Pippa’s delicious food made an immediate impression on me. But it was the tales of her intrepid venture into setting up a sustainable catering company – Escape the Onion – that really grabbed my attention. Pippa had been working in marketing in the food industry for a while, but it never really satisfied her and when she hit crisis point in an unfulfilling job it was clear that she needed to find a new direction. She just didn’t know what that was. We talked through her recent journey and that initial cluelessness about what to do, as well as all the fears that initially blocked her path to making a change, well, they really, really resonated with me. I wanted to know how she moved past the things that held her back, what she learnt along the way, and how I could learn from her journey towards finding a new, fulfilling direction.
Before you set up Escape the Onion, what were you doing? What did life look like?
Right before I made the change I was working for a food and homeware brand. I’d been working there for quite a while and – for me – it was not a good place to be. The dreams, values and goals for the business didn’t align with where I wanted to be. I kept trying to find change within the organisation, but I came up against barriers every time. I was just feeling really stuck and my confidence was rocked. But when I started job-hunting, I kept pushing into the same areas using the same skillset. And I really wanted a change to be more significant than that. Friends and family would say ‘just find a new job’, but I didn’t know what would be next or how to find the next thing. I was desperately unhappy.
So, what did you do to make the break away from that situation?
A friend suggested I look at the Escape the City job board. I was trawling through it, but I just couldn’t figure out what offering I had. I’d known for a long time that food was what I was interested in, but I had no idea of how to work with food in a way that was going to tick the boxes for me in terms of career satisfaction.
While I was looking for a job, the Escape Tribe information kept popping up. It’s a 12-week course where you meet one week night and five weekends. The first half is about self-reflection: learning about where you’re coming from, what’s stopping you from moving forward and about starting to break some of that down. The second half is about getting out there with experimental testing. The whole time you’re learning from a place of action. It’s about figuring out what is the thing that’s going to make you fulfilled and getting the hell on with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean an industry, job, everything change. For some people, it’s about negotiating a 4-day week.
I looked at it but thought there’s no way I could spend that time and that money. But by the end of that year, I was at real crisis point. I needed something. It seemed like a good place to start.
How did the course help you get out of that old job rut?
I was in an accountability group and everyone was incredibly supportive. Every week they sat down with me and pushed me to test my blockers – things that stopped me moving forward. To find out if they were actually real or something I was creating in my head to stop me. They forced me to sit down and really face up to them. I was so terrified that if I just quit my job I wouldn’t get another or that I would run out of money. I was too scared to even really consider it fully because if that really was an actual blocker, if I actually couldn’t financially do it or if I couldn’t get another job, that was so terrifying.
You get perspective when people ask how realistic a blocker is. By saying ‘you think you need x amount for a month – why is that? Do you really need that much money? How much does it cost for your groceries, rent, bills? How can we shave this off so you can get to an actual minimum, not this inflated version that you want?’ When you start getting real about that with yourself, you suddenly see that there are sacrifices you’re going to make there, but they’re short term.
The support from the community aspect of the Tribe changed everything so radically for me. Being able to have that support of people who are doing the same thing and they’re holding you to account – that part of it was massively missing from my life.
When did you figure out that a catering business was the answer?
The food thing just kept coming up again and again. So, I contacted loads of different people within the food industry. I rang 4 or 5 street food vendors before realising I didn’t want to do that. I talked to people who ran pop-ups. I talked to people who were in catering. I talked to people who were in other food brands, at supermarket level, at farm level. Nothing was really speaking to me.
By this time Escape needed someone to come in and run their venue – a hospitality job – and I knew I could do it in my sleep while I was looking for another job. While I was there, they were ordering in food for an evening course and for staff working evenings. The cost was just phenomenal. I asked them if I could cook dinner for them – just for a week – because I felt we could save ourselves a lot of money. I love cooking. This would be a real joy for me. Everyone really loved it and I got a real buzz out of it. So we continued on for a few more weeks.
At that point someone said, ‘dude, this is something clearly sparking for you – every time you cook you are in this joyous state and you get into that zone’. Week on week people kept saying this was clearly a business I could test out. I realised there was something in it and cooking could actually be more than just something I do at home. It was something I actually want to pursue. That’s where it started really. That was where it finally clicked.
Where did the wonky/sustainable part of it develop?
