Spencer Bloomfield was regularly sacked, heavily in debt and sofa-surfing because of ‘youthful arrogance’. Now he’s BQ West Midlands’ Emerging Entrepreneur of 2015. Steve Dyson reports on his turnaround.
Spencer Bloomfield was an angry young man with nowhere to go when he left school at 16 without any qualifications. His parents had split up when he was a child, and his mum had struggled to keep him under control at home in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
“I was an absolute nightmare and my mum couldn’t handle me,” recalls Spencer, now aged 28, and managing director of the award-winning Yolo Food Company. “I’d been at a real hard-knock school, always fighting and getting beaten up, regularly ending up with stitches. I’d learned how to scrap to survive, but it was time to give my mum a rest.”
Spencer moved to Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, initially living with his dad and becoming a trainee joiner on a building site. Neither lasted long, and he was soon living by himself and working in a local bar. He quickly made a lot a friends, socialising, drinking and enjoying rather too much of a new freedom.
He’d never been focused on a career, but Spencer liked the look of the kitchens and fancied his chances at “delighting customers with good food”. He got a job at The Yard, in nearby Swadlincote, and looking back now realises just how head-strong he was.
“I didn’t want to do any of the washing up or chopping vegetables,” he says. “I just wanted to move straight up the ladder and do my own thing in the kitchen. But I was young and burning the candle at both ends. I got the sack for turning up to work with hangovers!”
Before long, Spencer was an assistant chef at The Beeches pub-restaurant, in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but again became his own worst enemy by attempting to call the shots: “I always felt I could do better. I was a bit arrogant, and they got rid of me.”
The next job was assistant chef at the Tap House, in Smisby, serving good pub food, where a 20-year-old Spencer really started to experience the fiery world of chefs: “What you see with the swearing and the shouting in a kitchen is true – it’s very high intensity. But my work went really well and I became head chef – in charge for the first time.”
Spencer had just received a job offer after an interview at the two-Michelin star Sat Bains restaurant in Nottingham, but because of his promotion he turned it down. “In some ways it was a big mistake to refuse it, as it was a golden opportunity to really up my game.
But I’d been made head chef at the Tap House, earning £22,000 at the age of 20, and I felt I couldn’t let them down. When I think back, I’d have blown it anyway, because I was a right little s**t at the time!”
Instead, Spencer put his back into the Tap House, regularly working 80-hour weeks and at times dealing with 130 diners by himself: “I turned the kitchen upside down and was doing it all the way I wanted. I was excited and it was all going successfully.”
But then what Spencer calls the “darker side of cheffing” got the better of him again: “It just wasn’t healthy working that amount of time and socialising at the same time. Before long I was burnt out, but there was still a buzz about me. I ended up clashing with the manager, Roger Thompson – who I really respected – but I moved on.”
A short-term job at The Holly Bush in Breedon followed, then another at a fine-dining restaurant called Chloe’s, in Burton. Spencer was one of a team of chefs, creating recipes with the freshest of ingredients, giving him a “real feel” for food.
When Chloe’s head chef left they looked to Spencer to take over, and put in his “best” performances to produce what diners felt were great dishes, despite an overstretched kitchen. But just when it was going so well he walked into work one day and the place was stripped bare; the owners had moved on and he was jobless again.
Fortunately, an experienced chef who’d seen Spencer at work made him chef de partie at The Bulls Head, Repton – a popular establishment in a very affluent area. He “learned a hell of a lot”, but remained “an absolute nightmare” to employ.
“The Bulls Head was the hardest place I’d worked at, with massive demand. It went well for a while… maybe six months. But then I came in still drunk from the night before once too often, and I was told to leave.
“You see, with cheffing comes at least one of the three evils – drinking, smoking or drugs. I was still hammered and the boss simply said: ‘It’s over.’ That’s the way I was back then – always on a downward spiral. I was even sofa-surfing because I didn’t have enough money to pay my rent.”
After The Bulls Head, Spencer floated in and out of another four or five jobs, mainly via chef agencies, but they never lasted long. By 2011, aged 24, he was jobless again, but this time with overdrafts, credit cards and an £18,000 loan in a friend’s name that he just couldn’t walk away from.
“It was pretty bleak,” he says now, “but I wanted to keep my self-respect and knew I needed to get my head down and do things I didn’t want to do to clear that debt.”
