Charlie Bigham, manufacturer of upmarket meals, kits and pies, tells Simon Creasey why he refuses to compromise on quality - even in the current economic environment

Working for gourmet meal, kit and pie maker Charlie Bigham's should carry a health warning: 'This company could seriously damage your waistline.' Employees at the business's Park Royal 'kitchen' in north London take part in at least two tasting sessions a day, sampling anything from British classic beef and ale pies through more exotic dishes such as Malaysian chicken laksa and Sumatran salmon & tiger prawn curry to barbecue 'sizzlers' such as red Thai chicken breasts.

The idea is to ensure the meals, which are listed in Waitrose, Ocado and a raft of upmarket food halls and delis, meet Bigham's exacting standards, and to try out new creations in the product development kitchen. Such attention to detail has paid off. Despite producing meals with an average rsp of £5.99 to £6.99, the company reports year-on-year sales growth of 20%.

Bigham admits he will have to think laterally to stay ahead of the game in the current market, but that shouldn't be a problem for someone who came up with the concept when he took a break from his career as a management consultant to go travelling with his wife. He says he immediately noticed how different attitudes towards cooking were overseas. "In most places you can get good food quickly," he says. "It's quite simply a bunch of fresh ingredients tossed in a hot pan by the side of the road."

With a view to making meal preparation similarly easy for British consumers, Bigham devised a range of fresh fish, meat and vegetable meal kits that could be cooked in minutes to create restaurant-quality dishes, launching the business in 1996. Waitrose and Ocado are now its two biggest retail customers. Although he talks to other multiples, he has no desire to be listed at a big four, he insists. "Our job is to give Waitrose a competitive advantage so working with their direct competitors isn't the best way to go."

Despite the economic environment, which has sent the cost of ingredients soaring and, he admits, made it tough to make money, he refuses to compromise by buying cheaper ingredients. "The issue of price is a real bugbear for me. If you bought the ingredients for any of our dishes and compared them gram for gram then we tend to run out less expensive," he says.

The only area he has made a concession on is packaging. The company, which moved from plastic trays to more environmentally friendly card trays, has been forced to rethink. "We thought we could make the move without incurring any cost, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. We were faced with increasing our prices by about 50p or swallowing our pride and going back to plastic packaging," he says.

Fortunately, a compromise was reached and more cost-effective packaging in the form of recycled plastic trays will be unveiled this month. "You have to be led by what your consumers are telling you, and what we're interested in doing - selling fantastic-tasting food," says Bigham.

That's worth paying a premium for.