Got a tasty idea for a business? Get your signature dish from your kitchen into the big chains

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Your family has a recipe that has been handed down through generations. It's for a tasty soup. A sprig of parsley here, a soupçon of garlic there. Necking it off for the fourth time in one week, you suddenly get a brainwave: why should it just be you and your relatives who enjoy it? What if the whole country could take a dip?

Jamaican-born businessman Levi Roots epitomises such an entrepreneurial journey. In 1991, he began selling his jerk barbecue sauce (contrived using his grandmother's "secret recipe") at Notting Hill Carnival. A lucky strike on the BBC's Dragons' Den in 2007 later (he secured £50,000 from two of the programme's resident investors, Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh, for a 50 per cent stake in the company) his sauce is now stocked in 600 Sainsbury's stores across the country.

If you want to get beyond the farmer's market, getting into the supermarkets is the big hurdle that any food producer must jump. And that means thinking big. "You would naturally jump for joy if you were offered a contract with one of the big supermarkets. But it can also end in tears if you bite off more than you can chew," says Stephen Alambritis, chief spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses. "While it is a huge reputational plus to tell your staff, your bank and your accountants, if it means borrowing too much or not being prepared for getting in more resources then it can cause you real trouble. My advice would be: don't forget your regular customers; build that into your business plan; make sure you have a clear go-to person at the supermarket, and also don't put all your eggs in one basket, by, for example, having 70 per cent of your produce through one outlet."

So how have some of the country's family businesses – both nascent, and established – got their idea from the familial kitchen table to the high street? Here, we talk to the nation's pie-makers and pickle magnates, uncovering the secrets behind their secret recipes.

Joanna Jenner, director, Bartons Pickles, St Helens, Merseyside

The product: Jenner heads up a family-owned business which supplies piccalilli to Asda stores across the country. The piccalilli is based on a recipe invented by Jenner's great-grandparents ("fresh onions and cauliflower florets, smooth mustard sauce, barley malt vinegar"). It was trialled in the local Asda in St Helens in 1998 before being rolled out to 54 outlets in the North West and then 300 UK-wide. They are the "oldest original pickle makers in England", according to Jenner. Even her father, Edward, has the nickname locally of "Pickle Eddie".

How she did it: Jenner came into the business at the time when it was hoping to expand nationally. It was a high-pressure situation that led to more than a little family friction. "I came from university where you think you know everything," she admits now. "When you're working with your family you are generally more open with them than you might be with someone you don't know; luckily we're all good friends. It was tense sometimes but you try not to take it home with you."

Luckily, the family had a quality product and contact with local supermarket managers, who would stock their product and guide them through the scary process of dealing with the bigwigs who stock products nationwide for supermarkets. "I still find it daunting dealing with the buyers. It can be a scary process; I am looking after my business and my future, so that makes it daunting. When we eventually saw our products on their shelves it was a real prize."

Tips: "Our competitors are global corporations, which can intimidate you," says Jenner. "They have departments dealing with distribution, marketing and production, and there's just me – and I'm eight months pregnant with a child to look after. You need to remember the advantages of being small-scale. They might need to wait until next month's board meeting to make a decision, I can make a choice with my father over a cup of tea and it gets done immediately."

Janet Purcell, chef at Denby Dale Pie Company, Huddersfield, Yorkshire

The product: Purcell came up with the idea to market high-quality home-made pies to the masses in 2001; she began approaching supermarket regional offices with her products – all made by hand, with chicken, beef and potato fillings – soon afterwards. At the beginning of this year, the firm, which now employs 17 people, secured its first listing for their frozen meat and potato pie with Co-operative supermarkets. In July entrepreneur Alan Birchall bought a stake in the business; they are now in discussions with Waitrose to also stock their products.

How she did it: "I was staying at home with my children and was enjoying being at home," explains Purcell. "While I was there I was cooking a lot and people would come over for lunch and they'd ask: 'Next time you cook one of these pies would you do me one?'" She wanted to get back into the workplace once her children were older and started part-time reception work. When she started shopping for food again, Purcell discovered there was a lack of quality in the pies she wanted to buy. "I didn't change the way you would cook these pies at home," she continues. "I bought the equipment to suit the product rather than the other way around; I found a farmer who was interested in putting the meat in and he also invested in the business. Alan had experience of national retailing and I wanted to take things to the next level."

