It’s been 22 years of Charlie Bigham’s meals, with £58m sales, 400 staff and a vast new Somerset ‘kitchen’. But it remains resolutely a ‘challenger’
Charlie Bigham refutes many of the labels attached to his multimillion-pound brand. For starters the 12.5 million dishes cooked up each year and packed in the distinct wooden packs bearing his name are categorically not ‘ready meals’. “It annoys me, we don’t make ready meals,” the brand’s founder insists. “A ready meal is synonymous with compromise. It’s process and price over quality and taste.
“If you like, our spiritual home is in the restaurant industry, where what we do is called mise en place. They do the preparations and legwork in advance so when you walk in you can order and it arrives on the plate quite quickly.”
Name: Charlie Bigham
Family: Married, four kids
Potted CV: Few years as a management consultant and a lifetime of making nice food.
Business ethos: I have quite a lot. I think I’ll go for ‘take pride in everything you do’.
Career peak: Every day is different, there’s always something exciting around the next corner.
Best piece of advice: For those thinking of being food entrepreneurs, my advice to them is, do it now. The right time is now.
How do you relax? I’m very good at relaxing. The sea is a nice place to be - in it, on it. I sail, I swim.
Favourite meal or cuisine: Definitely not a favourite meal because that would be too boring. I don’t like to do things twice. I love Middle Eastern food.
That French chef lingo aside, they aren’t ‘posh’ either. “People say it’s all very well Charlie, your food is a bit posh, it’s a bit expensive and appeals to this tiny section of society. Well, no. Our food is far less expensive than ordering a Domino’s pizza. Is Domino’s a posh brand only eaten by AB class people living in nice cities in the south of England? Absolutely not.”
And while we’re on the subject, his team of chefs tinkering with new and existing recipes across the 40-strong range are creating food, not products - “a lot of people make products, we make food” - and the towering 85,000 sq ft production facility the brand opened in Somerset in late 2017 is absolutely not a factory. Bigham prefers to think of it as a very big kitchen.
“People ask if they can look at our factory and I say no, because we don’t have one. Our consumers don’t want to buy food from a factory, I don’t want to eat food from a factory, and I don’t want to produce food in a factory. We want to produce food from a kitchen. That sounds a bit glib maybe, but it’s not.”
As proof, Bigham points to the “frying pans, saucepans and ovens, just on a bigger scale” being used to cook up small batches of bestsellers chicken tikka and cottage pie, each morsel prepped, cooked and packed in around five hours to ensure freshness.
Huge windows provide workers with views on to the striking Dulcote Quarry that surrounds the site, while machines have only been cautiously embraced. Each new pipe or apparatus is taste-tested blind to ensure it doesn’t interfere with Bigham’s home-cooked USP.
It’s all part of living up to the only label Bigham heartily embraces, that of a challenger brand. He uses the term several times as we discuss the business he set up 20 years ago, dreamed up after quitting his job as a management consultant and heading off for a trip across India in a camper van.
Cash to splash
But if that label was apt for a two-person startup knocking on doors in London to get meals on shelf in 1996, is it still appropriate for a brand with £58.3m in sales in 2017, 16.3% growth, 400 employees and the cash to splash out on a huge facility capable of manufacturing 100,000 meals per day at capacity? Bigham thinks so. “I’d be very depressed if we ever stop challenging. It’s about philosophy. It’s about saying we’re going to be different, take our own approach and operate in what I would say is the right way.”
That even extends to the building we’re sitting in, where “the starting point was we wanted to do something a bit different.” London landlords “didn’t want to engage” simply offering to “build a shed” on rented land. And so the company widened the net, buying the land and building the new site in only two years. “We’ve been going 20 years so thought it might be quite nice to have our own home.”
The Somerset site has been designed specifically around manufacturing bestsellers such as lasagne and fish pie, leaving the team at Park Royal in London to look after sales and marketing, with the first nationwide outdoor advertising campaign launched only this month, and NPD, with six new grain-based recipes released in April.
As ever, at least since he handed over the CEO role in 2009, Bigham continues to spend “a disproportionate amount of time” working with the chefs on the bit of the business he loves - the food - with the day-to-day running left to Patrick Cairns, appointed to the CEO role in 2017, though Bigham says “I don’t think Patrick would agree I’ve exactly stepped back, we work as a team”.
Its identity as an industry challenger also informs Bigham’s approach to value and the paradoxical demands for high quality but low price. While his meals retail for as much as £8, it’s instructive that his brand has not been sucked into the scandals that engulfed other parts of the fresh food sector, he believes. “There are a lot of things that irritate me. The obsession of the industry that I find myself in with price is one of the most irritating of all. Consumers don’t buy things on price, it’s about value for money.
“There’s this fundamental problem in the whole industry, which is to talk about price, and how can we make it cheaper. If there’s a genuine change in the cost dynamics, as there has been in the last few months because of Brexit, the kneejerk reaction to that is ‘how do we change our product so we don’t have to put the price up?’ I think that’s wrong.
“If we don’t allow our suppliers to charge us a bit more they’ll either go out of business, or they’re going to cut corners. We don’t want that.”
That must lead to tricky conversations with the retailers though? “Of course. It’s not easy for any brand to go and have a conversation about increasing prices. That’s the industry we’re in.” It doesn’t mean the brand “is a soft touch” with suppliers, though. After all “we’re in a very competitive marketplace”.
One in which the brand has carved out a very successful niche, sitting comfortably beside premium own label meals in the chiller, to which Bigham says they add around 70% in incremental sales. “There have been quite a few people who’ve come and gone over the years, in fact usually one or two a year who come and have a go. But our model is fundamentally different.”
So hand Bigham any label you like, really. There is no refuting the consistent double-digit growth he and his team have sustained over the past two decades, settling at about 18% over the past five years. “That’s the reason we’ve come out here and built this building - we see no reason for that to stop.”