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Authentic flavours of Southwest China – created in south London

Authentic flavours of Southwest China – created in south London

22 Jun, 2024

Authentic flavours of Southwest China – created in south London

Yep Kitchen is on a mission to bring Southwest China’s rich and fiery flavours to the UK, via a line-up of award-winning chilli oils and ferments created here at New Covent Garden Market. Founder Tom Palmer started the Yep Kitchen brand back in November 2022 when he rented a production unit at the market’s Mission Kitchen space, a shared commercial kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment available to rent on a monthly basis. But the idea? That goes back to Tom’s time working and living in China.

Getting started in China

“I moved to China when I was 21, initially just to travel and as a base to explore the rest of Asia,” says Tom. “I wanted to teach English and learn Mandarin at the same time I was gaining my qualifications, which I really enjoyed. Soon, I was working in Beijing at an international school, teaching Maths, English, and History. I used the school holidays to travel across China and found that I learned so much. I didn’t expect to stay in China for 10 years when I first moved there, but my plans quickly changed after falling in love with the food and culture. Working overseas was such an amazing experience and I found it harder to leave China than leaving the UK in the first place.”

It was when Tom was contemplating returning to the UK that he saw the business opportunity to bring the authentic – a word that Tom uses a lot – taste of Chinese food back home, with a range of chilli oils and ferments that can be added to any dish for an immediate splash of flavour. Tom’s first idea was to create a brand for the UK public who were curious and looking to experience more genuinely faithful Chinese food, giving people cooking at home a new range of flavours to explore besides the overly-sweetened ones typically found in Asian aisles at British supermarkets.

“Before I returned home, I drafted a plan and had spoken to various suppliers in China – we had the brand name and everything. We decided we wanted to use Erjingtiao chillies and premium Sichuan peppercorns in all our oils in order to showcase these flavours faithfully – we knew it wouldn’t be the cheapest option, but we imported both of those key ingredients directly from Chengdu because you can’t beat the originals! It also meant we could maintain the quality as we’ve got a direct relationship with the suppliers. Yes, it’s more expensive to import directly from China, but getting the right ingredients from the right places is part of our USP.”

The seed money to create the new start-up brand came from money Tom saved while working in China and he selffunded the launch, selling at Farmers’ Markets at first and getting great feedback from Chinese ex-pats who loved the product. Initially, Yep Kitchen used the wording ‘inspired by’ on their packaging but soon changed to ‘authentic’ to reflect the main ingredients sourced from China.

Award kickstarts sales

“We’d just set up the business when we realised that applications for the Great Taste Awards closed in February 2023, which meant a quick turnaround,” says Tom. “We suspected that winning the award would translate into sales and that’s exactly what’s happened. After the amazing feedback from Farmers’ Markets, we moved into the retail market in the summer shortly before winning the Great Taste award. We noticed a clear difference when approaching retailers after the award compared to before, it was much definitely easier to get the award-winning products listed.”

Starting from scratch, with no understanding of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market, could have been a huge hurdle but Tom didn’t let that stop him. With a great backstory to the Yep Kitchen brand, authentic ingredients, and the Great Taste award on the packaging, they’ve been successful from day one, with demand increasing at a steady pace.

A vital ingredient of any new and emerging brand is the artwork, which in Yep Kitchen’s case is – once again - authentically Chinese. Tom was a decade-long fan of a Chinese creative brand called Plastered 8, known in China for fun, playful art. Tom approached them via Instagram before launching the first batch. “I contacted Dominic from Plastered 8 when I was about to launch Yep Kitchen and he gave me a lot of support for our launch, including allowing us to use some Plastered artwork on the thank you cards for our online orders which I was so grateful for," Tom recalls. "After six months, when we’d proved the concept, we approached Plastered again, this time to produce a new brand identity for Yep Kitchen. They produced an incredible piece of artwork and created Yep Kid, who we hope will become synonymous with Sichuan chilli oil in the UK.”

Mission Kitchen and beyond

“One of the reasons we’re doing so well is thanks to the support within the Mission Kitchen community and beyond. Moving into a commercial cooking space was daunting, especially scaling up our production. Since joining Mission Kitchen back in October 2022, I’ve learned so much in the first year - especially about how to use all the equipment.”

Now the time has come for Tom to move to new premises, a former bakery production facility that Tom says was a ‘great find’ as he’s been able to quickly set up all the equipment he needs. “We’ve loved being a part of the Mission Kitchen family but it’s time to scale up because we have new clients that we can’t currently supply from a shared workspace. At Mission Kitchen we were able to produce around 2,500 units per month, labour provided by me and my one employee, with everything done by hand. In the new space it’s a semi-automated unit, so we’ll be able to produce 5,000 units each week, with two new distributors lined up to take the products.”

However, it’s not goodbye, as they’ll still be part of the Mission Kitchen family thanks to a new membership package called the ‘Network Membership’. It doesn’t include access to the kitchens but does include access to the Mission Kitchen community, including Q&As and ‘meet the buyer' events. “All our growth has been organic – initially we never planned on being the biggest company – our aim was simply to create a genuine product that people would love. We know we’re taking a risk moving, but it’s the next stage in the company’s growth – and to be honest, I enjoy taking risks. We have our new clients lined up and we’re looking forward to upscaling our production, so we’re confident we can continue this growth.”

Selfridges and Panzer’s Delicatessen in London’s St John’s Wood are two of Yep Kitchen’s more well-known stockists, with another major player coming on board very soon. “We’re already stocked in more than 85 independents across the UK,” says Tom, “from Cornwall to Scotland. We’ve worked with a distributor called Mahalo, who have been fantastic in growing our brand alongside their own.”

What’s Yep Kitchen’s aim for the next year?

“At the moment we’ve just secured some private investment and have successfully completed a crowdfund campaign. As part of this, our crowdfunding pledgers will have access to some amazing rewards, with one pledger accessing our top tier reward and will be visiting our new production site to make their own batch of chilli oil with us.

“We want to upscale our production and apply for ‘SALSA' accreditation which will enable to us to gain listings in major UK retailers, then I’ll aim to step back from production into more of a CEO/founder role, focusing on developing the Yep Kitchen brand further,” reveals Tom. “It’s hard to predict how fast the business will grow but we’ve got the capacity in our new unit to ramp up production if needed. We’re going for the independent sector first before we then look at getting into supermarkets. The challenge is to upscale our volumes and still maintain the quality of the products, as that’s what’s got us this far. That’s the reason we’re only increasing the production by small amounts and will continue to produce in small batches and increasing the quantity of batches instead – this way we’re sure we can maintain the quality.

“We see the investment as a great opportunity to promote the brand and focus on our products. It’s been an amazing experience so far and it’s really fulfilling to see our concept grow into a successful product that people love.”

Garin Auld
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