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Lessons learned through tough decisions with Haven’s Kitchen Founder, Alison Cayne

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Joining me on the show today is Alison Cayne, the founder of New York based biz Haven’s Kitchen.


Originally a cooking school that started out in 2012, Haven’s Kitchen is now helping cooks of all kinds in the kitchen with their ridiculously yummy looking, vibrant squeeze sauces.


I highly recommend jumping on the website to get a taste for what these delicious pouches look like. As soon as you see them I can guarantee you’ll want them in your life! I’m keeping faith that they’ll make their way to a wholefoods in London someday soon.


In this episode we’re covering Ali’s 8 year journey and so many lessons she’s learned along the way including the major moment she realised she would have to close down the best performing side of the business earlier this year due to the pandemic.


Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


Alison: Well, I try I'm not very good at the elevator pitch because it's like a long winded introduction. But taking my name's Alison Cayne. I have a company called Haven's Kitchen.


We are


A CPG


Brand. Our first product


Line is a line of fresh squeezed sauces and pouches, their cooking sauces, simmering sauces, marinades. They kind of evolved out of my first business, which was a cooking school in


Manhattan in Chelsea,


Which I just closed because of the pandemic, but that I opened in twenty twelve. So we like to think of ourselves as


Your


Best friend in the


Kitchen and we


Kind of do that through classes, our cookbook and now this product


Line. I love that.


The best friend in the kitchen. That's so nice. Yeah. I want to set the scene and go way back to when you were just getting started pre twenty twelve. What was happening in your life that kind of led to the light bulb moment of you wanting to get into this space of cooking, of bringing people together, of community. You want to hear all about it?


Well, I got


Married at twenty three and had five children in eight years,


So I had


My own community at home and I was cooking a lot and I was always really into cooking and always really into


Food, always hosting


People. I started teaching cooking in college just to friends and friends of friends


Because people didn't


Know how to


Make soup


Or roast chicken.


And it was


Always, for me, just this really comfortable, happy place where I felt creative and I felt


Empowered and I


Felt like I had, I don't know, freedom. And a lot of people had this sort of like opposite feeling about the kitchen.


When my youngest


Son was going into nursery school, I decided to go back to get a master's


Degree in a program


At NYU that's focused on food sustainability, food justice, food policy and sort of food systems and the history of trade routes and religion and food and gender and food and race and ethnicity and food. Really fascinating


Program.


But as a part of that, I had a requirement to get


An internship, which was sort of


Funny because I had five kids


Under


10, I think, at that time. And I just was kind of


Like, is this a joke?


Like, who's going to hire me? I haven't had


A real job right.


Since I was twenty four.


But anyway, I


Ended up getting the job as the head of the education station at the Union Square


Greenmarket. So my


Job was basically giving school tours to everyone from three year olds to 18 year


Olds, all about


Farm labor practices, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, how their food


Choices really do impact not only


Their personal


Health and their community


Health, but really the


Larger good. And what started


Happening was the people that I was teaching cooking started wanting to go on market tours and the people that I was giving market tours to. The grown ups who are with those kids on the tours, started asking me for


Recipes because they


Understood that they needed to start buying locally and understood that, like shopping at the market was good for the local economy and for the environment. But they didn't know what to


Do with a yam. Right. So I thought, hmm, there's something here.


And like in many places around the world, there are super cooking schools that aren't culinary professional schools. They're just you visit, you go to the market, you learn how to make the regional cuisine. You have a fun day of it. You drink a bottle of wine. And that really didn't exist in New York. So I opened Haven's kitchen in 2012 and it was just


This this


Idea to connect people with the joy


Of eating well


And cooking and taking the fear and


Loathing out of it. What ended up


Happening


Was because it was


This beautiful old carriage house, it made a lot of sense to have a cafe in front and two stories of private event space. So the business ended up being profitable


Almost accidentally, like


Year two, because we started doing three


Hundred private events


A year. So everything from weddings to three day corporate retreats to brand launches, book parties, closing dinners, bridal showers, you name it. And we built this incredibly, really strong community in the


Cafe because it was just this marvelous


Place that


Really felt like


Nothing New York had to offer. And of course, the heart of the business were the cooking classes that we were doing six nights a week.


And it just


It was just


This like ecosystem of


Food and learning and community.


And I mean, people met


In our classes and then ended up getting married there. People started their political campaigns and the cafe.


We launched a


Number of CPG brands when they were first getting


Started. It was


A really, really fun, dynamic


Place to be.


