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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


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

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


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

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


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.


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


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


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,


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