'People said it was a midlife crisis': how to quit your job and start a food business, with tips from entrepreneurs who have made the switch

Sam and Shauna of Hang Fire Southern Kitchen In Barry
We ask seven entrepreneurs – including Hang Fire's Samantha Evans and Shauna Ginn – how they made the leap to launch a start-up food business Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Ever dreamed of turning your back on the nine-to-five to turn your food obsession – be it brewing beer, barbecuing, smoking, pickling, preserving or tending to your sourdough starters – into a business?

The statistic that nine out of 10 start-ups fail within five years is often bandied about, and opening your own restaurant is not without risk: in 2018, restaurant insolvency reached a record high, with more than 1,100 going bust.

But while it’s not all elderflower champagne, rave reviews and Great Taste awards, crowdfunding platforms and social media offer new ways to attract investment and customers, and to promote passion projects. Entrepreneurial spirit is thriving among innovative foodies. Just ask architect-turned-restaurateur Anna Hedworth, whose first book is titled: Cook House: How to leave your job and open a restaurant even if you’re not sure how.

According to a new report by Fidelity-International, 16.2 million people in the UK dream of turning their side hustle into a career. Jason Gibb, the creator of Bread & Jam – the UK’s first food founders’ festival – says the time is ripe.

“Small food brands are capturing two-to-three times their share of growth,” he writes in industry magazine The Grocer, attributing this to the millennial preference for authentic, less corporate brands.

With that in mind, I sought out the wisdom of seven entrepreneurs. Here are the secrets of their success...

Samantha Evans and Shauna Ginn

Hang Fire 
Southern Kitchen, 
South Wales

Samantha Evans (left) and Shauna Guinn of Hang Fire Southern Kitchen Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley

"We fell in love with American soul food"

Burnt ends and 18-hour smoked pulled pork shoulder with brisket pit beans and cornbread muffins, all cooked over wood and charcoal: these are the dishes that have ensured Hang Fire in Barry, South Wales, is booked out for months in advance (until February, at the time of writing) – as well as landing the women behind the restaurant with a BBC TV series, Sam and Shauna's Big Cook-Out, and a cookbook contract.

Samantha Evans and Shauna Guinn embarked on a road trip around the United States in 2012, on a pilgrimage to learn everything they could about American barbecue (and to see Dolly Parton in Nashville: the pair are also musicians – Sam plays harmonica and banjo, while Shauna plays guitar and sings). The second series of BBC TV show Sam and Shauna’s Big Cook-Out aired last month.

“It was a scary decision: both careers would have been difficult to get back into,” says Guinn, who was a child protection policy adviser (Evans was global head of a creative graphic designers). “But we utterly fell in love with soul food of the Deep South, and everything associated with it. There’s a romance to the notion of taking big hunks of meat, and cooking them low and slow in a smoker.”

With no investment, the pair returned with a smoker they’d bought in Texas, and relied on the pop-up model and social media to get Hang Fire off the ground. “I had a friend with a pub called The Canadian on the verge of closing, and emailed her asking, how about we open up a little pop-up out the back, feed the locals and see how it goes? Social media was a big part of how we got the word out. Soon, we were feeding hundreds of people.”

In 2015, the pair received a record number of nominations for the BBC Food and Farming Awards after sending out a Tweet, and won the Best Street Food or Takeaway category. Off the back of that, a publisher approached them to write a cookbook, The Hang Fire Cookbook: Recipes and Adventures in American BBQ (Hardie Grant, £20), and the developer of The Pump House on Barry Island, which was undergoing major regeneration at the time, convinced them to open the restaurant.

They took 1,300 bookings in the first 24 hours and, as the only female restaurateurs in the UK specialising in US barbecue, Evans and Guinn are still pinching themselves. “It’s a male-dominated industry. As soon as you think of meat and fire, you think of tattoos, beards and leather. Ours is the only American barbecue cookbook written by two women, and we’re not even American – we’re British!”


Bruce and Paramjit Nagra

Crazy Gin, Wolverhampton

Co-owner Bruce Nagra with his Lassi Gin Credit: Andrew Crowley

"My mother said we were crazy"

Building manager Bruce and Met Police employee Paramjit Nagra quit their jobs in London to create the world’s first clear mango lassi gin, celebrating their British-Asian heritage.

