To this day Philip Weldon's aunt is still bemused that he managed to create a company from her cheesecake recipe. Yet the founder of the English Cheesecake Company, now 50, always knew "he would do something big with cooking".
Weldon's first foray into the culinary world was as a 17-year-old school leaver at McDonald's. He soon became manager of what was one of only five McDonald's stores in Britain before deciding to quit the fast-food chain. "I was 19 and spending most of my nights working I couldn't do that for the rest of my life."
Weldon left to become an estate agent. His timing was "spot-on" as the housing market took off in Thatcher's Britain. Within a few years Weldon was a regional manager. But he "never really fell in love" with real estate and continued cooking in his spare time. After "working my way through several cookery books", Weldon started to turn to his family for new recipes. His aunt's vanilla cheesecake sparked an idea. Weldon tinkered with the recipe and made "several improvements". He tested the cake by bringing it to "every party I went to" and soon felt that he couldn't "walk through a door without a cheesecake under my arm".
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The cake's commercial debut came when some friends who owned a delicatessen asked Weldon if they could stock one. That first order soon turned into 30 per week as word spread among customers. Weldon was working flat out as an estate agency regional manager by day and a baker by night.
Finally, in 1992 he decided to quit selling property and form the English Cheesecake Company. Selling 30 cakes a week at £8 a pop was just enough to cover both his mortgage and basic living expenses. Weldon admits that for the first year survival was "the number-one goal". Cold-calling and visits to delicatessens helped build up sales "inch by inch", but after only a few months he received his first breakthrough. After a tasting session with Selfridges, Weldon managed to persuade them to stock his cheesecake.
"Looking back it was unbelievable. I was cooking out of my home and supplying Selfridges." By the end of the year the company was selling 60 cakes a week and generating almost £50,000 in sales. Over the next few years Weldon gradually attracted large chains, such as Pret a Manger. "In many ways it was a snowball effect. Once you have one name it is easier to convince the others." He also decided to move from supplying chilled to frozen cakes, which gave him more flexibility with production and storage.
But success brought problems. "The workload was becoming unbearable." After a decade of running the firm, Weldon was waking at 3.30am to bake cakes, delivering them himself by car before returning to more baking. "I had no time for a social life." So in 2002, he struck a deal with a friend of a friend, Alan Laurier.
That "turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made". Together the pair increased their product range from 20 to 100. They also switched from wholesale to branded delivery to firms and consumers and set up a new website. Cakes now cost up to £25 and they are on target to notch up sales of £4m this year. Weldon is a happy man: as well as a growing business, he now has a social life, partner and child.
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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