A (very reluctant) Spotlight On Sharon Goodyer, founder of Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet.

Sharon Goodyer is an entrepreneurial inspiration and an Affiliate Member of the IOEE. After having to leave her job as a Head Teacher in 2000 due to Parkinson’s disease, Sharon turned her hand to another skill, baking cakes, and took her new business from a small market stall in Kent to a company with a £5million turnover, producing thousands of cakes a day.

Unfortunately, the recession and the subsequent cupcake boom put The Cake Bake Company out of business, but when we first met her a year ago this hadn’t dampened her entrepreneurial spirit, and she was in the throes of a new business called Bar15 - producing a no added sugar cereal bar with 15 natural ingredients. Fast-forward to 2017 and Sharon has a brand-new venture, Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet; a company she has founded to make wholesome and affordable food available to everyone through embracing a sometimes-lost sense of community spirit and backing the Government’s intention that ‘everyone should be able to make healthier choices, regardless of their circumstances’ (NHS Choices 2016).

This month, in the first of a series of three articles, we sent one of our IOEE writers and self-confessed foodie, Louise, to interview Sharon and find out how she aspires to influence the way we make and buy our food, and how we all have the power to help change the shape of the food industry.

Far away from her kitchen in Thanet, Sharon was visiting a neighbouring suburb to me in Manchester when I went to meet her at her daughter’s home. It was a typically dark and drizzly Mancunian morning and I dipped into a couple of delis en-route to pick up some sort of breakfast offering, but couldn’t find anything I deemed worthy, and eventually had to settle for some supermarket croissants (why hadn’t I made something?) - which put me to shame when you’re taking them to someone who ran a baking company that produced over 10,000 cakes a day and once made an entire car out of cake (you must remember that Skoda advert). However, Sharon warmly welcomed me and the hastily purchased supermarket croissants into the house, and immediately setting about filling them with ham and cheese and putting them into the oven, before instructing me that she wanted this IOEE article about her… to actually not be about her:

“First things, first, Louise. Do not write about me, okay?” she said. “I’ve got absolutely no interest in you writing an article about me.”

“Okay…” I said, “…but you do know that I’m here to write a ‘spotlight’ article on you, don’t you?”

“No, no, no, I’m not interesting. People don’t need to know about me, and there’s no point telling them.”

“Well, I’ve read a lot of articles about you, and I beg to differ. I think you’re very interesting and people do want to know about you!”

“Look, I’m just a bolshy ex-Head Teacher, I’m not interesting, but what I’m doing is interesting, and I want people to know about that. So, that’s what you have to write about.”

Firmly put in my place with Sharon’s no-nonsense style (had I not already known, I could have guessed she’d been a Head Teacher), I set about asking about her new business venture, Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet (and definitely not about her). Sharon told me:

“I was first inspired from listening to a conversation on a bus, where a mum was telling her children what they were going to have for tea. It was a meal of hot dogs, alphabet potatoes and potato cakes. When I got off the bus I went and bought those ingredients and I made that meal, and it came in at under 50p a head. And this mum, she’s doing an amazing job of feeding her family on a budget, making something hot and hearty, but there’s no real nutritional value there, and I just thought that it should be easy, or easier, for people to be able to have wholesome and healthy meals, that are accessible and affordable. So, that’s what I set about doing with Our Kitchen. I’m not saying that I’m going to be delivering entirely virtuous meals, we’re being realistic - we’re making food that is slightly better than that, and we’re taking a step in the right direction. But, to do this, we need to work together locally, and that is the only way, the only way, which is why Our Kitchen’s strapline is Thanet Feeds Itself Better. It’s time that we all take the responsibility on ourselves and bring food back to the community where it belongs.”

It’s in the early stages of business, but Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet truly does that, running almost entirely on the support of its community, and its success and growth completely relies on whether people get behind it and volunteer, support it and give their time to it too. It largely operates by looking at the resources available for food production in the local area, such as restaurant and take-away’s kitchens, which are closed and often unused for hours every day, and using them to produce low-cost wholesome meals that can then be delivered and distributed out into the community.