And then


In twenty eighteen,


We launched the line of sauces,


Really as a


Response to our students, just saying, like, we don't


Need kids, we just


Need a good, fresh, healthy sauce. And everything in the supermarket is in jars, in bottles, in the middle of the store,


Lots of


Preservatives, lots of salt, added


Sugar. And we just


Want the things that we're learning how to make in class. Why doesn't


That exist?


So we made it exist.


Wow, that is so amazing, it's just such a special time in your life as well when you go from zero to one hundred. Really, really quickly without kind of that even foresight necessarily to think it would be that.


No.


And I was reading something about that time in your life when you actually were looking for a different kind of space and then you stumbled across the carriage house. Can you share a little bit about that?


Yeah, I know. I mean, my original plan was just like a little walk up, maybe a thousand square


Feet, build the kitchen.


I didn't


Have I certainly didn't


Have


Retail dreams


And I didn't think I was going to be a


Wedding venue.


But then I fell in love. I it was it was this old carriage house. It was built in early. Eighteen hundreds on 17th Street. The block was very. Nice at that


Point, and it just needed love,


But it


Was it was like


Singing to me and I walked in and I knew exactly where the kitchen would go. And I was like, of course, we have coffee and scones and retail goods. And then upstairs it was like there was a living room space, which made perfect sense for a bar.


And it just it just was all there.


And fortunately for me, it was the better. Way to go, because I don't know that the cooking classes in and of


Themselves would have been


A successful business


The way that


This turned


Out to be.


Totally, yeah. And when you were in that phase, were you still funding the business or did you have to go out and raise money to be able to get into that carriage house?


No, I mean, and I think for your audience and this is something that I don't think people talk about openly


Enough, I was


Very privileged to have the money to self fund. I did the renovations on that building. I basically took care of any difference between what we made and what we spent in year one. And I was fortunate that we were able to make a profit in year two. But that's because my family wasn't depending on this income.


I had a


Nest egg that I could


Spend know. If you're


At least in America, no bank would have funded


That small business


Loans do not cover that kind of business and even other sort of more scalable businesses. They really they need personal guarantees and a lot of covenants. And they're not your go to and candidly, I don't think investors would have been like this is a great idea. Right. So I think talking about the


Money is really important because


I could not have done it had I not been willing


To spend, I mean, a million


Dollars


All in myself.


And that's a lot of money.


Yeah, it's a lot of money and it gets for you as well. You're really going on your intuition. You had this vision, you were super clear on it. But of course, it's a risk. It's a really big risk to jump in and do that.


Yeah. And I think asking friends and family to participate in


Your risk, that has its


Challenges also.


So, you know,


Unfortunately,


I think there's


A lot of sort of entrepreneurship


Worship out there


In the world. And I think everyone's like, you go you go live your dream,


But keep your day


Job until your dream has a little bit of traction. And then once it does, then you're in a position to raise money for it and to and to bring in other people.


But most people


I know that have had successful businesses that didn't have the resources to fund them themselves really did stay in


Their day jobs until the last


Possible minute that they could.


And I guess that's really taking a calculated risk because you're tipping the scales, you're still having your regular income coming in, you've got that safety net, but then you're really hustling to see whether there's something that and see whether this interest from outside is because, of course, it's one thing for you to be like, I would love this and that's great. It's good to start with you. But if the wider community don't want it and it's not the right fit at that time, then of course it's pretty scary.


Yeah. And I mean, there are a lot of great ideas that don't translate to great


Businesses, you know?


I mean, that's just the reality.


And there are


A lot of great ideas that are just ahead of their time. And people aren't quite ready, whether it's investors or consumers, they're just not ready. I happen to hit right at the right time


Where New Yorkers


Were starting to understand the connection between the food that they were eating and their well-being and the greater good and the environment, things


Like food


Policy and food justice were starting to kind of come on people's radars in 2012. You know, there was there we were post two thousand and eight. So we were in a really great time in the economy


And hospitality


Business in general, brick and mortar businesses are very challenging. So all the conditions really need to be right for them to succeed.


Yeah, and I guess it also sounds like there was really nothing similar in the market in New York for people to come and have this experience and have this community. And just the visual impact of having that big, beautiful space sounds absolutely amazing. Wow, what a time. I'm sorry to hear it shut down there like it's I guess. How does it feel? What's the feeling?


Well, it's been a few months, so I'm not going to tear up when we talk about it. We were having our best year ever. We went into twenty, twenty eight with more deposits for weddings and corporate events than ever.


It was


Fairly obvious in March that


We were going to be


Closed for some time.


I think as the months


Wore on, it became more obvious that this is really going to be a long


Term shutdown.


