The Foodie Shack has been populating the Isle of Mull with their fabulous and quite frankly, irresistible woodfired pizza for a couple of years now.
They are passionate about the product and personable with people, valuing the ‘human touch’ that they believe has helped them on the path to success that currently finds them working non-stop, six days a week during the summer but still actually enjoying the endeavour!
We sat down with them to find out their story and ask – why hospitality?
For proprietors Donna and Ed, running a hospitality business is a far cry from both of their respective careers and working worlds, but it offered them the freedom they sought and let them explore one of life’s greatest passions – pizza!
As Donna states: “We were both living in Suffolk where I was working in publishing as I have done since I was 19 and my husband Ed was in the army. When we decided that Ed was going to get out of the army after doing his 21 years, he was being medically discharged for PTSD due to trauma that happened in Afghanistan in 2009 – where he earnt a Military Cross in award for his bravery.
So we were looking to relocate, to have a slower pace of life that our children could thrive in. I already had family over here and we saw potential for this kind of business to work – if you were prepared to work hard.”
After going to the office Donna used to work at in Oxford, seeing and sampling some of the best street food on offer, inspiration struck and the couple thought they could bring that homely vibe and quality homemade food to Mull – offering something different. Having considered their options with the relocation, and with the nature of Ed’s PTSD, they felt having their own venture, owning their own business was the way to go.
So the slower pace of life, the love of pizza and freedom in the oven were driving factors in the birth of The Foodie Shack. Add to that mix the desire to provide financial security and a meaningful future for their young daughter who suffers from autism, and you really get the full slice. The Foodie Shack is much more than artisan pizza baked in the undeniable allure of the woodfire oven – it is family, it is freedom, it is friendship, it is a beautiful example of the possibilities within running your own business.
Simply put, Donna and Ed asked themselves: “What can we do to thrive in the area we want to move to and to build something for the future for our family?” and The Foodie Shack was born.
The venture become a whole lot more official in November 2019 when they bought their pizza truck and got to practising. They make no pretence about needing a lot of practice, and have always injected this degree of transparency into their business. When asked what advice they’d give to themselves before starting the venture, they state: “don’t rush it – take your time. We so enjoy the process now, whereas at the beginning we were putting so much pressure on ourselves to get it right. If we’d have taken our time and enjoyed the process, we would have relaxed into it more.”
This transparency has become a key factor in their success, they are confident enough to admit where they’ve made mistakes before which is endearing and puts across a genuine sincerity that customers respect and relate to. This personable approach creates a strong and lasting relationship between customer and business, it’s the difference between a human interaction and a business transaction.
As Donna puts it: “Sometimes you can finish a trading session and feel like you’ve just sort of counselled each other through so much stuff. The conversations that happen at The Shack are just one of those things that I do that makes the experience different.
I don’t ever remember going to any business where someone has spoken to us the way that we talk to other people. And some people have opened up about really honest things, you know, sharing their mental health issues with us. Even admitting you haven’t had a great day yourself just humanises the fact that the world has been a really crappy place for a lot of people for the past couple of years. And sometimes you might just need that stranger making a pizza to ask if you’re okay.”
After humble beginnings in November 2019, The Foodie Shack was shifting gears and getting a roll on when progress was ground to a halt indefinitely by the noose of Covid. Something of a make or break moment for a lot of businesses that saw the hospitality industry suffer massively.
Donna and Ed decided that although they couldn’t trade, it didn’t mean they couldn’t build the business up and keep generating excitement around the Shack. So that’s just what they did – utilising social media, they kept engagement up and decided to use the time to share their journey with everyone, bringing the background and origin story of The Foodie Shack to life. Through this, they were able to convey exactly how much the business meant to them alongside being conscious of the restrictions impinging everyone’s lives, they just wanted to give people something to look forward to once lockdowns were lifted.
I mean, who doesn’t look forward to pizza?!
They recall catering their first post-lockdown event which happened to be a friend’s wedding, where they saw just how much joy a piece of pizza was bringing to people – and felt providing this was the best feeling in the world! Affirmations come in all different shapes and guises, but this was certainly a positive one for The Foodie Shack and felt huge after all the uncertainty posed by Covid: “It was really special to see the amount of joy that came from something so simple – from what is really just a bit of dough with cheese and tomato on!”
Things seemed to be on the up from that moment, a collective relief rippling through the world, smiles on faces (masked or not) and high demand in Mull for their ever-more popular pizza. Donna and Ed are nonchalant in reference to their prior lack of experience in the industry, and quickly found out just how much pressure is involved – they comically liken this pressure to feeling like that which you might expect a brain surgeon to wrangle with, but have never shied away from the challenge.
The challenge took on a whole different meaning when Donna and Ed sadly became victims of a trading unit scam. Having decided to invest in a custom made unit complete with everything they’d need to take The Foodie Shack to the next level and really maximise the business potential, they found a company who specialise in just that. Unfortunately for them, and as it turned out some forty-odd other aspirational caterers, this company were only interested in defrauding people out of lucrative deposits.
