Jess Daniell, 32, explains how being jobless enabled her to start her food business, and why she works close to 90 hours per week.

Can you describe your business?

Jess' Underground Kitchen is a ready-made meal business. We do one healthy home cooked dinner a day and we have two delis in Auckland that create delicious and healthy food that changes with the seasons. I started it in February 2013 and opened the first store in February 2016 and the second in Remuera in July. We sell a couple of hundred meals per day, plus frozen meals which are available in selected gourmet food outlets.

What motivated you to start this kind of business?

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Around five years ago I decided I wanted to focus on working in the food industry as a food writer and so I got a two-month contract to work at the newly formed Bite magazine. At the end of 2012 there were redundancies... and I went into the Christmas holidays suddenly jobless, and wandering what I was going to do.

Over summer I had friends over for dinner and they were like "Omg, I can't believe you made hummus from scratch, what's wrong with you?". One of them suggested that she'd love to be able to eat my meals every night and I said "Of course you can come and get dinner whenever you want, I always cook way too much" and she said "No, I would want to pay you for it", and I was like: "Don't be silly". So I came up with this idea while I was unemployed that I could crowdsource dinner for my myself and my friends, and if they all gave me $10 towards the ingredients then I would go out, do the shopping and create a delicious home-cooked meal, package it up and leave it on the door step for them to pick it up on their way home from work. And that's how it started: I was cooking for my friends, they'd leave with these brown paper bags from my house in Ponsonby and I'm sure my neighbours thought I was dealing something other than food.

Since then it has been a rollercoaster of really organic growth and I think the best part of my business is that its found its path without too much pressure which has made it a really community-driven.

Where are you based and how big is your team?

We have 22 on the payroll which is a mix of fulltime and part time. The only male on the payroll is my partner Jono who comes in to do dishes on a Saturday.

How hard was it to get a food licence and commercial kitchen?

After three or four weeks of dabbling I realised that I couldn't advertise what I was doing because "technically" you're not allowed to sell food that has been prepared in a domestic kitchen, so I sought out a commercial kitchen that I could hire by the hour, I'd package it all there and people would come and pick up from my home which was a more convenient pick-up location.

Jess' Underground Kitchen makes ready-made meals for its customers.
Jess' Underground Kitchen makes ready-made meals for its customers.

I had the odd run-in with the council over that but eventually we decided to use a cafe on Jervois Rd after they had closed. At the start of last year we signed the lease on the Jervois Rd store which meant that we could have a commercial kitchen, pickup location and a brick-and-mortar presence all in the one place.

Did you think your business would go on to be as successful as it is?

Absolutely not, I can't quite believe it. It has been such a whirlwind and I love it and there are times that I hate it but overall I love it. Sometimes I find myself stirring a 40kg pot of bolognaise wondering why on earth I studied English at university to be doing this. I think the best part about the business is that it's mine and it's something that I've grown from the absolute ground up with very minimal investment other than my time, blood, sweat and tears.

What are your long-term plans for the business?

What we looking forward to over the next 12 months is really looking at our distribution model and how we can get Jess' Underground Kitchen to more people and further reach New Zealand. We've just launched a new website which is a trial for looking at our digital distribution, and how we can look at the logistics of shipping meals outside of Auckland and get our food with extended shelf life to some of the main centres or even further than that nationwide.

A fresh or frozen meal are single serves and they cost $15 each, but we are looking at doing family serve portions in the future.

Jess' Underground Kitchen started organically; food made for friends.
Jess' Underground Kitchen started organically; food made for friends.

What's it like managing such a large team?

It's pretty crazy and hard at times but I just had a general manager start a couple of months ago which has been life changing, just in terms of being able to delegate and hand off some of the bigger picture stuff. I'm in the kitchen from 6am then I go home and it's not like my day stops when the rest of my chefs sign out. I've got ordering, accounting, trying to think about the bigger picture, etc, and so having someone to support me as a 2IC will hopefully give me the opportunity to work more on the business rather than in the business. I have such an awesome team it doesn't feel like I'm bossing; it's like working with friends.

What advice do you give to others thinking about starting a business?

Write a business plan and then rip it up. Write another business plan and then rip that one up. Start again, follow your passion, and let the business plan write itself because you can prep and prepare until the cows come home but until you launch your business and see what people want, and what direction people want your business to take, you really can't push it in the direction you want if it's just not going to work. Sometimes you have to let things happen organically.