It’s 9.50 am on Wednesday 23rd August and I am officially sweating. Weighed down with my former overnight bag which as of two weeks ago, now carries a camera that I’m still working out how to use and a tripod that has spent the large majority of its life sat in a corner collecting dust, I spend a good few minutes wondering around a number of industrial units in the middle of Battersea. Much to my relief, Citymapper eventually works miracles and I arrive in front of a blue door marked number seven. Home to Potage– the London based healthy food delivery service that counts GQ, Women’s Health and London Evening Standard, not to mention a countless list of celebrities, as loyal and complimentary customers.
Sweating profusely and well aware that the nervous rash on my chest (the one that always seems to come out to play at the moments I really don’t need it to) is out in full force, I push down the handle, enter and am to my relief quickly introduced to its owner.
I first came across Georgia Cummings, 30, in the initial research stages for She can. She did. in an Evening Standard article listing her as one of ‘18 young London female entrepreneurs that will inspire you to be your own boss’. Instantly drawn to the companies humble beginnings and impressive growth, I knew I had to interview her to see if there was truth behind the title.
She can. She did. I’m so glad I found you, I was so lost! This place is amazing though, how long have you been here for?
Georgia Cummings. Thank you! We’ve been at the unit for 18 months now. The Detox Kitchen are two doors down who have become a really good friend and Crosstown Doughnuts are next door.
SC.SD. That’s dangerous!
GC. Yes I know! They bring us doughnuts every Friday!
SC.SD. Sounds ideal! Right, let’s get the important bit out of the way first! What is Potage?
GC. Potage is all about delivering delicious, freshly prepared, healthy meals across London in a sustainable way. When we say healthy, we’re talking about a balanced diet, so eating as much variety as possible, using the best ingredients and taking the time to source suppliers that are free-range, British and use traditional farming techniques. And it’s also about portion control…
SC.SD. That’s where I go wrong!
GC. That was always my problem too! It’s so hard but I’ve got better as I’ve got older.
SC.SD. That’s so true, fourteen year old me was a nightmare! It sounds amazing though. Talk to me about where the idea came from.
GC. I was on a walk with my brother actually. We stopped at The Lido Café in Hyde Park for a very simple bowl of stew and a piece of bread… it was so comforting and delicious and simple and we just talked about how amazing it would be to deliver something similar. I never had the energy to cook in the evenings and if I did it was usually just toast or cereal so suddenly thought this is a great idea!
Georgia was working in head office at The White Company at the time- a job that she enjoyed- but her passion was always to work with food. With the idea of Potage fixed firmly in her head, she spent the next year using her evenings and weekends to collect packaging samples and test recipes.
GC. I was really just trying to create a brand and work out how I was going to do it.
At the end of that year, she resigned and took a part-time job at Jamie Oliver’s Recipes to help with the bills.
GC. It’s quite nerve racking before you resign from a full time salary, you’re constantly thinking am I doing the right thing? But I’d just signed up for the London marathon and I thought to myself if I can do the marathon when I hate running, I can do this.
SC.SD. I had this very discussion with Siobhan Holmes, the lady I interviewed last week- it’s crazy what crossing that finish line can do to your mind set.
We briefly go off on a tangent, discussing all things marathon training when you’re not a natural runner…
GC. Exactly! I think it just gives you such good mental discipline… you could run however slowly but know that no matter what, you have to just keep on running.
When her Mum broke her ankle a few weeks later, Georgia took two weeks off work to care for her and seized the opportunity to make a go of the business.
GC. I used the two weeks to build a website. It was literally a static page with a menu on it and I sent round a newsletter. Actually that’s a fancy word! It was an email to 15-20 people to get the brand out there. Otherwise I knew I’d be going back to my part-time job.
Using her Mum’s kitchen to cook the meals and deliver them herself on a bicycle she bought using the ‘cycle to work’ scheme at The White Company, seven orders and £101 sales later, Potage was born.
GC. I said to Mum I’d use the kitchen for two months but we ended up staying there for three years… I don’t know how she put up with us!
SC.SD. That’s Mums for you! So it grew from there…
GC. Yes, we’ve grown organically via word of mouth since. We were really lucky that Kate Lough at London Evening Standard spotted us early on… as a small business that has such a big impact.
Since then, Georgia has been offered a column in the newspaper which also helps to get the word out.
SC.SD. Do you remember what the review said?!
GC. Yes! She had a lunch delivered to her- a slow cooked lamb and butternut squash stew- she was so complimentary of my cooking and I remember thinking she’s just being nice!
SC.SD. That’s going to stick with you forever isn’t it?! The logistics with food businesses always sound overwhelming to an outsider. Did you have to get a health inspector in for instance?
GC. Yes, I had to register the business with the local council and the health inspectors came to see Mum’s kitchen. I think that’s something that people are probably scared of but my Mum’s kitchen was very much a domestic kitchen, they’re just there to make sure that it’s clean. Mum doesn’t have pets but I think they’re ok if you do.