The first business that Sharon got on board was a local tandoori restaurant. She approached them with the proposition of giving them a regular order every week, which they could prepare whenever they wanted, and she would pay for a reasonable price for it, her only requirement being that they made it slightly healthier than usual, using a bit less salt and fat than they ordinarily would (they chose to go for a vegetable curry and a chickpea curry, served with pilau rice). Sharon and a team of volunteers then collect it and then drive into the community, ring a bell in the streets and parents come out with their children and pay £1.40 a portion for it, knowing exactly where it came from and who made it.

To me, it sounds positively idyllic; charming and old-fashioned, with the sort of simplicity and community values that often feel a world away and long-forgotten in the bustling towns and cities of busy modern life, something that is exclusively reserved for quaint villages and countryside living. It’s the sort of thing you sometimes yearn for as a city-dweller, the romance of a bygone era where you know the butcher and the baker and the grocer, and you have a chat with the person behind the counter at the Post Office, but that’s where it usually ends with me - a whimsical daydream… but could it be a reality without upping sticks to somewhere small and rural? I wondered how it was actually going to run as a business, and probed Sharon about how it sounded perfect, but how was she going to make any money from it? And she explained it very clearly - she isn’t:

“You see, you’re thinking about this all wrong. You’re instantly thinking about profit. And that’s the mindset of our food industry. But why should profit be a part of our food industry? Once we know what healthy food is, and we’ve got to a place where we do, how do we have the right to deny it to any citizen? We all agree that there are certain basic things that in a civilised society the people should be entitled to; education, housing, healthcare. And healthy, wholesome and affordable food should be one of those things, it should be a basic human right, not a luxury or a privilege.

“And we can make it that - we can! But it needs to be done locally and we need to work together. Local is absolutely fundamental, because you instantly eliminate transport costs. Why is my ready meal spaghetti bolognaise currently on a palette on a lorry on the M62, waiting to be shipped off into another loading bay before getting driven to another  supermarket? That’s not how it should be. And yes, people are busy, but in every part of society there are: 1) people who like cooking, and 2) people who have free time to give. Look at me, I prove that. Food is currently an industry, but it’s time for us to take back control and make it a community.”

Having been on the inside of the industry, Sharon knows exactly what she’s talking about. She tells me about The Cake Bake Company and the enormous scale and the pressures of creating gigantic orders (we’re talking quantity here, not the size of the Skoda car) and delivering all over the country. There are, she says, rarely contracts in the food industry, instead she would get a phone call from the Poundshop or Morrisons on a Monday morning, for anything between 4,000 and 8,000 cakes at a time from each client. You’re then given a time slot to get your lorry through their gates, which would usually mean it has to travel overnight, and if your driver was stuck in a traffic jam you’d be instantly be on the phone to desperately trying to convince/beg the client to leave the gates open for longer. It sounds like a highly stressful, competitive and brutal business to be in.

“You’ve got to remember, it’s an industry,” Sharon says. “Food is an industry. You stop thinking of ‘food’ - you have products and stock and units. And if you’re getting orders for here, there and everywhere, what do you think is easier for your factory - to run two separate recipes for a cherry and almond cake, or run the same recipe for everyone and change the packaging? Exactly. That’s how it is. But I must emphasise that the food industry isn’t malicious, people and companies are trying so, so hard to get by and make a living and you have to play the game. The margins are small, legislation is large, and it’s really, really hard to make money.

