Abby Catmull

Name: Abby Catmull

Age: 28

Job title: Product developer, food to go

Company & location: Waitrose & Partners, Bracknell

Education: BSc Nutrition and Food Consumer Science at University of Reading

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? As a child, I always loved cooking and baking but had never actually considered a career in food until much later, when looking at universities and choosing my degree. I looked at various different options including dietetics, but settled on my degree because of the unique way it combines science, consumer behaviour, marketing and nutrition.

Why did you decide to go for a career in food & drink? I’ve always had a passion for food and spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandma growing up, learning from her passion as a home cook and about her recipes, some of which she’s had with her since the war.

Then later, during university visits, I remember visiting the University of Reading and hearing about other student experiences from their placement year. Until this point, it had never even occurred to me that it could be someone’s job to eat and drink for a living – it sounded like a dream and sold me the course! During my placement, I spent a year at Adelie Foods which taught me a lot about the industry and really evolved my passion for developing food products.

Explain your job to us in a sentence (or two): I’m a product developer, looking after food to go for Waitrose, which involves using customer insight and trend data to develop high-quality, tasty products our customers will love. It could be anything from sandwiches and salads to chilled snacks. We manage the full process of development from concept to launch, as well as continually reviewing the category for future opportunities.

What does a typical day look like for you? A typical day in product development can be incredibly varied. A day in the office might involve a mixture of product tastings, benchmarking, key development meetings, or spending time with our chef and innovation team to come up with the next big thing! We’re a very tight-knit team so when we’re in the office we’ll taste our new products together, sharing inspiration across categories. One moment I might be tasting our Smoked Ham & Cheese Sandwich and the next I might be sampling our new Barista Oat Drink – every day is unique!

Working closely with our suppliers is also a key part of our role, so we spend a large amount of our time visiting our supplier sites, looking at anything from factory trials to the future category vision. We’re always looking at how we can improve our offer.

“I also love working for a company where I know we’re contributing to a happier world. I’m really proud that we are rated first for animal welfare and that our products support British farmers”

Tell us how you went about applying for your job: A friend and Waitrose partner actually reached out to me about the role. When I received the text, I was in Dubai Airport, returning from a six-month sabbatical travelling around Asia and Australia – it felt like it was meant to be! There was an in-person interview, where I was able to share real and honest examples of my time so far working in the food industry. I was also able to share my foodie knowledge, having just spent time travelling around Asia cooking and eating incredible food.

My favourite question from the interview was being asked about my two favourite Waitrose products, which I still remember being our No.1 Lavender Shortbread and a Bloody Mary Prawn Cocktail Wrap with Lovage.

What’s the best part about working for a food & drink company? One of the most rewarding parts is seeing the many products I’ve developed over the years hit the shelves and become customer favourites. Some of the products I’m most proud of developing over the years are our Levantine Table Freekeh, Black Rice & Chickpeas and our Summer Fruit Kebab.

I also love working for a company where I know we’re contributing to a happier world. I’m really proud that we are rated first for animal welfare and that our products support British farmers.

And what’s the biggest misconception people have about working in food & drink? I find people really underestimate the time it takes to develop food products and often assume it must be as simple as a couple of weeks! Most people can’t believe we’ve already signed off the recipes for our Christmas sandwiches by the summer.

There is so much time and care that goes into developing every single product. Before any product hits the shelves, there are weeks spent perfecting recipes with our team of chefs and suppliers before we can even begin to scale up on a factory level.

What advice would you give to other young people looking to get into the food & drink industry? My first piece of advice would be to get some first-hand experience of the food industry if you can. If you do choose to opt for the university route, a placement year is a great opportunity to do this and get practical experience alongside theoretical learning.

I would also recommend that you spend as much time learning about food and drink as possible – whether that’s learning about new cuisines or spending time on a cookery course to understand key techniques. It’s really important to invest time in your own skills for a career in food and drink.

What’s your ultimate career dream? I would love to still be working for a business that aligns to my moral compass and gives back, whilst looking after a food category that I’m really passionate about, continuing to push the boundaries on development and innovation.