Spencer worked two years of night shifts in United Biscuits’ warehouse, a period he describes as “hard graft hell”. But he was helped by another discovery: personal fitness.
“I picked up a Men’s Health magazine in a dentist’s waiting room,” he says. “I found it really interesting and went out and bought the latest copy, reading it cover-to-cover. I joined a gym and it changed my life, for the better. All of a sudden I was more focused on getting in shape rather than going out.
“This led to my interest in nutrition and eventually the idea of Yolo Food Company was born. In the warehouse, I was sat for 12 hours a night on a forklift truck between two aisles travelling up and down, up and down. It was a lot of time by myself thinking about what I wanted to do.”
By the time he was 26, Spencer had cleared “every last penny” of more than £30,000 in personal debts. He left the warehouse and spent 2013 buying and selling reproduction stock for profits at posh car boot sales. He was trading everything from snuff boxes and Titanic whistles to chairs and tables, regularly making £4,000 a week, and once making £1,480 in just two hours.
“I got a real feel for business,” he says, “and was good at the banter and bartering. I saved a bit of money and decided to work on the Yolo idea. I went to the Job Centre and told them: ‘I know what I’m capable of. I want to work for myself.’ And do you know, they were pretty good. It was refreshing.
“There are plenty of opportunities out there, lots of ways to fund a business and loads of advice. I spent hours in the library researching the hell out of Yolo. And I went on a couple of day courses run by the Prince’s Trust. When I was there, a mentor called Bob Anderson became dead interested.
“He was excited because he could see my energy. The Prince’s Trust gave me a £4,000 loan and I put some of my own money into it, selling my car, a couple of my watches and my TV. I didn’t need ‘things’ and wanted the money for my business.”
Yolo Food Company was born in January 2014. The acronym stands for ‘you only live once’, and the product is basically fast food that’s healthy but tasty. It sounds simple, but we’re not talking about veggie burgers and beans.
Menus include exotic-sounding items like ‘Sticky peanut chilli sirloin steak, with maple-roasted sweet potatoes, leek, garden pea and broccoli stir fry’. I tried this, and it was delicious. And at just under a fiver a dish, it’s cheaper than other fast food meals, and so much healthier.
“Healthy doesn’t have to mean boring,” says Spencer. “My vision was to change the image of fast food with colourful, mouth-watering, flavour-infused menus that were at the same time healthy and affordable.”
Yolo sells to customers in three ways: individual food plan packages for home consumption; ‘express fridges’ supplied to cafes, gyms, offices, and other outlets; and at Yolo’s own café in Burton town centre.
Spencer began cooking in his own kitchen for orders via Facebook, but growing demand meant he soon needed better production and distribution. To fund the expansion, he went into partnership with Stefan and Jo Kucharzewska, former pub managers who’d once employed and sacked him at The Yard in his wilder years.
Yolo became a limited company in May 2014 and successfully applied for a rare 50% grant, 50% loan worth £107,000 from the Derby Enterprise Growth Fund. “This was long, drawn out, very difficult and stressful,” says Spencer.
“When the phone call came that we were successful, you could’ve knocked me off my feet. It was down to team work, and the strength of the Yolo idea, mission and brand – making people healthier.”
As well as the three partners, the business now has eight staff and turned over £145,000 in its first year. Revenues could reach £1m by the end of 2015, and Spencer’s now negotiating with a large national café chain and a distribution company.
“We’re getting orders from all round the country, and from as far away as the USA and Germany. The growth is there and it’s almost going faster than we can. It’s a hands-on, seven-day-a-week job.”
Earlier this year Spencer was nominated and won the ‘Emerging Entrepreneur’ trophy in the BQ West Midlands 2015 awards. He will now compete with other regional winners for the national title at MADE: The Entrepreneur Festival in Sheffield this October.
Looking back, Spencer realises how his parents inspired him: “Mum had it hard: she was a single parent, working behind a garage till while going to college and university. Now she’s a project manager for Ikea.
“Dad was a gamekeeper all his life, but wanted to do something else at 50. He went to Burton College, got a degree and diploma, and is now director of English regions for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. They showed me the only way anything works in life is if you really want it.”
He adds: “It wasn’t easy. I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of lessons. But every time, I’ve taken the positive out of it and grown as a person. Nothing phases me now.”