Trying to run a food business is a tall order for most people, let alone doing it on your own as this leaves solving every challenge to yourself.

For Alex Khoo of Khoo’s Hot Sauce and Simon Ellis of Catherine’s Choice, running a food business alone is all they have known.

Since the inception of their businesses, they have been the only full-time employer, cooking and packaging all of the food to go out to customers.

A food business is built off of not just taste but the speed of production. Nobody wants to wait for ages for a bottle of marmalade or hot sauce.

This means that the production speed and quality of the product need to be kept high.

Both Alex Khoo of Khoo’s Hot Sauce and Simon Ellis of Catherine’s Choice have learnt this over their time as independent food business owners.

Despite their success, it hasn’t come without its fair share of challenges.

Alex, 37, started his hot sauce business 11 years ago selling a range of different homemade hot sauces that are unique to one another.

Alex said: “I was into producing music and DJing. My missus was militant into gardening. I realised that if we actually wanted to spend any time together, one of us would have to concede and like the other one’s hobby.

“So I started to go out into the garden with her. I have always been into food, especially spicy food. So for me, growing chillies was what I wanted to do. It just spiralled from there.

“I started to grow chillies hydroponically which meant I was spending a lot of money on seeds.”

That’s when a conversation had to happen about making the hobby profitable.

“My missus was like, ‘you know people have said about selling your chilli sauce. If you could do that and make this hobby pay for itself, that would be better.’” said Alex.

For the first few years, Alex lost a lot of money trying to grow the business but it has now started paying for itself.

As a DJ, Alex met design illustrators who could help with the branding of his company and get it on the right track.

Starting with good branding helped Alex’s business to grow and allow him to focus on his products and perfect his craft.

Examples of products you can have at Khoo's Hot Sauce.
Four products from Khoo’s Hot Sauce. Plum Breakfast, The Heavy Smoker, Golden Syrup and Khoo’s Spicy Ketchup (left to right).

The products slowly grew in popularity across Sheffield where Khoo’s Hot Sauce is based. Which caught the attention of the Hairy Bikers who contacted Alex to appear on their show ‘The Hairy Bikers Go North For Christmas’ in 2021.

The traction he gained from the show ended up breaking his website but massively increased his business.

While Alex does his work from home negating the split between home and work life, Simon works away at a unit in Sheffield with a built-in kitchen.

The only person in that kitchen is Simon who makes and packages all of the products produced for Catherine’s Choice. These include chutneys, conserves, marmalades and sauces.

“Staffing is hard. Getting the right person to do that job is hard.” the 53-year-old said, “I scare people off because they look at me and the hours I put in and go ‘oh I can’t possibly work like that’.

“Well, I don’t want anyone to work like that. I don’t want anyone to kill themselves for me, that’s my job.”

Due to this, Simon only has one part-time employee working for him, meaning the vast majority of the products are all his work.

“I’m a magician, I think. I went from 10,000 jars at home to 41 tonnes in my first year. 41 tonnes as a single operator.

“I’m not getting any younger and the run-up to Christmas when you work 7 days a week and 12-hour days. There’s no give,” said Simon.

Despite this, Simon’s passion hasn’t dwindled and he’s still experimenting with new and exciting flavours.

When Simon experiments, he makes a pan full rather than a small batch and sells it. If it sells well, he makes it again. If not or the feedback isn’t good, he won’t.

Examples of products from Catherine’s Choice

Even though both businesses are different, both have had similar trials and tribulations to gather the success they have up to this point.

Both of them spoke about the close knit communities they have built with other businesses around them to share tips and tricks with one another to succeed.

Alex said: “In recent years, I found that there was a big food entrepreneurs group on Facebook. If I had access to that when I started, I could have saved myself a lot of energy, money and heartache because the answers are there now. They’re so easy.

“Whereas when I started, the business rule was that you had to figure it out yourself. A lot of infrastructure wasn’t in place like it is now to help people run small to midsize businesses in the food industry.”

For Simon, it’s more personal support that helps his business and businesses around him grow.

“I’m out to help people grow. I’m as passionate about helping others as I am about watching my own brand grow.

“If that means that there’s competition then so be it. I just want to see the people around me thrive.

“Gone are the days where we were into empire building because there’s no point in that. You don’t get anywhere doing that.”

It is clear the key to running a business alone is to not do it alone at all and instead use the people around you to support and ensure the products maintain their high standards.