Just three years after launch, Ella's Kitchen already boasts 10% of the wet babyfood market. Alex Beckett reports on the recession-busting organic children's food brand
Paul Lindley breezes into the converted barn that is Ella's Kitchen HQ in a t-shirt emblazoned with Life is Good.
And the CEO and founder has good reason to be content. This year, sales of his premium organic puréed fruit and vegetable infants' brand are set to top £20m, up from £8m in 2008, and its 26-strong line-up is now stocked nationwide by every major retailer. It has gone into Sweden, Denmark and Norway and won listings in 600 Toys R Us and Babies R Us outlets in the US. As if that wasn't enough, it picked up the gong for Most Outstanding Small Business at the IGD Awards last week. And Lindley expects the business to quadruple in size by 2012, through NPD, increased distribution and marketing.
All this from a germ of an idea seeded during Lindley's previous incarnation as a TV executive. He spent 10 years at kids television channel Nickelodeon UK where he identified a market opportunity for a fun and healthy food concept that encouraged kids to eat more fruit and vegetables.
In 2004, Lindley left Nickelodeon and, using his own savings, developed puréed fruit prototypes with a food science team at Reading University. Just prior to launch in early 2006, he struck a deal with his old employer, Viacom, to give the network a percentage of Ella's Kitchen's profits in return for advertising on Nickelodeon and Nick Jr TV. This proved a valuable bargaining tool with supermarket buyers and the Red One and Yellow One thick fruit smoothies soon hit the shelves of 450 Sainsbury's stores. Last Saturday, Ella's kicked off a 12-month sponsorship of Nick Jr.
Combined with the 100% organic ingredients, the squeezy pouches' vibrant colour schemes stood out in a fixture Lindley says had long been lacking in fun. "Babyfood had always been in jars so pouches were a new thing," he adds. "I had seen no innovation in babyfood. And it didn't taste like the ingredients that went into it."
Three years after launch, Ella's Kitchen accounts for 10% of the wet babyfood market. The line-up targets children from six months to six years old and consists of babyfood, toddler food, Smoothie Fruits and Baby Brekkie ranges. Two months ago, the brand moved out of pouches for the first time, with Pack 'o' Snacks dried fruit, billed as a slow-release energy snack, in lunchbox-friendly pyramid packaging.
That Lindley is a father himself and has named his business after his daughter is a USP that is not lost on consumers or retailers, he says. "Ella is real and I'm a real dad. Buyers like it because they know consumers appreciate genuineness."
Another vital element is his team's experience. Among the 15 staff is an ex-buyer of children's food from Tesco, a former director of Burnt Sugar, the initiator of Sainsbury's Active Kids campaign and Green & Black's ex-financial controller. Such a strong team is essential, says Lindley. "Plum, Peter Rabbit and Hipp present strong competition so we have to remain innovative and inspiring with our NPD."
Lindley's biggest problem, however, will require more than commercial nous to solve. "My young son Paddy now asks me: "When will they do a Paddy's Kitchen?"