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Small Successful Businesses: 3 Inspiring Examples
Three Inspiring Businesses
In the last few years Britain, along with much of the world, has been in recession. One effect of this is that supermarkets have cut back on organic foods, saying that customers are less willing to pay the extra cost during a downturn and go back to buying basics. So starting a business sells mainly organic foods or luxury tea just as an economic downturn begins might seem like a recipe for disaster. Yet that is what Earthy and eteaket, two of the companies, featured in this article did. The third featured business, The Chocolate Tree began life a little earlier, in 2005, although in the words of its director Ali, it didn’t “get going properly” until 2007. Like the other two businesses, it sells products many would regard as luxury: organic chocolate. All three are flourishing. So why have they thrived when others have not?
3 Inspirational Business Beginnings
The photograph above is of The Chocolate Tree’s stall at Edinburgh’s farmers’ market. The Chocolate Tree began life from a solar powered tent selling hand made chocolates at music festivals, and although they now have a retail outlet that combines a café and shop, they still run weekly stalls at two farmers’ markets. An interview with Ali Gower, director of The Chocolate Tree is towards the end of this article.
Earthy and eteaket
To the right is one of Earthy’s stores. Earthy sells mainly organic food and environmentally friendly products for the home, including toiletries, cleaning products and plants. One of its founders was already running an organic farm and continues to supply vegetables, herbs, fruit and eggs. Another founder is a horticulturalist and each December Earthy sells living Christmas trees that customers can bring back after the festive season to be replanted in the forest they came from. Earthy opened its first store in May 2008, opening a second in 2011. With its third store opening in 2012 Earthy could now be leaving the term “small business” behind, but definitely counts as successful.
On the lower right is eteaket - and yes it is spelled without a capital letter! eteaket has elements of the traditional tearoom, with tiered cake stands and china cups instead of the paper mugs some larger chains provide. But it is traditional with fun. eteaket’s owner, Erica Moore, used to work as a lawyer. After years of wearing sombre suits she wanted a brighter environment, so eteaket is decorated and furnished in cheerful turquoise and pink, and the pretty china crockery is vintage and mismatched. The teas are all lovingly brewed at the correct temperature, with herbal and green teas needing a lower temperature than black. Two of the more luxurious teas are rose and jasmine flower blossom teas. These teas are hand-stitched and open out into a flower shape when steeped in water. They also taste heavenly and make drinking tea feel very special!
This video shows Amba Tea Estate, one of Eteaket’s suppliers. Their holistic business approach is clear!
Business Mindset matters
There are two ways to do business. One way is with the attitude that we see on shows such as The Apprentice, where bosses are bossy, fierce and unforgiving, losers see no empathy and everyone is out for themselves. It’s you against the world, and if a few people fall by the wayside as you rise to the top, well they would have done the same thing to you, so why worry? In this way of looking at business maximizing the profit margin is generally the most important consideration. (In The Apprentice the winning team is the one that has made the most money.)
A Holistic Business Approach
The other way is what we could probably call a holistic approach to doing business. I’ve chosen that description because businesses that operate this way tend to look on themselves as part of a whole and for them money is rarely the most important motivator. People with this business attitude tend to think about what they can contribute, rather than just about what they can gain.
Ways these companies inspire customer loyalty.
The Chocolate Tree, eteaket and Earthy all demonstrate the holistic approach in their businesses. Here are some aspects of their businesses where this approach shines through and that inspire customers to return.
Friendly and Knowledgeable Staff
The staff all three of these companies all know their products well and take time to answer questions customers may have. They do this with enthusiasm.
They treat customers with respect and as individuals. This last point is worth explaining further. Many businesses train staff to smile at customers and say stock phrases such as, “Have a nice day.” While this is certainly better than being greeted by a surly assistant, it lacks authenticity. Here are a few examples of how these companies treat customers as individuals:
One of The Chocolate Tree’s product groups is filled chocolates in boxes of six or twelve. Customers can choose their own fillings.
We took a visiting friend to Eteaket. She read the extensive list of teas on the menu and laughingly said to the waitress, “I see you don’t do Russian Caravan tea.”
The waitress explained that while they didn’t have that tea, they could make a similar tea with a blend of lapsang souchong, oolong and other teas. And they did.
In Earthy I asked about a fruit I’d never seen before. The sales assistant told me its name (I’ve since forgotten), cut it open and gave me a slice to eat.
Use and supply quality products and source locally whenever possible.
Obviously tea and chocolate don’t grow in Scotland, but eteaket’s gorgeous cupcakes are made by a local baker and The Chocolate Tree uses local fruit and other ingredients.
Earthy sources it bread, many groceries and much of its fruit and vegetables locally, only reaching further afield when local produce isn’t available. All three companies provide high quality produce and work closely with suppliers.
Experiment and develop new lines
If there were a prize for experimenting, The Chocolate Tree would win it for all the imaginative and unusual combinations of flavours for their chocolate and ice cream. We tried wasabi ice cream recently and it was surprisingly tasty.
Earthy and eteaket also regularly test out new ideas and products. The lower photo opposite shows Earthy’s new kitchen garden.
Provide more than just a product; provide a lifestyle
It is increasingly important nowadays to provide more than just a product, and to create an ethos for your brand. This is partly why companies such Apple are so successful, and each of these small businesses in some way provide that sense of lifestyle. Earthy uses the term “Earthlings” for people who shop there, it sells organic tee-shirts for baby earthlings, and organises events such as Halloween parties and summer barbecues. It has a Facebook page where managers respond to customer comments – and they really do respond.
