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.
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
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
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
But as a part of that, I had a requirement to get
An internship, which was sort of
Funny because I had five kids
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
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
Idea to connect people with the joy
Of eating well
And cooking and taking the fear and
Loathing out of it. What ended up
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
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.
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,
Preservatives, lots of salt, added
Sugar. And we just
Want the things that we're learning how to make in class. Why doesn't
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.
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.
Have I certainly didn't
And I didn't think I was going to be a
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,
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
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
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
So, you know,
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
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
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.
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
And brick and mortar businesses
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
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
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
This this really
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.
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
Are falling in love
And you hear about friends that are breaking up
People are either finding things
Getting them super locked and loaded or they're having some real crises in their sort of personal well-being,
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
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
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
And so how do we make
Product. Right, that makes
That way? And it
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
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
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,
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.
You know, the truth
Is under twenty five percent of what you put in that bin actually gets recycled. Most of it ends up in landfill. So that's our municipal systems just being really anachronistic and far behind in sort of sustainability standards. So even if a pouch ends up in the garbage,
Amount of space that it's taking in landfill is significantly less. Not only that, but the production and the shipping. It takes twenty four
Trucks to ship
The equivalent of one truck of
Pouches of jars.
So when you think about just how thin and lightweight
They are, right.
The fuel use, the emissions produce, the water consumption, the food waste, it's so much better for a pouch. But we also have this great partnership with a company called
Terracycle where free to
Consumer, if you just
Sign up, you get an envelope, you put your passion and we guarantee one hundred percent that
Sort of like upstream
All the way down stream, we've definitely chosen the most sustainable packaging. So we feel really good about that.
Yeah, that's so cool. I love that. That's really cool. So how were you when you went to launch to market? How were you getting the word out there? How were you finding customers and growing that side of the business?
So we were fortunate because we had such a beautiful, loyal community already.
I don't know how people do it today other than just buying a ton of ads on Instagram. But we we didn't buy our first ad until April.
We basically just told our community that we were launched, we we kind of we're telling them along the way we're making this product. What do you think? What flavors do you like really bringing our community kind of into the process so that by the time that we were available at Whole Foods are available on fresh direct, they were invested.
And I think I think
One of the main things that I would sort of say, whether it's you trying to get consumers to try your product, you're getting buyers to to put you on the shelf investors,
You know, the
Person on the other side
Has a problem. They might not know it, but they have a need. And if you're building something to fill that need, then
Our job is to make it less about our
Us and more
About this is for you.
We've created this for you. We're answering
Your problem. These are your
Needs. And we're here to fulfill them.
Several years have been very sort
Of like founder
Centric, and for me, I just
Feel like it should be very consumer and customer centric. And so that's kind of how we've built it. From the very
We were asking our community what they needed, what sources were their favorite, what how do they cook? Why don't they cook? Why do they like to cook? What do they want to make? What do they never make? All those questions. And we had kind of a focus group every night of the week because we had classes and we were asking our students all the time and they were involved in taste tests and all that stuff of school. Then by the time we launched in March of
18, we sold
Out at Fresh
Direct the first day
That we were on their site. I mean, literally, we did a swipe up to buy and we got a new purchase order the next day. And they were