Once upon a time, there lived two ambi­tious young food consultants. One day they found themselves ­wondering why it was so hard to find ­really healthy food for young children that was easy to prepare.
They ­realised that ­unless mums and dads had the time and patience to chop up fresh fruit and vegetables every day, they had no choice but to give their kids prepared food containing added salt, ­sugar and loads of other ­nutritional nasties.
They ­decided to ­create a company to fill this gap. They called their company Little Dish and, hopefully, they&'ll trade hap­pily ever after.
OK, it&'s perhaps too early to say whether there&'s a fairytale ending in store for the children&'s ready meal business set up by Hillary Graves and John Stapleton, especially considering their ultimate goal is to turn Little Dish into the UK&'s leading children&'s food brand.
But their story so far is one of ­rapid success - if anyone can crack this market, Graves and Stapleton can.
Graves is an ex-baby food consultant and co-founder of UK women&'s ­online community iVillage, and ­Staple­ton is a food technologist and co-foun­­der of New Covent Garden Soup Company.
The success they&'ve had in the short time they&'ve been collaborating is a sure sign that they know their stuff. Work on the brand only started a year ago, but already products are available through Ocado and listed in 21 ­Waitrose stores. They&'ve also recently won a contract to supply 40 Tesco stores, starting in July.
Their achievements belie the fact that the Little Dish team of four still has to work out of Graves&' Notting Hill flat.
&"We&'ve beaten initial Ocado targets by 500% - and we&'d only been trading in Waitrose for a week when our sales results showed we had beaten targets by more than 100%,&" says Graves.
They had to overcome the usual wariness of buyers to commit too ­enthusiastically to a new brand, but having sent Ocado triple the number of cases they requested, saying they would bear the cost if they didn&'t sell, it soon became clear that this risk had been worth taking.
All the cases sold out that day and neither ­Little Dish nor Ocado has looked back.
Kevin Hancock, trading manager at Ocado, says: &"We&'re delighted with the initial sales of the new product and ­believe Little Dish meals are an ideal fit with our ­customer profile.&"
The children&'s meals, developed with the help of a paediatric dietician, are fresh, can be frozen at home, and are targeted at one to five-year-olds. They contain only natural ingredients and no added salt, sugar, preservatives, E numbers &"or words you can&'t pronounce&".
So far there are five varieties: cottage pie, pasta with cheese, peas and broccoli trees, pasta bolognese, fish pie and mild chicken korma. Graves and Stapleton plan to launch two fresh sauces, tomato and cheese, and a range of fromage frais products ­later this year.
&"No one else is doing anything like this,&" says Stapleton. &"It&'s criminal how much rubbish kids eat. Our food is real, quite different from ­synthetic meals for children, and has an ­aspira­tional quality - our products are mini versions of adult meals, which kids love.&"
Marketing so far has been low-key, using &'community leaders&', parenting magazines and leaflet distribution to spread the word.
But shortly, the company will be ramping up a sampling campaign in Waitrose stores and promoting the brand on radio.
Little touches, such as rhymes on packaging ­encouraging healthy eating and images on the ­inside that can be coloured in, add to the ­kiddie appeal.
One of the investors, Innocent, the smoothie maker and another pioneer of natural foods, has been a great help, says Graves.
&"They&'re a role model for us, doing the same thing with kids&' drinks that we&'re ­doing with food. Their experience means that they&'re our perfect strategic partner.&"
She adds: &"But we&'re not trying to replicate them. We are ­absolutely ­trying to build our own brand: we aim to make it the number one children&'s brand for food - something that mums trust and want to buy.&"
Moving out of Graves&' flat into ­proper offices next month could well become the latest chapter in the ­success ­story of Little Dish. n
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Product: Healthy ready meals for kids
Listings: Ocado, Waitrose and Tesco

Birth of a brand
Graves and Stapleton met in 2004 while they were both consultants for UK baby food companies. "We agreed there was a huge opportunity to raise standards beyond traditional 'jars' to create fresh, healthy food for young children. At the same time we recognised that there was a void in the market when babies reached 12 months - we became excited about the proposition of creating a ­specialised range for children aged one to five years old," says Graves.The idea was to create a range of fresh meals, with 100% natural ingredients, that were taste-tested by children and sold in packaging that gave the meals a premium look. There followed a series of focus groups and a survey of 200 mothers to see if the concept would work. ­After positive results, a paediatric dietician was recruited and Little Dish was born on 23 May last year. Having raised the funds to take the brand forward, Graves and Stapleton approached Waitrose and Ocado, who confirmed their listing in January. Tesco confirmed a listing just three weeks ago.Graves and Stapleton have been joined by two other staff to oversee recipe develop­ment and the finances, and they're planning to move to offices in Ladbroke Grove next month. Little Dish is currently seeking a sales and marketing manager.