Product: Juice drinks Anticipated turnover: More than £5m this year (January to December) Positioning: Ambient Established: May 2006
Why have premium juices and smoothies taken the supermarket chiller cabinet by storm, but the ambient category remains dominated by cheap and often lower quality offerings?
This was the question Wayne and Tatiana Miller asked themselves back in 2004 while on holiday in Tatiana's native country, Ukraine, having decided to get married and change careers in one fell swoop.
"The ambient juice category was undeveloped, unexciting and generally poor quality in the UK," recalls Wayne, the company's managing director. "It was mainly concentrates. Our idea was to grow the fruit, package it and revolutionise a market that had become commoditised."
One Eureka moment and 18 months of experimentation with juice blends later, the Cracker brand was born. Last October, it secured listings in Asda and Morrisons. It has just gone live in Waitrose and hits the shelves at Booker and Parfetts this month. And now the pair are intent on making it the UK's number-one ambient juice drink brand.
Unlike many other ambient juice drinks, the seven-strong Cracker range is not made from commodity concentrates but from hand picked, fresh fruit that is crushed into purée and mixed with water.
The Millers were confident about the proposition from the outset but it took longer than they anticipated to get the product from concept to shelf, admits Wayne.
"We had to find and test recipes, then talk to consumers and find money. My advice is that however long you think it's going to take, double it."
Having spent much of mid-2004 travelling around Ukraine looking for suitable facilities, they eventually found a manufacturer to handle the fruit supply chain, processing and packaging, and developed state-of-the-art fruit processing and crushing facilities especially for the job.
Tatiana took on the role of purchasing and operations director and entrepreneur Pieter Totté was brought on board as chairman to advise them on the finer details of running a business. But this was just the beginning of the hard work.
The pair then had to whittle down an initial 30 recipes to 23 and eventually seven. With help from Cambridge Market Research, they began testing in the heartland of likely rivals such as Innocent. Despite Innocent's phenomenal success, research revealed some surprising findings, says Wayne. Some people loved the brand, but found it too expensive. Others felt they were "too old" for what they perceived as a trendy youth brand. Some thought the texture was too thick.
In other words, there was definitely a market to corner. Add to this the fact that rivals had targeted the increasingly crowded chiller cabinet and the opportunity looked bigger still.
Cracker doesn't look like anything you would normally find in the ambient aisles in its bevel-edged Tetra Prisma packaging (black for the light & smooth and white for the thick & smooth). The multiples are suitably impressed.
"Buyers can see it has scaleability," says Wayne. "Feedback is that they find our new proposition is adding value to the category with new flavours, tastes and textures."
The drinks have gone down well with consumers too - not least because of their keen pricing (see boxout). "We wanted to develop an everyday drink for people and at these prices it's not inaccessible. It's also not just a treat."
The pair are currently thrashing out the details of their marketing strategy and have just launched a tele and field sales operation. Later this year, they plan to roll out new PET and wedge formats targeted at foodservice, cash & carry, wholesale and convenience. They also want to develop a 250ml or 275ml glass format for the on-trade next year.
"We are exploring other opportunities such as vending in schools and single-serves for hotels," adds Wayne. "We want a business that is about reach, rather than being dependent on five or six customers," adds Wayne.
Clearly, the Millers are as pragmatic as they are ambitious. More importantly they're passionate about what they do. Undoubtedly, they face plenty of challenges, but if anyone can crack the premium end of the ambient juice drink market, Cracker can.