SC.SD. Aren’t there cafes out there that have loads of cats running around now?!
GC. Are there? Eurgh…. See a part of me thinks that’s gross but then a part of me thinks they probably keep the mice away!
SC.SD. That’s very true! What about ingredients? How did you go about sourcing those in the initial days?
GC. I lived near Portobello market so bought all the veg there. I used to cycle to Sheepdrove Organic Butchers in Maida Vale for the meat- I’d turn up early and the butcher would call to say the alarm was having a day off so he’d turn up half an hour late while I was standing in the freezing rain!
Fortunately, Potage is now big enough to outsource delivery so to Georgia’s relief, the bicycle has since gone!
GC. I was really happy to get rid of that bicycle! I look back now and think how did I do that?!
SC.SD. I genuinely have no idea! It’s such a unique part of the story though, not many people would be able to do that. What stats are we talking now?
GC. It varies so much. We could be doing a lunch for 600 people one day…. I’d say on average though we’re delivering a few hundred meals every day. What’s really nice is that we’re focusing on eating well together.
SC.SD. Do the team eat together here then?
GC. We do! Every day we eat lunch together and it’s so nice! You’re so much more conscious of what you’re eating, you eat slower etc…
SC.SD. So if someone brought their own lunch in you wouldn’t tell them to get out!?
GC. Not at all! In fact two of the chefs always bring in really spicy food but it’s too hot for the rest of us to eat!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about the highs! Obviously GQ, Women’s Health, London Evening Standard all have given you significant praise. Any other highs that stand out?
GC. We’ve never really spoken about people that order from us- I don’t really like doing that- but we’ve had a lot of high profile people that order from us and big tech companies in the city and you just think wow! They’ve heard about us and they’re ordering from us… for me that’s always the best moment and general customer feedback… it definitely keeps you going.
SC.SD. I can imagine. Can you recall any bad days along the way that have really made you question whether this is right for you?
GC. Getting ill was a real low point.
A year in to running the business, doing all the cooking on her own and cycling around London in all weathers, Georgia was diagnosed with glandular fever that provided the wake-up call she needed to take her first employee on.
GC. I also had a case of fraud. I was querying why our 6 month deposit for the rent had gone up by four thousand pounds. I was fine to pay it but wanted to know why.
After emailing back and forth for three months unable to receive an official explanation, Georgia woke up to an email saying if the landlord doesn’t have the money by Monday they would send bailiffs round.
GC. I thought, god, this is a nightmare, I’ll just pay it and be done with it.
Within hours, it became clear that she had been the victim of email diversion fraud.
SC.SD. That sounds so frightening. How did it make you feel?
GC. I cannot tell you how scary it is when you look back at all those emails and realise how clever these people are… I’d essentially transferred all the money we had ever made into some fraudsters account. I remember walking out of here thinking I’ve spent the last four years working 24/7 and it’s all going to end because of this one cock up.
SC.SD. How did you move on from that?
GC. I cried for about 72 hours. It was really tough. I couldn’t afford to keep the team so I had to get rid of half of them which was so difficult. It was me, my operations manager Sophie and the Head Chef, we all pulled together, had a blitz and things turned around.
SC.SD. So things picked up?
GC. It’s as if it changed overnight! In some ways I look back and think that the fraud was a blessing in disguise. It was a real make or break and we’ve really transformed the business in a way that at the time you just don’t think will work. Sales have tripled since and I just have to look back and tell myself that it happened for a reason.
SC.SD. I’m a firm believer in that. It’s so easy to look at social media and think that if you have your own business so young, you’ve had it easy.
GC. Exactly! I always see women on social media with painted nails and their hair is pristine and they run their own business, it looks so perfect and I just think to myself that’s definitely not what it looks like over here!
SC.SD. How did you find the transition from one man band to managing a team of eleven and delegating the roles you were so used to doing yourself?
GC. Really hard, I think I’m learning on the go. I love that I’ve done everything though so when the delivery drivers used to tell me how long it would take them to go somewhere I could say I was faster on a bicycle! I try to set goals, make them feel like they’re part of something, and that they enjoy coming to work because we spend so much time here the most important thing to me is that they feel good here.
SC.SD. So do you think you’re a good boss?
GC. Ooo I don’t know! I hope so! You’d have to ask my team.
SC.SD. By the sounds of it you are!
GC. It’s funny, I played a lot of sports in school but I was never captain. It was always the girl that was good at listening to everyone and giving out advice. I look back and it makes so much sense now why that person was. I lead by example. I think they’d say I work very hard. I try to lead with my energy and drive and just hope that it’s contagious!
SC.SD. How did your friends, family and former colleagues react when you told them your plans for Potage?
