George Robinson blames his mum for his passion for good, wholesome, quality food. But he may have a lot to thank her for too, as this passion has helped him build the successful chilled snack supply company FooGo.
The first sandwich was sold in December 2001 and Robinson says FooGo is now well on the way to becoming a £50m company within the next five years.
After leaving art and design college, Robinson set up a juice and smoothie company, Liquid Assets, because no-one was making what he wanted to sell.
By 1999, he was also contract packaging for a “little company from the States”, which happened to be PJ Smoothie. He soon sold his company to Pete & Johnny and became its managing director for two years.
But Robinson had the desire to strike out on his own once again. The seeds of an idea for his new business venture were sown while on a site visit to a fledgling Pret a Manger 13 years ago.
“I was amazed - it was wonderful seeing people loving their work and, even more importantly, I saw the effect on consumers. They were queuing out the door for something completely different.”
Before Robinson even thought about buttering his first slice of bread, he spent three years designing a highly sophisticated IT system that would allow him to deliver high-quality, fresh convenience food. “We produce every product every day, seven days a week. What we make today, we sell tomorrow. No-one else does it, but we want to because the consumer has to be first. By the end of the year, what we make on one day will be in-store that same day.”
The system allows FooGo to take complete control of the ordering process, which Robinson believes works for suppliers and customers alike.
“The information comes in from the customer by close of play, the system produces the order overnight and it’s made up the following day,” he says.
“We pick up from all our manufacturers in our primary distribution network, which is the only way to avoid the dreaded regional distribution centres that add critical days to a product’s journey.”
FooGo’s fresh convenience offering is extensive and includes an array of sandwiches, wraps, Chinese and Indian snacks, desserts and fresh fruit salads and sales are heading towards the £10m mark this year.
The biggest customer is WH Smith Travel, but before FooGo was given the contract, Robinson had to prove he could deliver.
“It was great foresight by the team at WH Smith to take the risk with a small company, but they did make the trial difficult. At first we got three poorly performing stores, all at other ends of the country, but wherever we went we managed to increase sales in excess of 30%. We took over the contract from Marks and Spencer one year later and moved from supplying three stores to 60.
“It was very exciting, but we had a lot of growing up to do very quickly.”
FooGo picked up another major contract this March to supply 25 Superdrug stores and a national rollout programme has now begun. It also supplies Livingwell health clubs and is in early discussions with WH Smith to expand into high-street stores.
“Our products are unique and we have proved that the British consumer is prepared to pay slightly more for great quality,” says Robinson. “Quality is extremely important. Why should convenience have to mean compromise?”
FooGo relaunched the brand last September with a new packaging design and the introduction of the UK’s first fully biodegradable sandwich and salad boxes. Sales jumped 16% immediately.
“I just want to make good food,” says Robinson. “We’re not snobby about where we sell our products. Good-quality convenience food should be available to everyone, everywhere and at sensible prices.
“We have dared to do what a lot of food manufacturers should have done a long time ago. We’re happy and proud to be trail-blazers and some of the big guys will have to start following our lead.”