Now, the pair supply the Taj Hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants like The Cinnamon Club, and the gin’s fans include chefs Sat Bains, Atul Kochhar and rapper Tinie Tempah. “The idea came to us over a terrible takeaway on a drunken Friday night back in 2015,” says Bruce. “We were reminiscing about the British-Asian dishes we had as children, like spicy baked beans and spam curry, but we realised that our parents had never brought British and Asian culture together through spirits.

“Lassi is an iconic drink, and a way to invite people into a conversation about our Punjabi heritage. We wanted to give it a new identity – a bit like how we created our own identity as British-Asians growing up in the Eighties – and push the boundaries. First we thought about whisky, but then realised the juniper in gin balances well with turmeric, yogurt, black pepper and coriander.”

When they told their parents they intended to spend their life savings on the idea, the first thing Bruce’s mother said was “paagal”, which roughly translates as, “you’re crazy” (hence the name: Crazy Gin). Their distiller introduced them to the Harvey Nichols head buyer, and when gave him the first bottle, he jumped at the chance to stock it.

It hasn’t been plain sailing: when the distiller pulled out, they sold their house and moved back to Bruce’s mum’s house in Wolverhampton “on a wing and a prayer”, applying for a licence to distil their own gin. “Bruce’s dad had passed away unexpectedly, we were both thinking, life’s too short. We didn’t want to be forever thinking ‘what if?’ We were feeling optimistic – and we had nothing to lose,” says Paramjit.

This year, the pair have been juggling the business with the arrival of their son, Zoro, born in October 2018 (he turns one next week), have opened their own bar space in Wolverhampton’s Mander Shopping Centre, and have also launched Crazy Co, selling pure distillates and atomisers for other people to experiment with in their own cocktails and dishes.

(Telegraph readers can use the code TELEGRAPH for 10 per cent off Crazy Gin)

Anna Hedworth

Cook House, Newcastle

Chef Anna Hedworth at Cook House, Newcastle Credit:  Charlotte Graham

"I doubted myself before each opening"

At Cook House restaurant in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley, former architect and self-taught chef-­proprietor Anna Hedworth makes everything in-house: pickles, ferments, butter, salami, jams, soft drinks (such as apricot and ginger shrubs) and cordials. You’ll find dishes like lamb kebabs with burnt pineapple salsa and baby carrots with tahini, herbs and pickled ginger on the menu.

Hedworth’s cookbook, Cook House: How to leave your job and open a restaurant even if you’re not sure how (Head of Zeus, £25) tells how she learnt as she went along – from growing produce to menu planning. “I studied architecture at university in Edinburgh, because it had a job at the end, but I always knew it wasn’t the right thing,” she reflects.

“Projects would go on for so long that by the end I wouldn’t have any love left for them – the pleasure of creating a dish, making something nice to eat and feeding people gives me far more satisfaction.”

Hedworth came late to cooking, and documented her kitchen experiments in her blog The Grazer, launched in February 2011 – a journal of “attempts to grow, bake, pickle and smoke my way through life”. One day, she decided to host a supper club for the public. “I was fitting out a shipping container as a gallery space, so I asked if I could borrow it, and reached out via the blog to see if anyone would like to come.” They did – and she began a monthly event.

Soon, Hedworth was effectively doing two jobs – not knowing where her side hustle might lead.

Five years ago, she left her architectural practice to open Cook House in a shipping container, and in December last year, she moved to a bigger site at Foundry Lane Studios, a former printworks.

“I doubted myself before each restaurant opening, thinking, ‘is anyone going to come? Do I know how to do this? Are we going to run out of money?’ ” she admits. “But I did it, and I wanted to use my book to show other people how.”

Nisha Katona

Mowgli Street Food, across the UK

Nisha Katona at her restaurant Mowgli Street Food  Credit:  Paul Cooper

"They thought it was a bonkers midlife crisis"

Leaving a 20-year career as a barrister behind, “curry evangelist” Nisha Katona gave up the bar in 2014 to build a scalable Indian restaurant empire. The aim was to fulfil a “nagging obsession” with sharing the authentic home cooking she grew up with in Ormskirk in Lancashire and visiting her grandmother in Varanasi in India.