“You’ve got all these pressures from the government to make healthier products and all this demand from customers for these lovely rich dishes, and competition from other producers and manufacturers to make these gorgeous glossy products. But if you look closely at a typical ready meal that’s been made ‘healthier’ - it’s laden with a corn starch bulking agent. Look for water early on in the list of ingredients, and then modified maize starch and/or cornflour further down the list. This is ‘wonderstuff’ for the food industry, because it makes the meal silky and shiny, it’s easier and cheaper to manufacture, it helps food to move through the tubes of factories, and it bulks out the dish, which reduces the overall percentage of fat, sugar and salt, which pleases the Government’s initiatives. However, it ticks those boxes because essentially the meal now has less actual food in it and more pumped-up nothing. It stops becoming food, in my opinion. What I’m saying with Our Kitchen and our ethos is that you can have that sort of real food, the quick and easy and affordable dishes that are healthier too - if you do it locally.”

To prove her point, I have the arduous task of sampling the evidence, as Sharon produces a plate of her homemade flapjack - made with less fat and sugar, naturally, and added carrot and apple. It is undeniably delicious - sweet, sticky, buttery and comforting, and there’s definitely no sense that you are sacrificing a more ‘indulgent’ number for something a bit more healthy.

She then whips out a packet of supermarket sausage rolls to compare to her own creations, and it would be impossible to deny that they look different in every single way. However, this comes as no surprise to me, and being an obsessive foodie (yes, sometimes food snob) that’s my expectation - that the homemade versions and the small business bakes will always triumph over the supermarket’s own sausage rolls, where the pastry has somehow managed to look simultaneously both dry and soggy, the meat appears miscellaneous and slightly grey in colour, and they crumble apart in the most depressing fashion. I told Sharon that I saw her point, but that I wasn’t surprised.

“Don’t you see that’s the problem?” she asked. “We have no common language for talking about food anymore. A sausage roll isn’t a sausage roll - these two sausage rolls are entirely different, two totally different things named and marketed as the same thing. I can’t say ‘sausage roll’ anymore and you’ll know what it means, as it could mean anything. And it makes your job so much harder, Louise, because if you’re writing about food, you’ll have to describe the difference, because the food industry is so mad that we’ve even lost our way to talk about it.

“People think about food in terms of what is easily available to them, what is accessible, what is ‘the norm’, and not what could be or what should be. The market of food, the whole territory is gone, we as consumers don’t have the language to talk about it anymore. To be honest, the whole affair leaves me completely speechless - and not many things do! I know that I’m one person, and I’m not even a ‘proper’ business person. I’m just a mouthy Head Teacher who got Parkinson’s and who was so angry she set up a market stall, and I know there’s a limit to how much people are going to listen to me, which is why this isn’t about me. It’s just not! This is about what people can do for themselves.

“And it doesn’t matter how much money you have, people think that’s a key factor, and they’ll be reading this thinking ‘well yes, but it’s easy if you have money’. But even if you’re wealthy it’s still hard work to find wholesome healthy food. And sometimes what you get when you’re wealthier is more tender cuts of meat, but also food with more butter and cream, so expensive doesn’t equate to healthy, otherwise all rich people would be thin, wouldn’t they? I was on the other side of that when The Cake Bake Company was at its height. I was earning a good amount, I had three houses and fancy cars and lots of holidays, and then I lost everything, all of my money, my business, my house, everything. I couch-surfed for a year or so, and I had to start all over again. And I can honestly say that whether I had lots of money or had absolutely none, neither made it easier to eat well. It’s time for us all to take responsibility for this, to pull together in our communities and take back some control - and that’s when things will start to really, really change.”

I left Sharon’s with a fire in my belly (as well as croissants and flapjack). She was a force to be reckon with, and her passion and ambition was completely infectious. Sharon is looking at food in a way that is completely revolutionary, and this is not an undertaking for the faint-hearted - but if anyone is cut out for this job, I believe Sharon Goodyer is the woman, and I’d like to see anyone try and stop her (though this article definitely isn’t about her). However, she can’t do this alone, and next month we’ll be catching up with Sharon as she spreads the word even further, speaking at the prestigious Vegetable Summit at The Chamber at London City Hall, and finding out about how we can get involved. For now - watch out, Thanet!

To find out more about Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet, please visit the official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OurKitchenThanet/