For a catering company that started out using London Underground to deliver its food, Inn and Out has come a long way. And no one is more aware of this than Lena Bjorck, its 38-year-old Swedish founder. Last week, she was feeding her country's king and queen; next month, she's off to the Paris Air Show, where BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce have called on her firm's services.
It's a far cry from preparing Pyrex dishes in her tiny three-by-three-metre East London kitchen in 1996. Then she had just quit her job as breakfast supervisor at a large hotel, exasperated by the detached environment. "It was just the general attitude. I felt that people working in the service industry didn't like serving people." She thought they should, and decided to strike out alone with a catering firm. "The more people began to make fun of me, the more determined I became."
Bjorck began preparing food in her kitchen, running down to Tesco for the ingredients in the morning, coming home to prepare them and then leaning over the sink at night to clean the dirty dishes. It was simple stuff, like scrambled eggs with a Swedish twist and it went down well with the capital's banks who she'd cajoled by email into taking her on, using a computer in the Swedish Chamber of Commerce. But after three months delivering food across London by tube, she'd had enough. She needed a van.
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"I went to a couple of banks to get money for a delivery van. All I had was a vision and no business plan. Of course, the answer was no, I couldn't get a loan. So in the end, I actually went to the Prince's Trust." At first, they were equally dismissive but she wouldn't take no for an answer. "I bombarded them with phone calls until they didn't want to hear my voice anymore." Bjorck finally got a meeting and made the most of it. "I made this Swedish deli cake, put it in a cake box, turned it upside down, and shook the cake to pieces" before getting on the tube.
Then before the panel: "I took the lid off and told them this is what happens to food when I travel on the tube. Please lend me some money'." She got £2,500 to buy a van. Next came an incredible stroke of luck. An old friend landed her the opportunity to cater at the American ambassador's residence in London for an official visit by Bill Clinton. To this day, she has a copy of a memo on her office wall from the White House, telling her it was the best food the president had ever had on a foreign trip. "That set the standard for the business."
In 1999, Inn and Out moved from Bjorck's little flat to a kitchen in the city and slowly grew, until last year, Bjorck moved into 7,000 sq ft premises near Tower Bridge, after a £150,000 refit. It's so big, she can't even count the number of cookers she has in the place.
"It's a bit of a factory, to be honest." But the business is going from strength to strength, turning over £2m last year. And it's all down to happy customers. "People aren't just buying food on a plate, they're buying an experience. And it's so much more about giving that bit extra listening to the customers. Satisfying them isn't good enough, you have to overexceed their expectations."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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