Caroline Bennett has always been a pioneer - both in business and taste. The founder of Moshi Moshi, the first conveyor belt sushi restaurant, she laughingly recalls: “Back in the early 90s when you wanted to get a loan, you had to visit individual bank managers to make your case. I went to 17 different bank managers at different banks. Keith in the Whitechapel branch of NatWest had never heard of sushi, definitely never tasted it, but I convinced him that with 40,000 Japanese people working in London’s Square Mile, opening a sushi restaurant in Liverpool Street, was bound to work.” Londoners turned out to have an unexpected taste for raw fish and six more restaurants opened swiftly afterwards.
Caroline had spent her gap year before university in Japan and says “she really craved Japanese food”. But she never imagined her “new kid on the block” restaurant would be the forerunner of the Yo Sushi, Itsu and Wasabi landscape we’re all so familiar with now.
Brought up in Lewes, Sussex, Caroline is the daughter of a solicitor and a piano teacher, who were encouraging but not entrepreneurial. “I can remember going to Anita Roddick’s first Bodyshop in Brighton and being amazed by all these wonderful new products,” she says. “She was inspirational and so ahead of her time, with the recyclable bottles and travelling the world meeting suppliers and setting up new supply chains.”
In her own restaurant business, Caroline was constantly frustrated by the inadequacies of the supply chain when buying fresh fish. When she discovered that by serving bluefin tuna, she was involved in an ecological disaster, she promptly took it off the menu.
Despite trying to buy fishing ethically, she realised the existing supply chain model simply didn’t meet her needs. Caroline’s new business Sole of Discretion was borne from this need for an ethical, trustworthy supply. “I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t buying from methods of catch that were destructive and detrimental to the marine environment,” says Caroline, 52, who spends weekdays in Plymouth and weekends in London with her long-term partner Sammy, a chef.
“I wanted to know when and where the fish was caught because the quality has to be such that you can eat it raw. Did you know when fish smells fishy rather than of the sea, it’s too old to eat? When friends kept asking what the best way to find fish was, I realised there was no simple answer - and there was a gap in the market I could fill.”
Starting an ethical fishmonger supporting the local community was, says Caroline, “almost a calling”. “I first went to a Slow Food festival in 2004 and I loved the passion of everyone there. It was so different from the usual business lunches where half an hour talking business is boring enough; I was thrown into a hotpot of debate, talking about the issues around sustainable, delicious food and no one wanted to stop. It was genuinely inspiring.”
She started Sole of Discretion in 2016 in Plymouth, selling high-quality, delicious, fish online directly to customers, through Farmdrop, a box scheme bringing ethically sourced food straight to your door, Planet Organic and an array of farm shops and delis.
“We’re consuming more fish than we used to in restaurants, but at homes it’s still the big five - cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns. Our fishers catch 50 different species and if people trust the source, they know it’s going to be good to eat - like dogfish and ling,” she says.
All the fishers’ boats are under 10 metres long and fish are caught using rod and line, static gill and trammel nets and mid-water trawls for shoaling species such as sardine or herring. In addition to the environmental aspect of the way fish are caught, there is the social enterprise element to the business - supporting local, small scale fishers.
“Each pack of fish has the name of the fish, the method of catch and the name of the fisher and the boat, so there’s a real sense of pride,” explains Caroline.
“We agree a fair price in advance which means that low-impact fishers are still rewarded, even if the price of the market is low because highly commercial factory vessels have landed. The trading company is a Community Interest Company that the fishers own, so profits go back into their fishing communities.
“We create a mechanism to reward good practice and preserve the ecology of the sea. The population of small-scale fishers in the UK has fallen from close to 10,000 to around 2,500 in just 10 years, and the average age of a fisher is in the mid-50s. Our concern is that if we don’t reward these fishers for fishing with sensitivity to our seas, their knowledge will be lost forever.”
In October 2017 Caroline was recognised in the WISE100 (Women in Social Enterprise 100), the first ever index to recognise inspiring and influential women in social enterprise, impact investment and social innovation.
She received a loan from NatWest Social & Community Capital, and sings the praises of her business mentor, Tania Han. “She’s a fantastic woman and she’s been great at helping me set out KPIs, not just finances but the social enterprise element of, for example, how many local people are employed and how to increase that,” she says.
“My advice to anyone going into business is to surround yourself with people who can plug gaps in your own knowledge. Get involved in any mentoring set-ups, where people who’ve been in the commercial world can give you valuable guidance without expecting a return in payment.
“I really feel that the very masculine approach to running business hasn’t made us happier. It’s not all about money; contributing to society and enjoying that sense of solidarity that comes with being involved with other people with the same passion, that’s what makes us feel happy and successful.”
To discover more about how NatWest could support you in your business goals, visit www.natwest.com/Boost
If you run a social enterprise and would like to know about how the NatWest Social & Community Captital could help, visit www.natwest.com/scc