Facts About Your Business
Name(s) of Business Owners:
Bernard & Susan McQuaid
Number of Employees:
Producing and delivering to our customers delicious meals of the highest food safety and hygiene standards whilst at the same time providing a first rate support system.
What Supports Were Provided by The Local Enterprise Office?
At the start up we received 2 employment grants.
Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow
1. What year did you start your business and what can you tell us about those early days and how it all started?
We officially launched Little Dinners in spring 2000. The concept was to provide wholesome healthy meals to childcare providers, offering a real solution to the logistical problems encountered when providing healthy nutritious meals for the children in their care.
The initial idea was sparked by a family member who approached us (as at the time we had been considering outside catering as an option for us) seeking a solution to the problems she was experiencing in providing hot meals in her Montessori Schools. Our idea was, to develop a model, based on individual customer needs, which would provide a comprehensive first class service.
We maintain full control over every aspect of the process including customer relations, product development, ingredient sourcing, as well as production, quality control and deliver to our customers. Over the years we have tried and tested various manufacturing and distribution arrangements, but it quickly became obvious that to provide a product of the quality our customers deserve, we would have to produce it ourselves.
2. What were the high points and low points in those early days, when you were a start-up?
The high points of the early days have to be that although we thoroughly believed in the product ourselves the response we got from the clients we had was amazing. The initial feedback and the fact that business grew purely from word of mouth gave us the encouragement to keep going.
A general low point was that at that time we had four small children and were working 6/7 days a week sometimes late into the night. So there is no doubt in my mind but they missed out on “quality time”, but we also knew that if they were to get the chances in life we wanted for them that we would have to continue on this road. It has paid off as we now have an Aerospace Engineer working with Aerbus in Toulouse, an Accountant working with PWC in Dublin, a daughter working with us and about to complete a Masters in Advertising and a 3rd year Architectural Student.
Money was extremely tight (Bernard referred to us as shoestring enterprises). At the time the banks were not lending, particularly to the likes of us who had no proven record or capital to back a loan. Every penny we made had to back into the business as we were constantly needing to upgrade equipment, in order to meet production targets. We were in business over two years before we could take on our first employee and then it was not until 2004 that we were able to hire a second. Both are still with us.
Another low point would have occurred into our third year. We were growing rapidly and decided that we would outsource our production rather than have to invest the huge amount of money that would be involved if we were going to be able to meet demand. We investigated a couple of possibilities and then went with a very reputable producer. However, our clients were not happy as the quality of the meals we were now delivering to them saying it was nothing like what they were used to. We lost approx. 30% of our clients over a 3 month period. We however had not burnt all our bridges, as we had kept our production plant just in cast a situation like this would occur. We went back into production, worked extremely hard at attracting new business and as they say the rest is history.
3. What was your big ‘break-through’ moment?
Honestly, I don’t think we’ve had one. I always said I would like the like Coka Cola affect, and by that I mean that when people sees a glass of cola most presume its coke. We’ve gradually reached that point and it’s a very nice place to be.
4. How did the recession impact the business and how did you respond?
As with many small businesses we were impacted by the recession. Initially sales fell by approximately 20% . This was caused by individual creches and schools reducing their orders as their enrolment numbers fell, some unfortunately couldn’t survive and had to close. On the other hand, we gained new customers, who were seeking a more economical way of providing meals and they have stayed with us.
The main impact on us was that our margin suffered, as we could not increase prices in line with increasing costs. Over the period our turnover grew but our bottom line was reduced. However growth allowed us absorb the shrinking margin
By the time the recession hit we had built a pretty fantastic team around us, people who have always given 100%. This we see as one of the reasons for our continued success. We were advised to put people on shorter hours, cut wages etc but we decided not to. We took the hit personally as did many others. However, we did dig a bit of a hole for ourselves which hopefully we will gradually be able to climb out of.
In some cases clients felt that the number of children in the crèche/school had fallen below a number which would be economically acceptable for us to continue delivering and informed us they needed to cancel. We however, offered to continue to deliver to them and thankfully most if not all have returned to if not exceeded their original orders.
We also listened to our customers and their concerns. Many were going through very difficult times as they had to let staff go and did not have the extra hands available in their kitchens. We saw an opening for other product lines such as introducing a range of tea time meals which not only solved their staff problems but in most cases saves them money. We were able to claw back some of our initial lost revenue.
5. Post-recession, what do you do differently in business now?
Since the recession we are operating on a much tighter margin, which means that we can offer even better value to our customers but this can only be sustained at a higher level of turnover.
6. Is the company benefitting from the recovery?
We are definitely seeing an uplift, particularly this year.
7. Your Local Enterprise Office (LEO) has supported your business. Tell us about these supports and what impact they have had?
