How the Dinner Ladies found the recipe for financial independence

Sophie Gilliatt (left) and Katherine Westwood now employ 30 people and turn over $5 million a year.
Sophie Gilliatt (left) and Katherine Westwood now employ 30 people and turn over $5 million a year. Photo: Supplied

The Dinner Ladies was born out of a humble objective back in 2007: Sophie Gilliatt wanted to buy her husband a kayak for his 40th birthday.

The trouble was she was on maternity leave at the time with their third baby so she wasn't in paid work. As a result, she didn't feel like she had her own money to make the purchase.

She mentioned it to a group of her friends, all mothers of small children, at the park. They were almost all lawyers working part-time and fairly frazzled in their various attempts to juggle work with their families. 

Sophie Gilliatt (left) and Katherine Westwood, the co-founders of the Dinner Ladies, outside Westwood's shed where it ...
Sophie Gilliatt (left) and Katherine Westwood, the co-founders of the Dinner Ladies, outside Westwood's shed where it all began. Photo: supplied

One friend offered to pay Gilliatt some money to cook a few meals for her family the next week, which she did.

Gilliatt then teamed up with Katherine Westwood, who was also at the park that day, to trial the idea of delivering home-cooked meals to busy, time-poor households a little bit further.

They bought two camp stoves, one big pot and set up a make-shift kitchen in Westwood's back shed in a converted trailer. They emailed 10 families they knew well, family included, and said they would be delivering meals the next week gratis.

They shopped on Monday and cooked on Tuesday, literally with kids at their feet. Between them they had seven children aged six months to six.

One of them would stay at home to feed and bathe all the kids while the other went out to deliver the food to 10 households.

The next week they sent the same families a similar email saying they would deliver meals again, but this time they would charge for the dinners if they were wanted.


They were wanted. Those families then forwarded the email around to their friends and from word of mouth alone it was a roaring success.

It turned a profit from that second week on.

The Dinner Ladies now cooks about 12,000 dinners every week and employs a fleet of delivery trucks that deliver boxes full of dinners to a large part of Sydney. The business turns over more than $5 million a year.

The service will soon be available in Canberra, Newcastle, the Central Coast, the Southern Highlands, Goulburn and Wollongong. Queensland and Victoria are next on the list.

Gilliatt says the financial independence the business has afforded both of them is life-changing.

They were both out of the workforce when they started the business, something Gilliatt admits was challenging. "Not earning any money creates a different dynamic in any household," she says.

The fact they had money in their own pockets from the very first week was thrilling; the fact they now employ 30 people is mind blowing, she says.  

"We now have all these people working for us whose livelihoods we are sustaining," Gilliatt says. "Thinking about the fact we have created that is pretty amazing."  

The nature of the work lent itself to impromptu business strategy sessions daily, which has benefited the venture.

"Cooking the way we do meant we were often both standing, chopping vegetables or picking herbs and basically we'd talk the whole time," Gilliatt explains. "We had all this time to talk about the business, and what might work and what doesn't."

Neither Gilliatt nor Westwood are trained chefs but both were good home cooks.

Gilliatt has taken the lead on the food while Westwood has led the operating size of the business. Their approach to finance has always been modest.

"We have only ever cooked as many meals as we've had ordered," Gilliatt says.

They have basic items stocked in the freezer at all times but the different specials they offer to customers in a weekly email are only ever prepared once the orders come in. It means there is little waste: in food or money.

On the odd occasion where they make an error, such as overcooking white beans, they ensure it's used another way. "We'll create a different dish so the food doesn't go to waste," Gilliatt says.

Gilliatt didn't ever end up buying the kayak. It took a few years but she went a fair bit further.

"I bought two stand-up paddle-boards instead and even better than that, I bought a beach house for the paddleboards to live," Gilliatt says. "It's very modest but being able to do that was incredibly rewarding."

Georgina Dent is a journalist, editor and TV commentator with a keen focus on women's empowerment and gender equality. 

An earlier version of this article stated revenue was more than $2.5 million and staff at 50.These figures were out of date and have been corrected.