Cathy Harding came up with the idea for her award-winning franchise Cook Stars over three years ago in February 2013. She was working six days a week as a contractor at a leading bank before that in a management job she loathed.
She says the fact she hated the job so much “did me a favour”. It made her think what she would like to do. She had three children, the youngest of whom was two at the time and she was doing long hours because her husband had been made redundant. “It was hard. I had no family time,” she says.
Her daughter, now aged eight, gave her the idea for Cook Stars. Cathy had always cooked with her children. “My daughter said why don’t you teach children to cook. It was a lightbulb moment,” she says. There was nothing like it in Cardiff, where she lives. “It was a brilliant idea. I have always had an entrepreneurial side.”
She handed in her notice straight away, so convinced was she that it was an idea that would work. That impetus has driven her on and resulted in Cook Stars winning the Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Franchise Award for Best Newcomer.
Cathy had some money saved up from contracting and her husband had just got a job which gave her a few months to put her business plan together. She did a lot of research, asking people what they thought of the idea, what they would be prepared to pay, what she should cook and so forth. She designed her own website, although she was not a computer whizz. She also designed her own leaflets and handed them out at children’s play areas and the like.
Cathy launched with one full class and a waiting list in September 2013. She added a Saturday class and that got full up too so she added more classes as word of mouth spread. “It took off quite quickly,” she says, adding that programmes like Junior Bake Off and concerns about health and obesity have heightened interest in what Cook Stars does. Indeed Cathy does some work with a local community group teaching diabetic people to cook healthy menus and also works with schools and government funded projects.
Her main classes are aimed at two to 12 year olds – both girls and boys – including a class at a local Montessori nursery. However, she also some advanced classes for older children, sessions for young carers and for adults and some sessions for parents or for children and their parents. She also hosts birthday parties with children taking home party bags which consist of a bag full of ingredients they can use to make something with, such as chocolate chip cookies.
Cathy has created over 100 of her own recipes, adapting those she finds for the class, and says it is “the best bit of my job”. They include rhubarb and custard cakes and Mexican bean burritos. She also writes her own lesson plans as well as recipe cards for children to take home. Cathy alternates sweet recipe weeks with savoury weeks. While the recipe she is teaching is cooking, she does other activities with the children, such as making volcanoes or picture frames.
She also came up with the idea of selling Cook Stars Cookie Bags to local cafes.
She knew from early on that her business idea could be scaled up and took on a franchisee relatively quickly. Creating the business manual took a while as she was still building her own business and adding classes. She continues to teach four regular classes now and some ad hoc ones and feels it is important to keep her hand in.
She says the trickiest part is finding the right venue for classes. She has used village halls, for instance. They need to have access to an oven, although Cathy now has her own portable ovens.
She says franchisees need to have business drive, be organised and friendly. “Having the right person is vital. It is our reputation that is on the line. I have worked very hard on the business and the wrong person could damage that,” she states.
In return they get a very flexible business – there are no targets set by the franchise which costs £5,995. This is a discounted price for the next eight franchisees that come on board and further incentives are included, such as £500 worth of free marketing tools.
Cathy herself works mainly from home and flexes her day around her children. “I am a mum first and foremost,” she says. Her children, now aged 11, eight and five, help out, for instance, testing recipes and learning about the reality of running a business.
Her priority now is building the franchise side of the business. So far over 200 people have shown an interest in being franchisees.
In addition to the manual, franchisees get a three-day training session where they shadow classes and attend a party, the £500 of free marketing and free marketing campaigns set up for the franchisee, access to a booking system and to a marketing consultant who will create a bespoke business plan, a free launch party and lots of branded equipment, such as the Cookie Bags.
Asked if she would ever go back to the corporate world, Cathy says “never”. “I love what I am doing so much it almost doesn’t feel like work,” she says.