They had been diligent with their search, mindful of how many scammers are out there, ready to prey on innocent people and their hard-earned money: “We did some research and found what we thought was a great company based in Leeds, we did all our homework – all the reviews were great, website was professional, they had social media reviews, everyone was talking about how brilliant he was.” So Donna and Ed spoke to this company, were impressed with his convivial demeanour and when he explained how he’d need half of the total cost upfront as a deposit – about £16,000 – they thought that a legitimate request.
A contract was drawn up, photos and videos updating them on progress regularly being sent over – a professional operation it would seem.
To fulfil their custom-unit dream, they would need to take their own pizza oven down to be fitted as part of the build process. Having initiated proceedings in September, this arrangement was set for January. This is where alarm bells started to ring – after sending over the deposit in good faith, messages became much fewer.
To the point where Ed was having to constantly chase up progress when previously it had been provided freely, and the progress they did receive was tales of trouble sourcing the vehicle that would become their custom unit. “Around this time, we went down to the street food live show and spoke to a supplier there who were also saying they were finding it really hard to find vehicles for this purpose. It seemed really plausible so we thought okay, it must be fine. And then more time went by and still no vehicle progress update so clearly it wasn’t going to be ready in January – it’s going to be pushed back.”
January came and sure enough it was pushed back – with COVID cited as the cause of having to shut the business for a few weeks. Donna and Ed continued communicating with him and were informed a few weeks later that a truck had been found and things could finally proceed. A date was arranged for Ed to transport the pizza oven, but COVID then came down on Donna and Ed, postponing things further. Finally the day came and Ed travelled over, with the pizza oven, to find no-one waiting for him. In fact, it turned out due to the conduct of the company and repeated instances of people turning up to the premises very angrily as a result of such conduct, the company had been kicked out of the premises. The scammer had been lying to them all along, saying he would be there when he had in fact put his business into liquidation.
Donna recalls “I got the phone call from Ed. He went on his own and he called me and he was crying and he just said ‘Don, we lost 16 grand.’ My immediate thought was like, he’s on his own. And now it’s another thing that he feels responsible for, that he’s dealing with by himself and I just needed to get him safely back here because that was a long trip for him to do alone.”
After many conversations with the bank and the police, as well as finding and connecting with many other individuals who had become victims of this elaborate scam, it was stipulated that in total the fraud had accrued the company around £900,000 and the owner (with the money) had vanished. Talk about a challenge – but as they say, adversity shapes character, and The Foodie Shack weren’t about to roll over:
“There was just a fight within that was like, we’re not going to let one thing take this away from us after everything we have done. We’ve moved our family 650 miles north to settle here and for a better life. We’re gonna smash it.”
And smash it, they have. “We’ve had the best year since, we really have. We put the hours in and absolutely it was really, really hard. And my body felt so broken by the end of the season. But we did it because while okay he might be able to take the money, he’s not taking the future of what we want The Foodie Shack to be, you know that the ability for our daughter, that different quality of life for us.” They remark how as an experience it really does make the effort all the more worthwhile, to come through something like that and be able to succeed really is a testament to the work ethic that’s got them so far.
As much as this tale serves as a hospitality horror story to the dangers out there and how difficult the situation can get, it should also be inferred as a tale of inspiration, of perseverance and drive. Speaking of drive, one of the biggest events to take place in Mull is the annual car racing rally that draws people from all over Europe, and signifies the end of the peak season.
It is considered something of “a final hurrah” for a lot of pubs, restaurants and streateries ahead of the cold winter closed-season. Having tended it in collaboration with some hot-dog wielding friends last year, The Foodie Shack took to the track solo this year and the experience in their own words was “incredible, absolutely busting – despite awful weather! We sponsored two cars who unfortunately both crashed out – no one was hurt, but a great thing to get involved in.
We sold out all three days we were there – and took a well-earned two weeks off after!” Those two weeks provided some much needed respite after what feels like completing their own rally of sorts. Certainly not a
straightforward course, they have dug deep when needed, found extra gears and sped away impressively, largely due to championing a pragmatic and transparent approach. It’s so much more than some cheesy tomato dough, it’s that human connection and genuine care that you get with The Foodie Shack and that, the Isle of Mull is lucky to host.
So, looping back to the start of this piece and considering that question we posed of ‘why hospitality?’ Donna and Ed underline the “freedom it has afforded us, we’ve had some customers remark we have the “best pizza this side of Italy” – receiving a comment like that is so rewarding, it’s such a wholesome, amazing moment that really gratifies the whole situation.”
Moments like that make the whole journey so worthwhile – at its core Donna and Ed love making pizza, and seeing people enjoy their pizza brings exactly that – joy. It’s that simple.