At eteaket the luxury might only last for an hour or so while you sip glorious blossom tea and eat sandwiches and cup cakes but the prices are affordable and customers return. Eating there feels special, but it also feels like fun. It has a blog where customers can learn about the owner’s trips to China or Sri Lanka to meet suppliers or about special events like the tea cocktails evening or the eteaket book group.
Fun is also high on the list of priorities at The Chocolate Tree, with those interesting flavours. And for the rest of this article it’s time to hand over to The Chocolate Tree director Ali Gower to tell you more about the philosophy behind his business. I asked him a few questions about his business and its success. His answers clearly demonstrate the holistic approach to business I have described. That interview now follows.
The Chocolate Tree
Interview with Ali of The Chocolate Tree
Melovy: In 2010, sales of organic produce fell by 10%. What do you see as the reason for your success at a time when many organic food lines are being removed from supermarkets, due to the downturn in the economy?
Ali: We continue to work with mostly organic chocolate mainly for ethical reasons. The chocolate tree, or Theobroma cacao, thrives on a diverse surrounding eco-system which pesticide sprays would damage. The flowers of the tree depend on insects for pollination, which leads to the cacao fruit from which chocolate is made. I don’t think there are many cacao farms that use sprays, even if they are not organic certified. Organic certification is however fundamentally ethical, I have even been told that it is a more reliable certification than fair-trade to ensure that the labourers and farmers get a fair deal for their cacao. Typically I believe farmers are paid 10% above the market standard for certified cacao beans. So as well as ensuring that the environment is not being tampered with unnecessarily, it also ensures a fair deal for the cacao growers. Consumers should be particularly concerned with ethical standards when buying chocolate, perhaps more so than with some other crops, and I think that is why there is still a strong market for organic and ethically certified chocolate. We also put quality at top of the list for our products; just because an ingredient is organically certified does not mean that it will be of high quality. We check all of our ingredients to ensure they are meeting our high standards, our customers are often of a ‘foodie’ nature, and can appreciate the quality of the ingredients we are using.
Melovy: What is your philosophy behind your approach to customers?
Ali: We aim to provide a very high level of customer service; we try to treat each customer as an individual and we are always very grateful for their custom. We see the transactions in our shop as not only financial, but also social. The Chocolate Tree only came so far because the feel good factor that came as a result of making other people feel good through our products, this gives us the motivation to keep going!
With so many big multinational chains and supermarkets dominating the scene, independent shops like ours have a real opportunity to show customers the difference when they support us. For instance we have a 12,000 piece jigsaw on our shop wall of Michelangelo's ‘The Creation of Adam’, which my wife and head chocolatier Friederike worked on for two years. I doubt we’ll see many of those in Starbucks! I think these touches are important, as they encourage our customers to see that life is not a generic and rather bland chain of the same occurrences, but a vibrant diverse mixture of people and places.
Melovy: What is your philosophy behind your approach to staff?
Ali: We look for staff who have that sparkle about them which shows passion for life. We encourage our staff to see work as a beneficial part of their life, an opportunity to be social, creative and engaged whilst also make a living. I used to think that we should work to live and not live to work, but now I think work is just a part of life, and the two should be integrated together in a more holistic approach. I want our staff to be satisfied at work, and therefore leading an enjoyable life.
We are patient, caring, flexible and we listen carefully to our staff, particularly those on the front line at the shop who will be able to feedback to us what is working and what needs improvement. We are a great team, and most of the time everyone communicates well and gets along as friends. When we do have a problem, we are not shy about doing our best to fix it as soon as possible. We don’t take too soft an approach either, it’s important that staff know there is a boundary, and unacceptable behaviour can quickly lead to being shown the door.
Melovy: And the philosophy behind your products?
Ali: We begin by using the best ingredients we can find. One of my favourite Scottish expressions is ‘you cannae polish a shite’! Meaning if the ingredients are not good to begin with we will struggle to make something good from them. Once we have the right ingredients our highly skilled kitchen team will develop a product that stands out from the crowd. We use minimalistic environmentally friendly packaging, but also try to make our products look really good, as we want them to be very attractive. Where we can we use local suppliers, obviously there are not many chocolate trees growing in Scotland so we’ll never be able to make that claim, but fruits, cream, eggs and so on are all sourced locally.
Melovy: How do you come up with such unusual ingredient ideas? (I'm thinking of the surprisingly tasty wasabi ice cream we sampled on Saturday and the marmite chocolates, or seasalt and caramel.)
Ali: Chocolate is an amazing platform from which to add other flavours; it works very well with all kind of other ingredients, and not all necessarily sweet. The full potential of chocolate is only just being realised in the UK, both as a decadent indulgence and also as a super health food. Although most of our products are traditional flavour combinations such as milk chocolate and hazelnuts, or dark chocolate and ginger, we also allow room to be very creative and experimental. We take inspiration from other chocolatiers, as well as coming up with our own unique recipes. For instance salted caramels are fast becoming the most sought after flavour combination in the chocolate industry, it’s a good example of a recipe that at first can seem strange but soon catches on to become an international trend. One of our most successful and talked about recipes was the venison, rowan jelly and whisky chocolate, a surprising good combination, and with a very Scottish theme. We have also made excellent chocolates to match perfumes for the famous Penahligons Covent Garden Perfumeries, and a special box of hedgerow chocolates, for which all of the main ingredients (except for the chocolate) were picked wild from of our local countryside.
Links to the businesses featured in this article.
Melovy: Since many of my readers are from overseas, if they feel inspired to order seasalt and caramel chocolate, how would they go about it?
Ali: Most of our products are available from our website, and we welcome international orders. If ordering from overseas though please send an email to let us know what you would like and we will calculate the postage costs before proceeding.