Since 2000 we have availed of many of the courses run by the LEO including :
Start your own business, Management Development Training, Financial Management/Accounts/Tax Courses, Business IT Skills, Sales and Marketing Courses and many topical Seminars.
We have also availed of various mentoring sessions over the years as the need arose.
As a small startup it would have been impossible for us to access such resources especially from a financial point of view. Such courses are generally very expensive and therefore would come very far down the list of “things to do in any new startup”. Another side to these courses is that you meet others in the same position as yourself. Starting a business is very exciting but can also be a very lonely place to be. Sheelagh Daly and her team have always supported us in any way they can whenever we approached them.
In 2016 we were accepted into the Food Academy Programme which is supported by LEO, Supervalu and Bord Bia. Our new products are now available is Supervalu Stores in Wicklow and hopefully further afield in the New Year.
8. Are you optimistic about the future?
We are very optimistic. However, we have learnt never to take anything for granted or to become complacent. You can never take your eye off the ball. You must be constantly reinventing yourself and listening to your customers otherwise someone else will.
9. What’s next on the business agenda for your company?
For Little Dinners we plan to continue to build our brand and expand our offering. To continually add new products and diversify into other areas if possible
September saw the launch of our new company Once Upon A Dinner. We have taken some of our most popular Little Dinners meals, packaged them beautifully and brought them to retail as part of the 2016 Food Academy Programme. Once Upon A Dinner Launched 3 products in early September in Local Wicklow Supervalu stores, we are now looking forward to expanding our reach in the New Year. We are about to launch two more products in the range.
We are also very excited and proud as our packaging has been recently been shortlisted for two separate awards
- IDI Award in the visual communications food and drink category and
- Irish Print Awards in the Print Business Innovation Category.
10. In the future, what will be the biggest challenges facing Irish businesses?
Brexit has to be the biggest cloud on the horizon for the economy overall. It’s immediate impact will be (and already has been) on those directly involved with import and export with the UK. Even in the absence of tariffs, the administrative costs of border compliance could have a significant impact not only on trade with the UK but on our trade within the EU which transits through the UK.
The costs will be felt by the economy in general and we will need to be even more competitive in order to survive.
11. What’s the best piece of advice you got about running a business?
Three things come to mind
- “Just because you have a good product doesn’t mean anyone’s going to buy it”
- Listen to your customers
- Cash Flow – without cashflow any business no matter how good will fail.
12. Are there any other questions that you’d like us to ask you in this case study? If so, please write them here, along with your answers:
What is the single most important answer anyone considering starting a business needs to know.
Without a doubt its: Is there a gap in the market and is there a market in the gap.
Your ‘Top Tips’ for success
- What are your ‘Top Tips’ around attracting new customers and keeping existing ones loyal…
1, Focus on your existing customers. Find out what makes them stay. What is your retention rate. Happy customers will bring new customers.
Deliver them the best possible service or product you can and they will spread the word.
2. Keep on top of regulations, legislation, and trends.
3. When you are trying to attract a new customer know when to stop selling. Tell the truth. People respect honesty. Never let the potential client feel they have no control over the situation or that you are desperate to sell.
4. Treat all your clients equally regardless of their size, you never know what other business they might bring to you.
5. Van signage is one of our most economic and effective advertising tools.
Finally, we asked our customers what they thought about us and here is just one of the replies which I think sums up how we want all our clients to feel :
“Here at Model Farm Road Childcare, Cork (part of the Best Creche Group) we have been using “Little Dinner” as our primary food provider since we opened our doors in 2005. The superb quality of the food, impeccable standard of service and the always accommodating customer care team are the reasons we continue to choose Little Dinners above other food providers” Elaine Bermingham (Best Creche Group)
- What are your ‘Top Tips’ around keeping on top of costs and cash flow?
- It’s vital you know the actual cost of production. Exactly how much does it cost you to produce your product. This can be very difficult in a start-up position but without this figure it is impossible to properly project if a decent profit can be achieved.
It’s very difficult to keep on top of costs when there is only one or two of you doing everything. Whenever we have tackled this by looking at various suppliers and getting quotes from others we have managed to make significant savings. This is something we are not good at and should do more often especially now that we are that much larger and therefore have greater buying power.
- What are your ‘Top Tips’ around getting the best out of your team?
- Surround yourself with like minded people.
- We work as one large team and therefore include our key staff in selecting new employees after all they will all have to spend 8 hours a day together and therefore must be able to get along.
- We would never ask anyone to do something we wouldn’t or haven’t done ourselves.
- Create an environment where people enjoy coming to work, it’s not as difficult as you might think. It doesn’t cost anything to treat people with respect.