what tips do you have for avoiding being overwhelmed?
It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when you feel that there’s a million things you could do to move your business forward if only you made the time. It can make any non-working time really guilt-inducing, even more so if that time isn’t then dedicated to family. I knew early on that the pressure of the business, my own personality and having two children within 18m of each other was a recipe for burnout, so I invested in a coach and it was the best money I’ve spent. She helped me to realise that working flat out is counterproductive, that I had an entire lifetime to achieve the goals I had in mind, that taking time out for myself made me more efficient, and that keeping a network of friends is invaluable. They all sound like obvious points, but when you have someone else’s voice in your mind repeating that advice, and giving you permission to do things differently than you’ve been trained to in corporate environments, it makes a huge difference.
I run on black coffee and chocolate biscuits when I’m working, what couldn’t you live without?
Very similar here! A good coffee machine at home and a big supply of things to nibble on! I couldn’t live without working where my dogs are though too, I’ve worked from home for over 10 years now, and have found myself at my desk for too many hours at a stretch on too many occasions. Its lovely to be able to take a quick break and have a minute with my whippets, who are always lounging somewhere nearby, they say that spending time with animals is a proven stress reliever and it definitely works for me.
When running a business these days, you need to build a strong social media presence, which platform do you have the most success with?
For me, it’s different platforms for different purposes, as the different groups that make up my target audience interact on different platforms. For example, I have a big following from outdoor cooking enthusiasts, who love to make pizza in wood fired ovens or on their BBQs, but they only use Twitter, so my content there needs to point to them. Over on Instagram, which receives by far the most interaction for me, it’s more about families and people who are seeking recipe inspiration. I’m lucky in that as a food brand that relies on recipes, there’s endless content that I can create. I create all the recipes for social media and snap them all on my iphone, it can take hours but it’s my favourite part of the job!
What’s been the hardest part of your life as a small business so far and how do you overcome those kinds of hurdles?
Working in retail is a really fast moving environment, and with the size of the individual supermarkets, a listing on their shelves is a huge game changer for our business. The buyers frequently change roles though, so on many occasions we’ve spent months meeting with someone, getting excited about the progress, only for them to move onto a new role and we then have to start again with a new contact. The first time it happened was a big blow and felt like a backwards step, but over the years we’ve talked to so many other small food brands and it happens to us all. When the listing eventually does happen, it always feels like it was the ‘right time’ and that perhaps the previous setbacks wouldn’t have worked quite as well, so we try to keep that in mind when faced with the disappointment.
What is the best part of running your own business? Has there been a ‘pinch yourself to check it’s real’ kind of moment for you?
It has to be the flexibility and the opportunity to set your own agenda, especially because we’re married, so taking a day off together because the sun is shining and we want to make the most of it and push work commitments back to the evening is our choice. It works the other way though, with holidays involving at least a few hours of work squeezed in every day, but it’s absolutely worth the balance and to not have to answer to anyone. Looking back on our lives with our four and two year old, knowing that as parents we’ve been able to be there equally for them since day 1 because of our business is something that we feel incredibly happy to have experienced, we never take that time for granted.
If you could go back in time to when you started up and give yourself some advice what would it be?
To be really clear on your objectives, and what your business does and doesn’t do and stick to them when faced with opportunity. What’s lovely about running a small business is the amount of people who offer ideas and opportunities to take your business in a new direction, but when time and resources are tight, it can dilute your focus and mean you’re stretched too thin on the fundamentals. While its always worth weighing all opportunities (some of our best have come out of the blue), making sure that they don’t divert you completely off course is really important, or you can end up with bits of business here and there that are difficult and time consuming to service. Spending a decent chunk of time upfront mapping out your objectives and plans, having a really clear target audience and asking yourself what you provide them with is really important, as if a new opportunity pops up that doesn’t fit with those things, you know it’s either not right (or not the right time) to pursue it.
What are your hopes for the future of the Northern Dough Co?
We’d love to grow the range of products that we offer, and in the same way we were the first company to bring pizza dough to the UK supermarkets, do the same for other products. We’ll always keep our ethos of ‘great food shared together’ and create products that encourage people to share the cooking experience. We’re so lucky that lots of our customers get in touch to say that they’ve had tons of fun making pizza with their children, or enjoyed a brilliant date night of making pizza for their partner, that as long as we keep hearing that kind of feedback, we know we’re doing the right thing.
Whether practical or inspirational, what is your top piece advice for anyone out there wanting to take that leap and start their own business?
If you think starting a business is for you, create it in a market that you’re passionate about. Just because there’s a gap in the market, or an opportunity, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. In the early days, you’ll likely work long hours for little or no pay, and your enthusiasm will soon run out if you don’t love it regardless. Chris and I used to spend up to 18 hours a day doing food festivals, with all the set up and prep either end, and then break even after five days (or lose money if it was a wash out and poured down!). We had to do it to create brand awareness, and we loved it because we believed in the product and we were together, so it never felt like ‘work’ in the true sense. You also have to be incredibly realistic, as starting a business is emotionally tough, while the wins are incredible, the lows can feel very personal and without a team of people, it’s easy to feel isolated and defeated. Surrounding yourself with people in a similar situation is essential, so you can pick up the phone or meet for a coffee and know you’re going through the same emotions as everyone else, a network of ‘virtual colleagues’ is the best team you can have.
A huge thank you to Amy and Chris for taking part in my Start Up Stories feature. I hope you enjoyed reading about them and their business as much as I did. Please do check out their social media – their Instagram especially is worth a follow for lots of recipe ideas!
You have the chance to win an exclusive Northern Dough Co personalised pizza cutting board!
Enter below to be in with a chance of winning!
(full terms and conditions can be found below)
Find out more about The Northern Dough Co
Photos by Robyn Swain Photography
Terms and conditions
UK entries only
The prize is –
1 x personalised pizza cutting board
A choice of design variations
There is no cash alternative
Giveaway ends 30/09/2018 at 11.59pm
When the winner is announced they will have 48 hours to get in contact, if they do not then another winner will be drawn
Anyone that does not complete the compulsory entry will be disqualified
The prize will be sent out to the winner by the Northern Dough Co