Necessity is often the mother of entrepreneurship, and this has certainly been the case for Caroline Spiby. Her business was founded nearly 6 years ago, when she and her husband were not being paid sufficient for the milk produced on their large dairy farm. We met with Caroline in the farmhouse kitchen of Chalder Farm, West Sussex, to ask her how, through ice cream alchemy, she has taken milk and turned it into gold.
When her venture was first launched, Caroline had no experience of the ice cream industry. She simply knew that she “needed to find a product where we could take our milk and make a profit on it”. At one stage she and husband Chris toyed with the idea of making cheese, but the production and storage process would have been immensely complex. What’s more, Caroline tells us, “there are more cheese makers in England than there are in the whole of France”. So the goal was set: to make delicious, luxury ice cream using local ingredients and local expertise.
The research and development process began, of course, with “eating every type of ice cream you could ever wish to eat”, making notes, keeping tubs and analysing ingredients. The Spibys’ two small boys (Joseph, now 12, and Samuel, now 10), plus assorted friends and relatives, acted as willing and discerning judges. Caroline also used home grown panels to select her final logo design, which was created by a contact from the village. 10 alternative versions were stuck to doors inside the farmhouse and anyone at all who walked past was pulled in to vote and comment. Name choosing also took a number of weeks. The name “Caroline’s Dairy”, ironically the very first they came up with, was the one eventually settled upon as it would allow for the possibility of creating more products than just ice cream.
Once Caroline had a clear vision for her company, she purchased the necessary ice cream making equipment using her own funds, “as the farm didn’t have any money”. Once the dairy was set up, Caroline sought help from Italian ice cream guru Josef Boni, who works closely with the company who sold her the equipment. Boni, a flavouring expert, devised a recipe for Caroline using as few unnecessary ingredients as possible. He then showed her how to add locally produced fresh fruit to create the varieties of ice cream she dreamed of. “He opened my mind up to what’s possible,” she says.
Before the ice cream had even been produced, Caroline had secured 3 customers in friends who ran local farm shops. “Everyone knows everyone” in the local farming and catering world, Caroline tells us; a huge advantage when promoting a new product. In the early days of business, Caroline would ferry her product to the nearby outlets in cool bags in the back of the car. Fear of meltdown while trapped in a traffic jam was not ideal for the nerves, and meant that journeys had to be very carefully planned. Now her staff have vans to transport the goods, logistics are rather easier. It has also meant that the product can reach destinations much further afield.
Over the past 6 years Caroline has extended her market to around 140 outlets, from restaurants to National Trust tea rooms to British Airways flights. It has always been her policy to sell via vendors who are “on the same wavelength, with a customer base who appreciate what [she is] doing and will pay for it.” Having created a high end product using the thick, creamy milk of Chalder Farm, Caroline is very firm about establishing a price and sticking to it. “I don’t discount to anybody,” she explains. “If I discount then I’m devaluing my product.” Although she sometimes fears losing a deal during negotiations, her decision to stick to her guns has paid off so far: “Nobody has said no because I won’t discount. They say – Do you know, I really respect you for that.” In a supermarket, a 500ml tub of Caroline’s Dairy ice cream retails at around £4.50. Vendors may choose to charge the customer more – or less -than this, depending on their context, but all Caroline’s buyers pay her the same price. For Caroline, the business model of selling a quality product for a good profit, as opposed to selling high volume for a low profit, has paid off.
Buyers now have 13 flavours of ice cream plus a range of sorbets to choose from. New products often come about about through consultation with talented local chefs, for example a green apple sorbet was created specially for one chef who wanted to serve it alongside scallops. Some varieties are available on a seasonal basis “which makes things more interesting for people” and creates a demand. Cinnamon and rum and raisin, for example, feature just on the winter menu, while rhubarb is set to come back into the shops in April. However, customer demand can sometimes override the principle of seasonality. For example, Southern Co-op stores were so desperate for an ongoing supply of raspberry ice cream that this variety is now available all year round. “You have to balance what works, what’s seasonal and what the customers want,” Caroline explains. “We can all agree to stop a line, then we’ll get a phone call asking for that flavour. And you feel disappointed.”
A key strategy for building the existing customer base of Caroline’s Dairy has been the events wing of the business, which Caroline runs as a sole trader (the Dairy is set up as an LLP). Since the business was launched, Caroline, along with her traditional ice cream tricycle, has been a presence at various outdoor events. While this strategy may not generate huge sales, it does serve to get her noticed and create opportunities. “Wherever you go there’ll always be something, but you might not find it for quite a long time,” Caroline explains.
