How Kirsty's founder Kirsty Henshaw went from single motherhood to Dragon's Den and a multi-million pound business

Kirsty Henshaw found fame on Dragon’s Den. Now she is investing millions into Yorkshire and plans to move here. Business Editor Mark Casci heard her incredible story.

Kirsty Henshaw
Kirsty Henshaw

It is an old cliche told time and time again, about how large successful businesses were born from humble beginnings at a kitchen table.

In the case of Kirsty Henshaw it is literally true.

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She wanted her son to be able to enjoy food that complied with his allergies and conceived of creating her own to allow him as full a diet as possible.

Starting with a tiny ice-cream maker from Argos she set about making dairy free desserts for her son Jacob.

Little did she know however that this process would take her to a national television audience, help establish a firm that bears her name which to date has manufactured more than 40 million gluten and dairy free meals and is worth more than £15M and set on a trajectory to try and become the nation’s leading free from food manufacturer.

However, for Ms Earnshaw, then in her early twenties, the picture was far less glamorous.

She said she had always wanted to be an entrepreneur but did not know what field to pursue.

In front of the Dragons in 2010

For her, the scene at the kitchen table was very much more rooted in necessity than ambition.

“I was quite a young mum at the time in my early 20s,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“My son was only four years old and he wanted dairy free ice cream. He had lots of allergies and had nearly died of a nut allergy when he was a baby. I was very aware of what he could and could not eat, so that meant I had to be very creative.”

It was here where she realised that this path could be the one that led her to business success.

With Peter Jones

The foods she began producing adhered to the model of what is now called ‘free from’, specifically foods lacking materials like gluten and dairy which many people’s bodies cannot tolerate.

She began producing meals for other firms, mainly small health food shops around the country.

Soon she was operating from a small unit close to her home in Preston, Lancashire.

People liked her products but she was still very much a lifestyle business, turning over £2,000 a month and working as two different barmaid jobs to pay the bills.

The new Harrogate factory

She had approached large supermarket chains and applied for funding to take her firm to a position where she could scale up. But at the time, nobody was listening.

“I didn’t have a penny to make it happen,” she said.

“I wasn’t particularly investibale from normal sources. I had to do something a little bit different.”

With her son about to start school she turned to an unlikely source. She applied to be a contestant on the BBC reality show Dragon’s Den. It was here that her life was about to change.

“I applied one evening after crying into a glass of wine. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I could not get any form of investment due to my personal circumstances. A single mum that worked as a barmaid was not seen as the most investable of people. People said ‘don’t do it - you will get eaten alive’.

“I was an entrepreneur trying to do everything. But I knew everything there was to know about my business.”

Kirsty in her time in partnership

Her pitch and story not only famously brought the notoriously hard-nosed Dragons to the verge of tears, it excited their appetite.

Four made her offers. Ultimately her appearance in 2010 saw her agree to work with both Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne.

Ms Henshaw said she learned a great deal from the Dragons over the time they worked together and her business began to grow into everything she had hoped it would be.

However, after three years of working together, they decided to go their separate ways.

“They wanted to go down one route and I wanted to go another,” she explained.

“We have grown and evolved massively since that day. I don’t regret it at all. It was the right move to do.”

Ms Henshaw has a clear objective for her business - to be the number one brand in free from.

Her products such as ready meals were all made under contract with various Yorkshire firms.

However, she knew that to achieve her goals she needed to make a change and gain more control.

The Harrogate factory’s need was growing with each passing day.

“When you work on contracts you rely on everyone to make parts of the products for you,” she said.

“It was not in our hands. The people who made our products did not work for me. We knew we needed our own factory to make my dream of being the biggest brand in free from a reality. We found an amazing site, owned by two really entrepreneurial landlords in Harrogate. “The site is the next part of the journey.”

She adds: “Moving into Yorkshire is a huge step for us. I am a Lancashire girl but I love Yorkshire and I want to eventually move to Harrogate with my children. I am there Monday to Thursday.

“It is a dream come true.”

Part of the work was done by her teenage son Jacob who accompanied her to the factory on many days to help pack boxes.

During our conversation her children come up frequently, as is natural for someone balancing being a successful entrepreneur with raising children.

“I am trying to teach him from the ground up as it were,” she says of Jacob.

“It is all about hard work, I have always worked as hard as I can.

“It has been the hardest year of my life but equally the most amazing.

“There have been a lot of tears and worries that I cannot do it. I think anyone with children recognises that they always come first but you have to provide for them as well. You have to crack on.”

She adds: “I come from nothing. We had absolutely nothing. We all wanted to achieve more than what we had. We have all excelled in our own fields. When I became a young mum at 19 I thought I am not going to let him go through what I went through.

“Past experiences make you who you are don’t they?”

The site in Harrogate itself was a £2m investment for the firm. Already set up for food production it took six months to bring it up to what they wanted. It has already taken on 25 people and more staff are due to be added next year as production scales up.

Ms Henshaw has a target of turning over £25m as a result of the investment.

Work was underway when lockdown was imposed but Ms Henshaw and her team were able to adapt and press on.

“That was really tough,” she said.

“I am a single mum with two kids.

“We managed it, I don’t know how, but we managed it.”

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James Mitchinson