By Ruth Sunderland
Daily Mail, London
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Lovely story of how a young couple met, fell in love, grew a business and a beautiful FAMILY! “Higgidy Pies” founder Camilla Stephens shares her recipe for success…
Daily Mail, London
When a handsome young architect arrived at Camilla Stephens’ London flat 16 years ago, she did not suspect she would end up with a husband and business partner as well as a new kitchen.
Camilla, now 45, went on to set up Higgidy Pies from her Fulham apartment, but at the time she was just an aspiring cook looking for a way to make money from her culinary skills.
James Foottit, 37, found Camilla and her pastry irresistible. The feeling, it seems, was mutual.
‘It was a really hot summer, and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. It was a Mr Darcy moment, yes it was,’ she says.
James soon abandoned the small building firm he had set up to help with Camilla’s fledgling venture.
Not long after, the couple were joined in the business by Mark Campbell, James’s best friend from his days studying architecture at Edinburgh University.
The trio are now joint chief executives of Higgidy Pies, which has grown from literally a kitchen table enterprise into a company with pounds sterling 2m of net assets that supplies big supermarkets including Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
‘We are the three-headed monster,’ Camilla shrieks with laughter.
She made her maiden batch of pies in 2002, sold the first ones to food chain Eat in 2003, married James in 2004 and Mark came into the business in 2005. The three of them have been going strong ever since.
Running a company with your husband and his best mate might sound like many women’s idea of hell. To the three of them, it seems natural.
Camilla and James – who have two children, Kate, aged nine, and Jack, seven – seem joined at the hip to Mark and his family. ‘We do more or less spend our whole lives with one another. We invite them over with their kids and we have lots of holidays together,’ Camilla says.
‘Jack is Mark’s godson and Willow is our god-daughter.’
Natalie, Mark’s wife, is the odd one out because she doesn’t work in the business – she is a doctor as well as mum to their two daughters: three-year-old Honey-Hope, and Willow, aged one.
‘Once a year we do a strategy weekend in a spa hotel with Mark’s wife, she loves it,’ Camilla says.
The three of them do argue, she admits, but allegiances shift so one person is never ganged up on for very long.
As if they didn’t see enough of one another, Mark, James and Camilla eat lunch together at work every day at Higgidy HQ on an industrial estate in Shoreham-by-Sea near Brighton, where the company has taken over most of a row of buildings.
Before I am allowed near any actual pie-making, I have to remove all my jewelery, put on a hairnet, white coat and white plastic clogs, and wash my hands at several points. I feel like an extra in Dinner Ladies, the late Victoria Wood’s much-loved comedy series.
It’s warm and noisy as people are prying pies out of their tins by hand, knocking two together to loosen the pastry from the sides. ‘I want a little bit of gravy to have spilled out,’ says Camilla, ‘so they don’t look mass-produced or too perfect.’
Around 300,000 pies and quiches are produced in Shoreham each week, with fillings including traditional favourites steak and chicken alongside vegetarian like spinach, feta and toasted pine nuts.
It has to be said, though, that the gamine Camilla – who with her chic blonde crop and slim figure could pass for ten years younger than her age – does not look like she ate all the pies. ‘In the past I would never have bought one,’ she admits.
‘I thought pies were blokey, for football matches, a bit chip-shoppy. Because they had a lid on, you didn’t know what was inside, so I felt maybe they weren’t to be trusted.’
But she thought the humble British pie could be given a middle-class makeover. Her model was brands like Covent Garden Soup Co, which elevated mulligatawny a rung or two up the culinary ladder, and Green & Black’s, which took the humble chocolate bar upmarket.
The Higgidy brand name came about because ‘a child said it, and I thought yes, the pies are higgidy’. And, yes, she does eat her own product: ‘There are two pie tastings at least a day. I will taste lots of different things and then I might think “oh I want to eat that whole pie, to see if it fills me up”.
‘My typical customer is me – a working mum who loves food and wants to have people over, impromptu, not perfect, someone who can just about manage to get the meal on the table.’
It has been simpler, she reckons, to balance work and motherhood as an entrepreneur than it would have been working for a big company.
‘There is always pressure and guilt that working mums just have to learn to live with. It’s easier when they are little. When they are older they can tell when you are not paying attention and your mind is on other things, so they require a higher level of engagement.’
The business got off to a difficult start – Camilla had to sell her flat and James his house to keep it afloat in its loss-making early years.
But it is now firmly in the black, with the most recent accounts, to the end of September 2014, showing a healthy 25pc increase in sales to pounds sterling 18.2m.
The trio now have a plan to triple in size over the next five years. Their aim, they say, is to build ‘an enduring British food business’ along the lines of the great names of the past, such as Cadbury which was taken over by US giant Kraft.
Many shoppers would love to see contemporary food companies re-create the values of much-loved firms like Cadbury that have now disappeared.
What would happen though, if one of the top three ever decided they’d had enough? Wouldn’t it be a bit like when Zayn left One Direction, or when Robbie quit Take That?
‘We probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much, that would probably be the end,’ James says.
At the moment, though, there are no signs of cracks in the pastry at the posh pie maker.
CAMILLA STEPHENS, 45
Education: Left school after two terms of A-Levels to go to Leiths cookery school in west London. ‘My dad went to Oxford so I felt a weight of expectation, but I always struggled with academic stuff. Dad told me I really had to take my cookery course seriously, not just as something to do before a ski season. I adored Leiths. Prue Leith was around at the time and it was a brilliant place to be.’
Family: Husband and business partner James Foottit. Children Kate, 9, and Jack, 7.
Career: Worked as a cookery writer on Good Housekeeping magazine. ‘It was the late Eighties, I call them the pesto and sun-dried tomato years. Delia Smith breaking an egg. An incredibly fun time.’ Invested and worked in the Seattle Coffee Company, based in Covent Garden, which was bought out by Starbucks in 1998 in a $72m deal. ‘I stayed on, but it was quite hard working for a big American corporate – I went freelance in 2001.’ Set up Higgidy Pies in 2003.
Working day: ‘I am a morning person – I get up at 6.30am and wake everyone up. We stand up at the breakfast bar with the children. We all grab a piece of toast and James and I take it in turns to do the school run and get into work by 9am.
Certain times with the children are sacrosanct, like bedtime and bath time. We play tag team – they might not get both of us, but they get one of us.’
Big idea: Taking the lids off pies. ‘I wanted to take the top off a lot of the pies so customers can see what’s inside. They might not trust it if they can’t see it.’
Motto: ‘Don’t ever be afraid to ask for advice. People love giving it.’
Hero: ‘Jamie Oliver. I obviously identify with his love of food, but I admire his social purpose that extends far beyond business.’