Attending events does, however, have a huge downside. During the summer months Caroline is out all weekend, as well as working all week: “I haven’t got time to do basic, normal, people things. In the summer people don’t see me for 5 months; I disappear off the horizon completely. I bump into people and I’m driving a van. It’s a massive sacrifice.” When her boys started to complain about her pressured schedule Caroline genuinely offered to sell the events business. However, to her surprise, this proposal was greeted with shock, and concern that the perks of tagging along to festivals might vanish: “They could see the benefits that they were getting out of it, things that they really enjoyed.”
Caroline and her family are still striving to cope with the runaway success of Caroline’s Dairy. “I knew it would work,” she says, “but I didn’t think it would be as big as this as quickly. The speed that it’s grown at has been much, much greater than I ever thought.” Caroline and her permanent staff, Jolita and Debbie, who make the ice cream, and Debs who works in the office, all work together to juggle the demands of the dairy. “I want everybody to do a bit of everything, really, so if someone’s not there there’s someone to take over from them. And it makes things a bit more interesting,” Caroline explains. This summer, a new member of staff is set to run the events instead of Caroline, and another employee should be joining the dairy. This should take the pressure off somewhat; however, if this summer is as sunny as last year’s, life for Caroline and her team will probably still be “mayhem”.
Luckily Caroline’s mother lives locally, and is an experienced crisis manager. She helps with the school runs most of the year, and during the busy hot summer of 2013 she appeared to cook for the family when things became frantic. During the winter Caroline freezes dinners to be consumed during hectic periods; when they run out, meals consist of a dish that has become known as “bits and pieces”: “It could be a pork pie, some salad, a baked potato in the microwave,” she laughs. “And we survive!”
The fact that work and family life are intertwined, and that there is no commute, does make the juggling process easier for Caroline. She is especially appreciative of working from home, as back in 1999 she had a car accident while on the long drive to work. As well as prompting her to become self-employed and based at the farm, the accident made her take stock of what was important in life. Although she was involved in a range of exciting international projects for a multi media company, just as the Internet was taking off, the contrast between her work and Chris’s work on the farm was becoming increasingly marked: “I started questioning all of it – Do we need any of that? Is it important?”
Through running the dairy, Caroline is able to live on site, do meaningful work and realise a long-standing ambition to be an entrepreneur: “I always had something in the back of my mind,” she tells us. Her role in the multi media company was that of project manager – “a jack of all trades”. This career experience means that she understands how to manage personnel and make things happen. Caroline also speaks a lot of trusting herself in new situations, and of just pressing on with the task in hand: “It’s all gut instinct when you haven’t done something before.”
Over the past few years Caroline’s Dairy has collected an array of prizes, including a Sussex Food and Drink Award and two medals at the 2014 National Ice Cream Competition. With all these accolades, and the accompanying media interest, folk are starting to question whether the business might, with the help of an investor, be set to go national. This might seem like a logical next step, but Caroline is adamant that the brand will stay local. Expansion could well mean compromising both the means of production – the dairy makes the ice cream in small batches so it remains thick and creamy – and the integrity of the business. “For me we’re a local farm making a local product. We’re not anything to anybody if we go national. Just a pot of ice cream on a shelf.” We wonder also whether Caroline might consider selling out at any point and she laughs. “I’d get someone else to run it and retire. But I wouldn’t be able to do that for long. I’d get bored and go and make something else.”
Expansion will happen, but on a local level; indeed there are many more outlets in Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Hampshire to expand into. And after attracting well over 1000 visitors to a recent Open Farm Sunday, Caroline is keen to run more educational events. She has just secured a contract with Natural England who organise free visits for schools – Caroline’s Dairy will be hosting 25 visits a year and be paid £100 a time. Children will learn about the journey the milk takes from cow to dairy, and about how to make ice cream. Passing on this knowledge is something Caroline is passionate about: “It’s so important for kids to know where food comes from. The biggest problem I think is when they stopped teaching cookery in schools.”
Since Caroline’s Dairy was launched husband Chris has secured more realistic contracts with companies such as M&S and Dairy Crest, so Chalder Farm’s finances are looking more promising. And although the dairy could never support the farm and its 500 cattle, it provides a valuable revenue stream. We ask Caroline whether she believes all farms should diversify in the current financial climate: “It’s probably a good idea. It’s good to have another safety net.”
Caroline’s Dairy, born out of a need, has thrived as a result of Caroline’s drive and uncompromising standards. And the entrepreneurial life, despite its pressures, has turned out to suit her very well. “I’m not someone that sits still for very long,” she tells us. “There’s always got to be a challenge, I think, if you’ve got that kind of enquiring mind. What’s nice about the ice cream is that it will never end because you can continue to make new flavours forever.”