And brick and mortar businesses


Are not


Operating at margins where we can handle a year of no revenue. It's just it no matter, it just doesn't work. That's why you see sort of like the decimation of a lot of small businesses, especially restaurants.


It was we


Tried we were like, maybe we'll do Milkins, maybe we'll do delivery, maybe. But at the end of the day, because the event space really was like the main generator of all of the income.


And we knew that that


Wasn't happening for some


Time.


It just made the most sense to close the school. Fortunately, I was able to pay everyone well. I was able to get out of my lease with just handing back the keys.


It wasn't a


Ton of sort of Kafka esque nightmarish paperwork.


But it was really


Sad because it was very abrupt and it was shocking to all of


Us,


Obviously, me talking about having to let go a team of over seventy five


People was hard


For me, but obviously harder for the people that were let go. And pretty much a really heartbreaking time,


But I think that I'm I'm happy


That we did it when we did it, I think it would have just gotten worse.


I think that


For me personally, having this business


As


This this really


Growing business


That needs my time and


Attention has been


Really fascinating, just kind of realizing how much my brain was really in two places and now only in one, how much more


Effective I can be.


There's a lot of really good stuff that's come out of it. But for sure, it was really it was really painful.


Yeah.


Gosh, it sounds sounds like a really big decision. And obviously, like you said, it's bittersweet as things that have great to come out of it. But you can I guess you can never understand how to deal with those things until they happen. And you learn a lot in this process.


I think that that's the thing about the pandemic. I think it's just a pressure test for you personally. Relationships, businesses, ideas.


You know, you hear about


Friends that


Are falling in love


And you hear about friends that are breaking up


And


People are either finding things


That are.


Getting them super locked and loaded or they're having some real crises in their sort of personal well-being,


And I


Think it's I think of it like a house when it's when it's built on a really firm foundation and kind of moves when when the winds come. But if it's not, then.


It breaks and


That's OK when


Things break. That's OK,


Because sometimes things


Are kind of held


Artificially up. And so the breaking is sort of the first step in the rebuilding, which which is exciting, if you can look at it that way.


Yeah, that's really interesting. I like that. It's nice. Well, let's move on to talk about the sauce business. I want to change topics there and figure out when you were early on in building the sauce business, kind of what was the vision? What was it that you wanted to create and how did that kind of get started?


Yeah, so we've always been the mission from day one has always


Been there is


A cook inside


Of you and you


Can feel


Creative


And empowered and all of those things that I was talking about, how I felt in the kitchen, you just haven't necessarily


Learned how you've been


Taught to think that this is something intuitive, that


It's not.


You've been sort of it flooded with images of the most beautiful food and these incredible chefs. And so nothing you make is going to compare and it's just going to make you feel bad about yourself. So our job has always been the way to get someone to do something


More because it's good


For you and it's good for your community and good for the environment is not to say you should be cooking more, but to make it really fun,


Really creative, really


Empowering.


And so how do we make


A


Product. Right, that makes


Someone feel


That way? And it


Starts


With the way


That it looks and the way that it


Feels that the


Idea of squeezing a sauce is very fun. It's kind of like kindergarten. You feel like you're painting, you feel like I'm going to be creative. It's not about measuring out a teaspoon of this or whatever it's about just to squeeze here and maybe a little more squeeze there. It's about the colors of the sauce. It's about


The freshness


And the vibrance of the flavors, which was really important to us. Obviously, we need to have a super clean label. So you know that you're putting good things into you. And most of all, it's really about the way that we. Educate consumers on you, all you need is a


Cauliflower, you can


Roast that, we're going to help you figure out how so that it comes out crispy and golden and delicious and then a squeeze of sauce and you've created a beautiful


Meal


Fast. You save time shopping, chopping, cleaning, but it gives you that feeling of empowerment.


So that was


Always the mission. It shifted a little bit because it went


From we think


More people should be cooking because it's so good for everything. And now it's like,


Well, everyone's


Cooking. So now how do we sort of say, like, OK, we've got you. We can help you out of your rut. We can help you with cooking fatigue.


You know, we can help


Make this more fun and exciting. Then I have to make dinner again. What am I going to make


All of that the


Grind? Yeah, totally. I am. I really love the pouches and that idea of squeezing it and splurging it out. This is a jar. And I also feel like it feels a little bit different in terms of throwing it away versus throwing the patch away. It seems a little bit different. Every time I throw big jiahua, I'm like, oh, I don't have any space, but maybe I should be keeping this.


Well, the thing is, again, also like at least in the US, you know, people think because they put something in in the recycling bin that it gets recycled.</