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From food intolerances to business founder

Community Manager

From food intolerances to business founder

Livia's Kitchen Sq.pngBeing diagnosed with food intolerances turned Olivia Wollenberg’s life around – providing the inspiration to start her own business: Livia’s Kitchen


Two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with a lot of food intolerances. The main foods I have to avoid are wheat, dairy, onion and garlic.


Two months after that diagnosis and trying desperately to find alternative snacks which were free from those ingredients, I became totally fed up of not being able to indulge in delicious treats which would actually satisfy my cravings. I also knew there must be so many other people with allergies and intolerances who felt the same.


I had been studying neuroscience for five years at this point, but at around this time I was reconsidering whether pursuing a career in neuroscience was right for me. These career doubts combined with my growing awareness of a clear gap in the free-from snacking market led to me taking the plunge into founding my own food company.


I wanted to create something from natural ingredients that was really delicious – whilst still feeling a little bit naughty.


Learning to bake and getting stocked


Everything started in my parent’s kitchen.


I had always loved food (especially anything sweet), but had never been an avid baker. Once I decided to really make a go of the business, I began to look up vegan and free-from blogs to get some inspiration as to what ingredients to use. The idea I ran with was ‘superfood crumbles’. Crumbles are a classic, quintessentially British dessert that are nostalgic to many and easily recognised; I’d just be making them a little differently and from completely natural ingredients.


Once we’d got the product right, I was in a rush to get it to market. I knew it was the right time for this style of product, and I didn’t want anyone beating me to it! I had my heart set on Selfridges as the first stockist due to the incredible exposure it could provide for the brand, and I wouldn’t settle at anything less. Just two months after the idea for the company I started to send a lot of emails to the buyer, who finally agreed to meet with me for 20 minutes. That meeting ended up lasting two hours. We got on really well and she loved the ethos behind the business. She told me I’d hear from her in the next couple of weeks, and ten minutes later she called me to say everyone loved my vision and what I was trying to do. “When you’re ready, we’re ready.”


Selfridges was the first place that listed us, and it was and remains to be one of my proudest moments. They gave us a dedicated area and corner unit, giving us great visibility. We’ve been able to really test the market and get that initial exposure. I felt really lucky to build such a strong relationship with them.


Struggles of being a start-up


For about a year and a half I was still working in my parent’s kitchen. I ended up turning the whole house into a factory. Some days we’d need to produce 300-400 crumbles a day, and although I’d always have people helping out, it was a struggle.


I’d been looking for a manufacturer for a long time, but couldn’t find a gluten-free factory that would produce the right sort of product for me.


It was a massive challenge. Manufacturers usually want you to commit to huge volumes, and when you’re just starting out it’s not possible to do that. You really have to sell your story and vision to them so that they want to take a risk with you. You need to show them that yes, you may be starting small, but that the long-term vision is big


In business, you always have to convince people what you’re doing is the absolute best. And the only way you can do that is believe it yourself. I could not do this if I wasn’t totally passionate about all aspects of the business and what we are trying to achieve. I live and breathe it and I think that when I speak to people that must really come across. When speaking to buyers, suppliers, manufacturers or anyone you are wanting to build longstanding relationships with, you need to invite them in and demonstrate to them that they can play a huge part in your success. That’s exactly what I did when I met our first manufacturer. The director of the company was sold as I told her my story and my plans. Starting small for her wasn’t a problem and she was excited to grow with me. When starting a business, you desperately need partners like this.


What’s next?


In two and a half years we have launched two new products: Raw Millionaire Bites and Biccy Boms. As well as Selfridges, we’ve been stocked in Wholefoods, Ocado, Waitrose, Planet Organic and many other independents across London. In 2016 I was also approached by Ebury Press to launch my own cookbook – the same publishers that released Mary Berry’s!


There is a lot coming up for Livia’s Kitchen. We have more stockists on the cards, including a "top four" supermarket later in the year and we have plans to start exporting into Europe. We will also be launching our third product to add to our range in early 2018. I am proud of so many things we have achieved so far, but overall, founding Livia’s Kitchen has been a success for me because I have created something that I feel excited about every single day. I now have an office space and a small team of wonderful people around me and the biggest accomplishment is that I have created jobs and opportunities for them. These opportunities continue to grow as the brand develops.


Discover more stories, and business advice from Voom Pioneers in our News and Advice section.


I loved the part about believing in yourself and completely agree that it can be challenging to get manufacturers to sell to you in small quantities. I have found cashflow and purchasing to be one of the most challenging parts in running a business.  In the beginning you cannot make huge investments, since you need to test the waters. That was a huge challenge for me when I was running my own business a few years ago.