Company: Plum Baby
Product: Chilled babyfood
Established: 2004
Turnover: £4m

Susie Willis swapped a career organising celebrity Krug and shepherd's pie parties for a job producing babyfood. The founder of organic babyfood company Plum Baby was Jeffrey Archer's PA in a former life, and it was her responsibility to arrange his legendary dinner parties.

Today, her clientele has changed from minor celebrities and dignitaries at Archer's penthouse to children at dinner tables across the country.

After a stint as a professional cook, Willis, a mum of three, founded Plum Baby in 2004. She was disillusioned with the state of the babyfood category and had a vision of producing “real food for babies, not just babyfood”. Last March her dream became reality when her eight-strong range of products hit the shelves for the first time.

Willis shares her passion with recently established companies such as Little Dish and Babylicious. What makes her stand out, however, is her unconventional and daring approach.

Rather than initially supplying small, local retailers and growing Plum Baby gradually, Willis invested £1.4m in the business to enable it to satisfy the multiples, even though she didn't yet have any orders.

The gamble, and her confidence, paid off when Plum Baby secured a three-month exclusive listing in Sainsbury's for its launch.

“If I was a bit more sensible I would probably have started with smaller health food shops with a smaller budget,” admits Willis.
“But I had a clear understanding of what I wanted to do. Everyone warned me not to go into the world of multiple retailers, saying they would screw me for every penny and would kill my margins. But the retailers were clearly interested in premium babyfood and could see that they could do well out of the brand.

“It sounds really complacent but I never doubted the product would take off in stores. I went to Sainsbury's with some good homemade recipes and gave a well thought-out presentation. I think it would have been even harder if I hadn't been so confident.”

Her bold strategy is now reaping rewards. Plum Baby now has listings in all the major multiples as well as smaller retailers and has a growing fan base of mothers. So why has it been such an overnight success?

Willis believes it is because the company has brought something genuinely different to the table. It makes dishes for babies up to four months old but with recipes that use ingredients more in line with adult dishes. So, instead of puréed apple and carrot there's squash & sweet potato; beetroot & apple with artichoke; and plum, pomegranate & guava.

The products also contain no preservatives, artificial additives or any added salt or sugar and use ingredients that are organic and, where possible, Fairtrade. The company has even tapped into the growing demand for superfoods by incorporating what it calls “super” ingredients such as spinach and blueberries, which Willis says are typically saved for more adult products.

“There is no reason why many of these adult ingredients can't be used for children's food,” she says. “The products don't make any health claims but we call them superfoods because the ingredients we use are wholesome and nutritious. It's not just gimmicky marketing - the products are good for you.”

Plum Baby is now entering phase two and next month the company is launching its first meat-based dishes, this time three recipes aimed at babies of seven months and older. It intends to introduce three further meat recipes in the new year.

Willis also says she wants to launch meals for children up to six years old. “I'm a very laid-back mother but not when it comes to feeding my children,” she says.

“I have got a very small window in which to give my children healthy foods so I have got to get it right before they are 12 years old and eating at McDonald's.”

The company is also looking to branch out even further, by venturing into the snacks and drinks categories. In the next few months, it will be introducing a supergrain range of cereals, which Willis says will be more similar to porridge than the traditional breakfast babyfood. “It will not be just bland baby rice,” she says.
And there's more to follow.

“We have had a great start so the spotlight is on us and we need to get it right,” she says. “But we want to launch into many more categories. I want to make an entire Plum Baby aisle.” Perhaps not shepherd's pie flavour though.

Is your company on the up? Call Stefan Chomka on 01293 610253