On start-ups, small shops and the anti-snobbery brigade

When we talk about success within start-ups, we usually refer to the hyperactive tech-world merry-go-round that is raising capital, pivoting through a sequence of disruptive marketing strategies and eventual ascension to yay-we-sold heaven. That place where entre-WON-neurs are anointed with a Twitter blue tick, wads of cash and public speaking engagements where they talk about raising capital, the power of disruptive marketing and how to build a business for sale.

Given that 90% of start-ups 'fail', these measures of success are about as fair and realistic as saying that every kid who sang in a school choir needn't have bothered if they haven't wound up the next Adele. Concrete, unambiguous terms like failure are loud and unbending, drowning out the myriad joys and successes that accompany the pursuit of something good.

'Posh people's 'artisan' food delivery service bites the dust.'

Above is what someone tweeted minutes after Hubbub announced that they were ceasing deliveries after nine years, and 34 hours after everyone in the business found out that they were losing their jobs. Ignoring the mind-boggling levels of crass (do these morons realise that companies are made of real people?), the statement serves to highlight the continued inability of some to separate appreciation of nice food from an excess of privilege, furthering the assumption that people who choose to spend above average cash on above average food were born with a silver, caviar-topped spoon in their mouth.


Let me explain Hubbub. Hubbub delivered food from London's best independent food and drink shops - butchers, bakers, brilliant coffee roasters, fishmongers, greengrocers, delis and so on. Those shops are owned and staffed by the most passionate and knowledgable food lovers you could ever meet - and my goodness, what an enormous privilege it was to have those people preparing your weekly shop or the ingredients for your Christmas dinner. I have placed (actual) hundreds of orders with Hubbub and the novelty still hadn't worn off by the final one last week. Hubbub was the time-poor food obsessive's dream.

On the 7th January 2011, I wrote to Hubbub's founder, Marisa, and asked for a job. She wasn't hiring at the time, but seized the opportunity to bring in someone with 5 years in the food industry under her belt and a bit of marketing experience around food home delivery. Together with Marisa and Hubbub's first hire, Golnar, we set about growing the business through grit, determination, a lot of late nights and a complete obsession with good food. After Hubbub I became Creative Food Director of the Ginger Pig, then product developer of the meat category for M&S, and finally - four months ago - I went freelance. Who offered me my first contract? Hubbub. The learning curve has felt almost vertical at times, and particularly so at Hubbub (the first time around), where I was experienced enough to fill some important gaps but green as peas in lots of ways. 

Back to the silver spoon thing. I'm from a working class family in Scunthorpe. In my lifetime, my dad has been a driving instructor, a concrete slab-maker, a building site foreman and finally, for around 20 years, a shift worker in a pasta factory. Mum was a bookkeeper before going to work in a supermarket, after several unlucky stints working for businesses whose books were never going to balance. They took their first holiday 'abroad' when I was 16, rarely ate out, and cooked a lot of delicious roast dinners, chicken curries and sticky sweet and sour pork. They are now both retired, heavily involved in their local community centre, enjoy package holidays to places like Spain and Greece, and do the remainder of their adventuring through their daughter (hi) and their beloved iPads. The spoon in my mouth wasn't silver but locally made stainless steel, topped with my mum's rice pudding.

Do you get where I'm going with this? Spending money on nice things to eat and drink (my favourite pastime) does not signify privilege. Making the assumption that everyone is able to do so - that everyone should be buying £12 free range chickens, and has the time to make the most thereof - is a very different issue, but spending what's left after rent and bills on food is no different to being able to buy a new pair of trainers, a computer game, a yoga class or go to the cinema. Having money in the first place is a privilege (one we generally have to earn), and why choosing to spend it on better-than-supermarket food is seen by some as vastly different to going to a gig or buying cinema tickets is quite beyond me. 

Go into a restaurant kitchen. You'll find a room full of people who go mad-crazy for wild sea trout or new season asparagus, and I bet the number that didn't go to private school overshadows the number that did. Likewise, go hang out in Jonathan Norris' fish shop in E9 on a Sunday afternoon. You'll count as many of the East End old guard going in as you will thirty-something, 'done alright' leftie types like me. Next door you've got the brilliant Deli Downstairs, and across the road Bottle Apostle and The Ginger Pig. Between the four of them you've got the makings of, well, pretty much any meal. Roast dinners, frugal pasta dishes, birthday cakes or just Tuesday night's tea. Taken in isolation, you've got masters of sea and field, cheese nerds and wine boffins, but together you've got something magic, the ingredients of complete feasts and endless possibilities. 

That's what Hubbub did. Hubbub brought together London's community of small, passionate experts to create an unbeatably varied product range, added the convenience of supermarket-style home deliveries (online shopping, 1-hour delivery slots) and delivered the whole package with extraordinary customer care, fierce passion and enormous heart. What started with Marisa delivering directly from two shops in Highbury Barn (terrified, in her boyfriend's mini, just weeks after passing her driving test) became a fleet of vans delivering (almost) all over London from a hundred shops. When Hubbub announced last Wednesday that, after nine years, it was to make its last deliveries two days later, we were engulfed. There is simply no other word for it.

In less than 48 hours, Hubbub received more than 450 emails from people offering their condolences, praise, funding and even jobs. Customers and shops alike were heartbroken, and many regulars (myself included) simply don't know what they will do without Hubbub's brilliant service. I want to continue to spend my money with the fishmongers, butchers and greengrocers whose produce I love, but I don't have entire days to devote to picking up ingredients for work, and with fairly persistent neck and shoulder grumbles, I'm not really up for carrying the heavy stuff either. I don't want to move to Ocado, Abel & Cole or Farm Direct, I want Jonathan Norris and HG Walter, E5 Bakehouse and Hubbub's four fantastic greengrocers. 

Fortune magazine's analysis of 101 start-up postmortems found that the number one reason for a start-up to fail is no market, but the overwhelming response from Hubbub's customers suggests that here, there is. Whether it was ever quite big enough will remain a question mark. Were there ever quite enough Londoners who cared, who were at home enough to warrant having nice food in the fridge, who simply remembered to order?  What would have happened if the Evening Standard et al reported more often on good, solid, remarkable things rather than whatever brittle pop-up will be around for the next three months? Don't know. What we do know is that Hubbub's last week of trade - once people knew that they were placing their last orders - was genuinely profitable, and showed exactly what was required to sustain the business. We weren't a million miles off. We should have closed more often. 

What almost everyone who has been in touch over the last week has done, is to congratulate Marisa for her passion and her vision, and thank the whole Hubbub team and its shops for delivering so much amazing food. Customers didn't hear that Hubbub's deliveries were over, shrug, say 'that's a shame', and move on, they contacted the business in their hundreds expressing shock, sadness and even grief. They told us how much they would miss their deliveries, and how Hubbub had made their parties, BBQs, Christmases and Tuesday-night-teas so very special. If this decade of food, celebration and joy is a failure, then I'm afraid I can't agree with your metrics.

So long, Hubbub, and thanks for all the food.