Start-up stories: The Experimental Diner

Lauren and Jacqui McKirdy

Start-up stories: The Experimental Diner

A university event management project unlocked Jacqui McKirdy's entrepreneurial side, and together with eldest daughter Lauren they've set up unique food-led event firm The Experimental Diner.

What did you do before you started this business?

Lauren:  I worked in the restaurant/bar/hospitality business for 10 years, focused on managing restaurants and mixology, creating cocktails for new menus.

Jacqui:  I worked as a nurse for over 20 years, I finished my career as a theatre scrub nurse, and was a full-time mum until I started University in 2015

What inspired you to start up?

Jacqui:  I set up Off the Wall events as my university event company to cover events I did as part of my degree, Dine by the Tyne being the biggest one. 

The feedback from it was amazing, but friends and family that came to watch their loved ones take to the sky asked if I did anything like this but set firmly on the ground, as they were scared of heights. I said no, but the idea played in my head and I came up with the concept of The Experimental Diner, affectionately known to Lauren and I as TED.

Lauren:  Jacqui approached me with the idea and although I originally though she was crazy and the idea was outlandish, the more I thought about the more I thought, this is a genius idea! So, we buckled down and got started!

Tell us about your business in 100 words

Lauren:  We bring a ‘pop-up chefs table’ to new and wonderful locations all over the North East; from castle rooftops, to your own garden, we have designed a concept that is portable. It really is a unique way to dine! We want to bring out the experimental diner in everyone and push people beyond what they know of a traditional dinner.

Jacqui:  We have some very special tables and want to showcase the talents of young chefs across the region, for them to serve stunning, locally produced food.

FoodHow would you describe your business to your grandma?

Lauren:  Granny was pretty homely and loved simple food - with lots of salt! So the best way to describe it to her would be: ‘we serve people fancy food in fancy places they can’t normally have dinner!’

Where do you get advice, support or help?

Lauren: I have always thought it important to get advice, support and help from the people closest to you; friends and family. And luckily, after working in the industry for so long, a lot of friends are still working in restaurants, kitchens and venues. Being to draw on other people’s experiences and knowledge helps a lot. However, family is still the biggest support to me.

Jacqui: My family and friends are my greatest support, they tell me exactly what they think wither I like what they say or not! My friends, more so my Scottish ladies are very straightforward speaking no holds barred, or if they can’t help I will look for a person that will know the answer. If all else fails. ask Google!!

Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?

Lauren:  We had to use our own funds to begin with, and have now turned to the bank for a business loan which should be through soon.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Jacqui:  Apart from my children I guess Dine by the Tyne was, just to watch that sky table lift off the ground was mind blowing, I remember standing thinking; “I did that!!” And as a student, it was very humbling, and reminded me you can do anything in life if you work hard and believe in your ideas.

Lauren:  The biggest achievement for the business was our launch event. It turned out to be hugely successful with the guests, and from that we have received some amazing coverage in magazines and online. 

How do you differentiate your business from others?

Lauren:  There is no business like ours; nobody has been crazy enough to take on a task like this and turn it into a financially successful business model! Pop-up chef’s tables is a new concept to the culinary world and it is being received brilliantly so far.

Jacqui:  We link the dining experience with events which allows us to have some fun with the whole concept; themed tables, using all five senses, and having the most brilliant time.

foodWhat’s it like to be your own boss?

Lauren:  I’ve worked for a lot of big companies, and especially in chain restaurants every boss up the chain has a boss above them and it never seems to end! I still find myself looking to ask, ‘is this okay, or what do you think of this?’ and then remember, it’s my decision! It is definitely a learning curve, but I am enjoying it and learning how to embrace it.

Jacqui:  It’s great, except my 5-year-old is my real boss! I have chronic arthritis so I can work when I feel well enough if I need a day off I can have it, I can rest when I want and need to so it gives me freedom to work around my illness.

Where do you see your business in 5 years time?

Jacqui:  I would love to see The Experimental Diner in lots of cities all over the UK, and would also love to have a restaurant based around The Experimental Diner, TED’S Kitchen, where we can mix it up even more! I have a hit list of venues and locations; a ‘TED bucket list’, if you will.

Lauren:  It isn’t just the North East that has some beautiful venues and locations, there are places all over the country that hold secret places and phenomenal chefs as well.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Lauren:  Nothing ever works out exactly the way you would like it to. If you come up against a brick wall, you can either let it stop you, knock it down, or go around it. You have to have the will to fight for your business, and you must believe in your concept to be successful!

Jacqui:  Research you concept, make it unique, make it stand out, work your butt off, don’t expect to sleep, and don’t be precious about your idea just because you like it!

Be passionate and believe in your capabilities, but don’t stop when you hit barriers; be prepared to change direction, and if your concept works - find a way.