Tips: Purcell says the best thing to do, certainly if you are in the regions, is to approach supermarkets' regional food groups. "They will do the introductions and can get you the opportunity to present to the national buyers," says the chef. "It might not be a one-on-one, but it will put you on the right path. It will stop you from wasting time going down any blind alleys; you can then just focus on getting to know everything about your product."

Alan Rosenthal, founder of the stew company Stewed!, North London

The product: Rosenthal began selling his stews at a farmer's market at Alexandra Palace in April 2009. In August of that year, Crouch End's Budgens began stocking his selections of Persian chicken stew, along with chickpea, roast sweet potato and feta products. From October, you'll be able to buy them in selected Waitrose stores across London.

How he did it: Rosenthal felt he was floundering in his job as a stationery product developer and wanted to turn his passion for cooking into something more concrete. "I quit my job and tried my hand at working as a dogsbody in restaurants and didn't really think of a way forward until I came across the Stewed! idea."

The concept was simple: rebranding the stew as something young and funky, though Rosenthal didn't gain confidence in it until he road-tested it at the market. "I asked a lot of customers what they thought of it from the start," he says, "and they were very complimentary. One of them suggested I speak to Andrew Thornton, who owns the Budgens in Crouch End. Initially I was thrilled just to sell 10 pots and then it goes to the next level. I am always striving for the next thing." Sales figures in Crouch End, and later, another Budgens in Belsize Park, also owned by Thornton, helped the entrepreneur out when he approached the nationals.

Tips: "You need to find out who the right buyer is in your food category and you need to badger them," says Rosenthal. "They are not going to phone you, you need to make sure you are at their desk and that you know your product inside-out so that you can push it confidently. A lot of the time they will just ask you to send your product in, but if you can get in front of them then they can start focusing on the taste and quality of the brand – that will make a massive difference." He had to have his operations accredited by the British Retail Consortium in order to stock in supermarkets; he got around it by sub-contracting out his products' preparation.

John Gregory-Smith, founder, The Mighty Spice Company, Richmond, Surrey

The product: This up-and-coming culinary maestro left university in 2001 after having travelled extensively across India and South East Asia before plumping for a job in recruitment; he had to suppress his passion for food in the process. "One day, when a friend asked me for my curry recipe; I gave him some spice mix that I'd made," he says. Eureka. He did research on what the major supermarkets were offering and found nothing similar. A breakthrough came when he was offered the chance to trial it at Selfridges; and as of October 2008 his Mighty Spices (Indian Tandoori, Thai Green Spice, Chinese Szechwan) were rolled out in selected Sainsbury's across the country.

How he did it: As you might expect, it was the opportunity to turn a passion into a realistic business proposition. Upon graduating, Gregory-Smith used to take notes in restaurants, "always asking lots of questions", so going into the catering industry seemed like a natural progression when he decided he wanted to leave recruitment. "I met Gordon Ramsay in a bar and went and did a couple of days' work experience with him," he says. "It was enough to convince me that I don't want to be a chef." He worked at running kitchens and miniature delicatessens, but decided that he wanted the control of creating his own product.

"It was a lot of hard work, a lot of Googling, a lot of making different batches of things at home," he continues. "I used to make three different flavours and get whoever I could to try it out. When I felt confident about it, I began to build the brand." He contacted the supermarkets and wowed them with his 10-minute Powerpoint presentations. "It's all been such hard work," says Gregory-Smith. "I've given everything up for this; I live with my Mum and Dad and I am nearly 30, and haven't had a regular salary for three years. I am looking to promote these recipes and the use of fresh ingredients by writing recipes and doing television work because of how strongly I feel about it."

Tips: "Lots of people told me someone with no experience in the industry and no formal training could not do it. It made me work 100 times harder to prove them wrong," he says. "I read lots of food trend reports. I spent hours comparing the costs of various products and doing surveys. There is loads more I want to do with the business and lots of other opportunities I am keen to explore."

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