GC. A real mix. I kept it quite quiet at the beginning because I thought I was doing something slightly mad anyway. People will genuinely always jump at the chance to tell you why it’s not going to work but I think that’s really good. If you can’t stay positive with a few people saying that at the beginning then it’s never going to work. My family have always been incredibly supportive but they never said go for it and they never said don’t go for it. It can be hard on your own, especially at the beginning when no one really understood anything I was going through.
SC.SD. So you surrounded yourself with people you trust?
SC.SD. What about on the day you put it out there for the wider world to see- how did that feel?
GC. Terrifying! I didn’t start Instagram for three years but I remember posting pictures that were so bad, the food looked disgusting.
Georgia and her Operations Manager Sophie, now do all of the photography in house and fortunately for Potage, it looks anything but disgusting now!
GC. I have an amazing friend who works in social media though and he tells me constantly to stop being so British and awkward and shy. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to put a picture out there, this is what you’re doing, talk about how great it is etc… that’s really helped.
SC.SD. Absolutely but it’s still scary! Moving on to your personal life, how do you find juggling the business and your social life?
GC. Erm… I probably didn’t have a social life at all for the first three to four years, it really suffered. In my first year I was so blinkered and focused but I was ok with that, I thought if I’m doing something that I really love I don’t mind sacrificing that.
SC.SD. And now?
GC. As it’s gone on longer and longer, you start to feel the imbalance. It was only after the fraud incident that I took a week long holiday and I remember thinking ‘I’ve just got to switch off and completely let go.’ When I came back Sophie had done so much without me I remember thinking that I should go on holiday more!
A reminder to us all that time off every now and then is crucial for self-preservation.
SC.SD. I guess your whole business is about giving your body the nutrition it needs but if you work yourself to the ground it becomes irrelevant. Something will eventually give.
GC. Yes exactly! Walking is my exercise and meditation all at once now. I walk ninety minutes to work every morning, it gives me time to think and when I get here I’m ready to go. I’ve started seeing friends in the evenings too and I no longer work weekends.
SC.SD. Was it hard stepping away from working 24/7?
GC. No! As soon as we stopped it felt so good! It means we’re a lot more productive when we go back to our desk. I’ve only had 5 days off this year though so I’m definitely still learning but I feel great! I’ve got me time and a lot more balance than I used to.
SC.SD. I can imagine! And because I plan to ask everyone, favourite quote?
GC. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
SC.SD. Ooo that’s good! And do you think you apply that to the business?
GC. Yes, I think with everything in life I try to. Whenever I’m stressed I keep things simple and focus on one thing. I constantly keep it in mind.
I go off on a tangent again. This time about Bill Gates who is famous for giving the hardest tasks to his laziest employees. Why? Because they always find the easiest way to do it.
GC. That’s genius!
SC.SD. I love it! Which women in your life inspire you and why?
My Mum is definitely one. She has set up three very successful businesses, most recently a digital board level hiring platform called Nurole, and all whilst bringing up three kids. I don’t know how she did it! My Aunt who set up The White Company is also a big inspiration. I also love everything about Serena Williams…
SC.SD. Go on…
GC. I think she is so cool and just has the most incredible determination. I remember watching an interview with her after she won Wimbledon and they asked if she was going to go and celebrate and she said “no no no, this isn’t my goal, there’s another goal I’m working towards.” She gets so much abuse so she must have the strongest, coolest character.
SC.SD. Three very good picks! And to end then, what do you hope your legacy will be? Is this your forever?
Deep question I know but I’m intrigued.
GC. I feel like it is, yes. I’m really passionate about bringing people together, bringing people together with great food, and educating people in digestible ways about the benefits of eating a varied diet.
SC.SD. Continue to grow?
GC. Yes definitely, it’s so exciting! Everyone always says it takes seven years and we’re on five.
SC.SD. So you’re nearly there then! Do you see it growing beyond London?
GC. It’s an interesting question. This is where simplicity is the art of sophistication comes in because there’s so much opportunity here in London and I want to get it working really well here and then I’ll think about where it make most sense to go next.
SC.SD. New York?
GC. Potentially yes!
If her award-winning chocolate brownies are anything to go by- they are genuinely the best chocolate brownies I’ve ever tasted (sorry Mum)- New York, Paris, LA…the list goes on, would all be lucky to have her.
We end the interview there and after sending me away with a whole goody bag of different meals, I walk away with the knowledge that London Evening Standard were right- Georgia Cummings makes you want to be your own boss. But meeting Georgia put into perspective just how testing the road to success can be. Yes her company looks like sheer perfection on the outside- working with good food every day, what’s not to love?!
But behind the scenes, it is led by a woman who has determination beyond measure, a willingness to get her hands dirty and a humble strength that radiates from her unknowingly- a strength built up from five years of damn hard work and a series of obstacles that would challenge even the strongest of characters.
But what inspired me most about this interview- more than the celebrity fans and growth figures that would make budding Alan Sugar’s take note- is that despite all the praise and the evident success of this company, you can tell that for Georgia, this is simply just the beginning.