13 September 2021
“They used to fill-up socks, tea-towels, even bloomers,” Michelle Maddox told Kilgraston’s surprised senior pupils, “then they boiled them for hours on the fire!”
The inspirational owner of Clootie McToot was describing the history of Clootie Dumplings (rich, traditional Scottish fruit puddings) and her own entrepreneurial journey, as part of the School’s Women and Business lecture series: “It’s been a rollercoaster,” said the busy mum and businesswoman, “from making everything in the family’s utility room, we now employ fourteen staff in a professional kitchen.”
Starting just five years’ ago – inspiration came after her son’s appeal for edible donations for a Christmas school fete – Michelle’s traditional Clootie Dumplings sell like hot-cakes, exports reaching North America and Germany: “I was brought-up making them,” explained Michelle, “it was a family tradition and now we use my granny’s very own recipe, it’s the company’s unique selling point.”
Thankfully, these days, the ‘cloot’ (Scottish for cloth) is tailor-made for the job in borders town, Kelso, with no-one, Michelle assured, losing their underwear in the process.
Initially involved with the London food industry, immediately before starting Clootie McToot, Michelle was employed in the community grant application field, however, sales success at her son’s stall soon had her thinking: “I handed in my notice the next day!”
Based in Perthshire village, Abernethy, the business consists of a busy café, training kitchen, subscriber demonstrations and tasting sessions, together with a thriving shop and online retailer. Expansion plans are in the pipeline: “Spring 2022 will see a much bigger café and kitchen, allowing 24/7 production,” Michelle explained.
The need to be flexible and nimble in business, coping with unexpected obstacles and continually looking to diversify, was a recurring theme: “You’re always learning,” she explained, “For instance, fresh dumplings have a shelf-life of 21 days, which can be difficult for stockists, so we came up with the idea of a clootie kit, where you get all the dry ingredients, muslin cloth and string, just adding butter, milk, egg and an apple at home.”
This new product increased lifespan to a year, making stocking far more attractive to retailers: high-street giants John Lewis soon adopting the dumplings. Additionally, lockdown saw a huge spike in home-cooking interest, offering clootie kits the perfect chance to shine: “We went from making 200 to 1,500 a week.”
Michelle described how she’d learnt the importance and power of great social media, constantly adding to the brand’s story, discussing new ingredients and developments and always responding to comments: “We’d established a very active digital shop and loyal customer base, proving an absolute lifeline when Covid arrived.”
Highs and lows
Pupils were fascinated to learn about Clootie’s branding, the whole family initially having had input. But the need to redesign became obvious when one outlet stated that they loved the product, but not the logo: “I was a bit hurt by that one,” said Michelle. However, taking it on the chin, a branding expert was enlisted – a new subtle colour palette decided – with the family’s original design always making a small guest appearance “to remind us what we’re about.”
Concluding her talk, the entrepreneur reiterated how much of a juggling act running your own business is: “Every day is about balancing responsibilities,” she told girls, “it is immensely rewarding, but you do have to be prepared to accept risk, the fear of failure is always there.”
Women and Business
The Women and Business programme, together with the dynamic Unifrog careers platform, are just part of Kilgraston’s dedicated curriculum, ensuring every pupil has the very best industry insight and future opportunity. The School is passionate about encouraging business enterprise among pupils, with a group of girls recently winning a Young Enterprise Awards.
Kilgraston would like to extend its thanks to Michelle for taking the time to speak with the girls.