Katona’s simple, light food represents her Brahmin Bengali background, from temple dahl to “office worker’s tiffin” and fenugreek-kissed fries. Her signature dish was a risky move: the yogurt chaat bomb, a cold vegan starter, is an explosion of flavour that must be eaten within eight minutes of being prepared to order.

Her first site was in Liverpool, and before it opened she experienced both euphoria and fear. “I would work in court all day and then waitress every evening. The only time I would see my children at that time is when they came into the restaurant to do their homework. Miraculously, queues formed almost immediately.”

It proved a hit, and within a year, Katona opened another in Manchester; now, she has 10 UK restaurants. She has published three cookbooks, and received an MBE for services to the food industry. So, how did she do it? “I looked at Indian food on the high street in Britain, and it’s a million miles away from the humble food I eat, which is made with far less ghee and cream. If you have a unique passion and you see a gap in the market, your idea comes alive. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about Mowgli – it was like a child waiting to be born.

“I had a salary and brilliant prospects, two daughters to raise and a mortgage to pay, and my husband travels a lot – so it seemed like a crazy idea. Everyone thought it was a bonkers midlife crisis. I put all our family savings into it, and I could still fail – I’m only ever as good as my last service. I wanted to take my food to the nation in volume, and the secret to that has been reasonably priced, delicious, healthy food with plenty of vegan options.”

The hours are not so different from those as a barrister: Katona works from 8am until 2am. “But it’s the greatest privilege for my girls to see me relish my work, and Mowgli is an extension of our living room: I want them to feel invested, too – they even helped to design the logo.”

Her previous career prepared her for television and radio appearances on food shows, including Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and BBC Two’s Recipes That Made Me and Top of the Shop with Tom Kerridge.

“Being a barrister makes you comfortable in front of the camera because you spend your life talking to a judge whose job it is to derail you,” she says.

This winter, the 11th Mowgli will open in Bristol, with leases signed on more to follow.

Philip Wilton

Wildes Cheese, London

Philip Wilton, the Urban Cheesemaker of Wilde's Cheese Credit: John Nguyen

"I deliver our cheese in person, in our electric van"

Londonshire cheese is a gooey, medium to full-strength cheese with a velvety white coat. It’s made in Tottenham, with Jersey milk from Northiam Dairy in Rye (49 miles from N17), and demand for it outstrips supply.

“My career was bland: nothing brilliant, nothing awful. Then I was made redundant in the aftermath of the recession, in 2012, which forced me to make a change,” says its maker Philip Wilton, who went from disillusioned management consultant to urban cheesemaker.

“The thing I love about cheese – besides eating it – is the alchemy. Take milk, that ubiquitous product, and the possibilities for making hundreds of different cheeses are endless. I didn’t want to just press buttons and churn the same old handle – I wanted to try new things. We make fresh curd cheese, and if a couple want to wash a cheese in their favourite beer for their wedding, they can.”

Wilton had already experimented with making cheese for fun; learning the fundamentals of the craft on weekend courses at Reaseheath College in Nantwich, Cheshire, but also through “trial and error” at home.

Set on the idea, he and his partner Keith returned home to Tottenham from a research trip to the aftermath of the 2011 riots – and decided to stay put, rather than move to the country. “We were struck by the sense of a community trying to heal itself, and decided we weren’t leaving.”

While cheesemaking is more readily associated with rolling country fields, Wilton’s urban location has proved central to the unusual appeal of Wildes Cheese, now stocked at Fortnum & Mason. You might also spot it on the cheese board at Vanilla Black and Ottolenghi’s Rovi, or at the newly opened Pick & Cheese in the West End – the world’s first conveyor-belt cheese bar.

“We’re trying to be an example of true localism, selling to the individuals that come to us and to businesses within the North Circular. I deliver it in person, in our electric van. We’re not a corporate, production-line manufacturer, which is fundamental to me.

“Lots of people told me nobody would buy cheese made in Tottenham, because all they think of is social deprivation – but we never hid from the fact that we’re an urban dairy: we never called ourselves ‘Sunny Cottage Cheese’. We stuck to who we are, nailed our colours to the mast, and people got on board with that.”