Charlie Bigham's Smoked Haddock Gratin

Growth at Charlie Bighams has slowed as price-sensitive shoppers bought fewer of the posh ready meals than in previous years.

Volumes were flat in the year ended 31 August 2023, compared with double-digit gains in the prior 12 months.

The newly filed accounts also showed revenues at the company increased 9.3% to £132.6m, with the rise largely driven by higher prices passed on to the supermarkets. It represented a marked slowdown from 16% top-line growth in 2021/22 and 29% in 2020/21.

Distribution of the brand increased once again in the mults, helping boost sales, with gains being partially offset by a delisting in Morrisons.

Bighams said despite the increases in price and revenues, gross margins remained well below pre-Covid levels – falling 0.5% to 20% – as further cost inflation in labour and raw materials hit the business.

However, pre-tax profits improved 22% in the year, from £4.6m to £5.6m, thanks to operational improvements and a savings programme to limit the impact of input cost inflation. EBITDA also increased by £1.8m to £10.5m.

“We are still expecting consistent organic growth,” added the directors’ report in the accounts signed off by CEO Patrick Cairns.

“The current economic downturn will likely slow this trajectory over the next year or two. We still have only 5.5% market share of premium ready meals and a resilient customer base, and we continue to invest across the business, including quality, capacity and the brand.”

A major £6m refurbishment and extension of the London Kitchen manufacturing site was completed during the year, which increased capacity and improved efficiency at the business, with improvements also made at the Somerset facility.

Bighams added the level of complaints from customers declined in the period thanks to the “quality and deliciousness” of the food being a key priority for the business.

A strong level of marketing investment was maintained, largely behind press and radio advertising, resulting in further increases of brand awareness.

Frozen food brand By Ruby, which was acquired in 2022, was rebranded in the year and launched into a number of Waitrose stores, in addition to farm shops and being sold direct to consumers online.