The sustainable side of food production has always been really important. I studied agribusiness and one of the things that really fascinated me in my degree – and I’ve been drawn back to again and again – is organic, biodynamic farming. It’s a way of growing plants where you’re putting the best energy and nutrients in the soil instead of using pesticides and chemicals. When I moved to the UK I really struggled because there wasn’t a strong understanding of the benefits of organic biodynamic food. People aren’t prepared to pay the premium – some are – but there is this real gap in understanding why it is good in terms of feedback to the environment. I’m not going to try to claim health benefits but it’s about protecting the planet, ensuring the survival of bees and all sorts of things. Alongside that, I’d been working in wholesale food for a number of years and one of the things I had been utterly appalled by was the amount of food waste.
I’d tested a couple of organic business ideas at Escape, and they kept getting knocked back by the general consumer. When I started talking about food waste instead, I thought people would outright reject this like they’d outright rejected the idea of organic. But I explained that food waste is basically surplus. It’s sold at a cheaper price point because either there has been a bumper crop and a farmer or a wholesaler hasn’t been able to find a customer, or someone has over-ordered and not ended up taking as much, or an order has been totally cancelled. They were like: ‘Wow, hey, there’s something in this. We’re happy to buy a wonky apple – why would I not want to buy that?’ I started to realise that there was this real pick up in interest, so that was something that sparked for me. With food waste, I can’t guarantee that I’m working with organic produce all the time, but I am fighting the battle on some level. I’m still contributing back to the general sustainability problem. Which for me is a wonderful thing
At my first supper club, people came because a supper club was this interesting thing to do, but they all had something to say about food waste when we started talking about it. They could all contribute something to the conversation. And they walked away being really excited that they’d learnt something new. That part has been really exciting. I never want to be lecturing people on what they should do, but showing them how they can easily do something different. I want to showcase how beautiful this produce is, to share that love – that comes from a genuine place for me. That is the thing that really drove me to create Escape the Onion in the way that it is.
What’s been your toughest learning curve?
My husband and I made the plan that 2016 was the year that I was going to do all this testing and we thought somehow I’d have it all resolved by the end of the year. Which was clearly not the case. It’s going to be at least I’d say 2-3 years before the business is up and running in a significant way. And I’ve come to terms with that. We’ve both realised that’s OK. Has it impacted on my down time and my time with him? Yeah, it’s been tough. There have been weekends or evenings where I’ve had to carve out time for this. Sometimes he’ll be part of that and come to some of the events. But sometimes I’ve had to say this is this thing I’m working on and I need the space.
And there have been times where trying to run things alongside my job has meant that I’ve worn myself out. And there’s been a real push and pull between whether my priority is doing my current work or trying to get this business set up. It’s been a real internal struggle to get my head around that. I’m in such a fortunate position because I’m in a company that allows a lot of flexibility, but being able to carve out time has been challenging.
If you could go back to the beginning of your journey, what advice would you give yourself?
To understand a realistic timeframe. In the beginning I thought everything had to be wrapped up in 12 weeks, or 6 months. But after I’d finished the course at Escape, I talked to a guy who said ‘I’ve given myself a three year plan’. The idea of that terrified me and I thought ‘woah, three years is so long’ but then I realised that’s so realistic. He’d got it so right. As soon as I said I’d give myself a year, I thought I could make that happen. I had been so anxious in my 20s about having to get everything done by a made up point in my life. Realising there’s not that deadline has been a big thing for me. If you think that with modern medicine you’ll probably live to 100, and you’re realistically going to work until about 80, you’ve still got so many years of work. I’ve only been working for this small amount of it. If I could’ve known that two years ago – I’d think ‘get over yourself’. It would’ve taken so much pressure off. Now I feel so free to play.
Setting up a side project and making that into your full-time job is a brave and bold thing to do. If you’re thinking about making that leap, you can definitely learn a lot from Pippa’s story. Getting past all the reasons why you can’t walk away from a steady job is not an easy task, so I took some really useful insights from Pippa…
- It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what sparks you straight away… chase a few ideas until you find one that sticks
- Speak to as many people as possible about their work: you’ll find out if it’s your thing too or you’ll know what to discount
- Surround yourself with like-minded folk who recognise the challenge of finding your way
- Start small and invest in tests so you’re keeping the risk low
- Give yourself a break and some time to develop your plans – it doesn’t have to all happen straight away
Find out more about how to eat Pippa’s yummy food at Escape the Onion here: