Meet Helena Hudson, from the Real Eating Company

From a single café in Brighton to a network of 10 shops across the UK, Helena Hudson’s business journey is a testament to passion and perseverance. 

Weathering the storms of economic downturns and Covid-19, the female owned and led Real Eating Company has powered through to break barriers in the male-dominated industry. And with Funding Options by Tide, Helena continues to expand her culinary empire!

Join us as we chat with Helena about her journey and the challenges she faced along the way.

Hi Helena, can you tell us a little bit about your business?

I’m the founder and owner of the Real Eating Company. We’ve currently got 10 shops around the UK – some small, some quite big. It’s a combination of coffee shops and cafes that serve a wide ranging menu with a British focus. We use a lot of small producers in line with our ethos and who we are as a business. We don’t do big restaurant dishes but we do lots of snacks, toasties, rolls, cakes and salads, things like that, that we make on site ourselves.

Why did you start your business? 

I started the business 20 years ago. My background wasn’t hospitality – it was actually marketing and advertising. Fortunately, in my advertising life, I had managed to cash in some share options, so I had some money behind me. 

Just before we moved the family from London to Brighton, I had spent some time in Australia. It was there that I experienced the concept of an all-day-casual-but-still-very-good café/brunch in a deli style restaurant. The sort of thing that we take for granted now but didn’t really exist in the UK at the time. 

I was in my mid-thirties and I wanted a change of career. I’d always thought I would run my own business at some point as I come from quite an entrepreneurial family. And since food had always been running in the background of my life, I knew I wanted to move into hospitality. 

So, when we moved to Brighton, I thought, “Right, this is it!” I had some money behind me from my previous professional career. I found this beautiful listed four story building in Brighton and converted it into a kind of food emporium restaurant. Deli hampers, coffee, all sorts of things going on. So, that started 20 years ago.

And how have you found business in the last few years?

We’ve had the last financial recession and Covid. There’s been all sorts of ups and downs throughout that time. We’ve now come out the other side of Covid into an economy that’s still clearly very challenging. 

For many businesses, hospitality is very tough, for all sorts of reasons. But we’re still standing. Covid was, obviously, a challenging time. But actually, there was a period of acquisition for us because there were a lot of opportunities for property that came up. That would never have come to us in non-Covid times. 

Have you always run independently?

We very much position ourselves as independent – we’re not owned by anyone else. So I and the team can make decisions based on what’s right for our customers, our people, and our business. I’m still 100% the only owner and shareholder in the business with 10 shops and about 121 employees. 

Obviously, we have to operate profitably. We have to run a lean and tight business, but it means that we don’t have someone breathing down our necks telling us to increase our prices relentlessly or to change suppliers for cheaper products. 

It’s on me, and it’s on the team to make the business work in a sustainable way. There’s a real kind of team belief in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. 

There’s a real kind of team belief in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

As a woman-run business, how does this transcend into the rest of your business?

We’re quite a women or female-centric business, probably by default, because it’s me running the business.

There are not that many multi-site hospitality businesses in the UK owned by women. It’s still a pretty unusual thing. Lots of women work in hospitality but it’s mostly men that own and run them. 

It’s not huge, but we’re making progress. A lot of the senior team are women. It’s a collaborative, very flat, transparent structure. When women work together there’s a lot of support and very little ego – it’s quite nice.

I think that’s why women like to come and work here. No one has to be bigger or better than anyone else. No one needs to have the best ideas. It’s all about “Let’s just get there as a team”. It’s not always perfect but that’s generally the feel and vibe of the business. 

We’ve recently shared a Women in Business survey that revealed 63% of our female members said accessing finance was a challenge as a business owner*. What were the biggest challenges starting and growing your business as a female in business?

It changes. I mean, over 20 years you learn a lot! You grow older, so your experience and perspective on things shifts and changes. You prioritise things slightly differently.

When I started the business, I was just doing everything at breakneck speed and trying to do everything absolutely perfectly. I think I now know which levers are going to generate more of an outcome and more output. 

Obviously, they’re huge challenges when you start a business. But you plough through. There’s lots of setbacks but it’s part of setting up a business and sticking with a business. You have to go through these really difficult, challenging times – whether it’s staff related or business related, it could be absolutely anything. 

There is a sort of subconscious (or sometimes even conscious) bias against women-owned businesses in terms of funding and financial support. It’s very real. 

I remember quite early on when I was trying to raise some money to open more restaurants. I had a bookkeeper but I did a lot of finances – I did the leases and the loans, and I obviously knew what was going on in the business. 

The bank manager said to me, “Helena, do you understand cash flow? Do you understand the difference between a loan and a lease? Would you like some help with planning your cash flow?”

If I was a man, would they ever have said that? No. It was there then and it’s still very much in place. It’s still a man’s world. So, I would say that it’s still a big challenge.

Coming back to Funding Options by Tide, that’s what was refreshing, because all of that is just stripped away. 

That leads us perfectly to our last question! How was your experience with using Funding Options by Tide?

My experience with Funding Options by Tide has been very positive. It was very fast. With a traditional bank you have to submit a lot of information and there’s no specific timeline given on what they’re going to come back with and what questions they’re going to ask. That whole process can drag on for a very long time. But with Funding Options, it was very specific. 

With the options that came back, I could say, yes that looks good, or that looks too expensive, or the conditions are right or wrong. From that, we then followed through the ones that looked possible. I think the whole thing was done in about two weeks. For me, running the business, that was fantastic. 

The follow-up was very good. Liam, who I dealt with, was always on it but not in a sort of bugging way. He was always there in the background and following up and he was clearly trying to make it work as efficiently as possible for the business.

We used the finance to expand and open a new shop. It just would have taken forever to talk to anyone else about it and with no certain outcome. 

And obviously the way that the world seems to be at the moment, it’s very volatile. Economic opportunities arise out of nowhere very quickly and I want to be in a position to take advantage of that. 

To get that engagement and turn around from Funding Options by Tide in a relatively short period of time was really useful to me as a business. 

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Ruby Moore

Ruby Moore

Midweight Copywriter

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