Welcome to the eleventh episode of my #sideprojects blog series. This is the first of the ‘second season’ of blogs about an array of diverse people pursuing passions, skills, future lifestyles, and maybe a living through spare-time projects.
Nick Skelton & Jonathan Chenoweth
I’ve bumped into Nick periodically for many years as we’re both long-serving staff at the University of Bristol. Nick’s day job is in IT Services, what I didn’t know is that he moonlights as a vegan cheesemaker with his partner Jonathan!
Solving ‘Tomorrow’s Plan’ through Cheese!
Like all Side Projects a passion underpins this project; and in the case of Nutgrove Kitchen it’s a passion for sustainable living and thus a move towards a more vegan lifestyle. This interest was something true of several previous projects and roles that Jonathan had had in particular.
However, it’s actually the desire to develop ‘Tomorrow’s Plan’ that has really powered this idea so far. Jonathan wanted to move to Bristol to be with Nick but couldn’t move his academic role, so they started exploring the idea of starting a business part-time and Jonathan going part-time to run this business in Bristol and continue to do the day job with a longer but less frequent commute. But what business should they start part-time to facilitate this?
Back to the passion; with the vegan food market expanding surely there was an opportunity to offer something new, or better… The insight that “A lot of vegan cheese is rubbish” was that opportunity! Jonathan had some small previous experience making cheese and exploring other food business ideas, and Nick has previous experience making cider (from the University’s own apples). It’s a bit tenuous to be called ‘professional skills’ but there was some base of skills and experience to build from.
“It’s really challenging to run as an actual business!”
A year of experimental cheese-making in the kitchen led to a set of recipes that worked and since the start of 2017 they’ve scaled well for a business which is still run from the kitchen table.
They make a variety of cheeses and sell their wares through about half-a-dozen Bristol outlets and the FarmDrop online service in Bristol and London. They’re selling almost 100% of their production and occasionally struggling to make enough for the demand. At the time of writing they’ve just sealed their first deal with a caterer – The Tobacco Factory in Bristol are apparently going to use in on their vegan pizzas.
One big breakthrough for them has been the development of a Camembert-style cheese complete with a rind! It’s a great talking point for them and offers something relatively distinctive in the market. Doing something different and original is often a great way to draw attention to your work, and often initially emerges from a passion rather a business motive.
From Kitchen Table to Where?
However, they’re hitting production capacity in the kitchen, and whilst it’s making money, it’s not enough to pay either of them to give up more stable and better-paid day jobs. If they wanted to scale up they’d need production facilities and staff, which right now they can’t afford.
So, what do you do when a side project is on the cusp of scaling into a full-time project? The business plan is just one part of it – is there a market that’s growing? Can we produce it at scale? Can we market and distribute it at scale? There is also the personal side – do we really want to do this full-time? Are we passionate enough about this? Do we want to give up other bits of our lives to make this happen? And Nick and Jonathan are at that cross-roads, it’s not yet paying for either of them to pack in the day-job, they’re not entirely sure they want to be professional full-time cheese-makers, and it hasn’t yet delivered Jonathan to Bristol on a full-time basis!
It’s an amazing project, and it’s amazing produce, but it’s grown into something that could be bigger and now the challenge is how to scale it up and whether that is quite what they had in mind for tomorrow’s plan.
Networking for partners is part of the answer and this is where Nick’s professional skills do come in; building relationships and connecting the dots is part of his day job. He’s now trying to marry that skill-set up with Jonathan’s passion for sustainability to deliver a compelling business partnership to take the idea to scale.
I can’t divulge their plans for the business model without breaking some confidences so I wish them the best of luck as they wrestle with a very successful side project that they managed to find a market for!