The food entrepreneur: Building a national brand from scratch

In this piece, we speak to food entrepreneur Julie Waddell about getting her product on British Airways flights, production line scares and diversifying the range.

Here, we talk to Julie Waddell, founder of Moorish, a food brand specialising in smoked delicacies, about how she grew the company into a national food brand stocked in outlets from Waitrose to Booths.

1. When did you start the business, why, and what were you doing before this?

I launched Moorish in 2012 after creating a recipe for smoked humous in my kitchen, to make healthy food tasting amazing for my young family.

I was working as a journalist on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Food Programme’ at the time and had been researching the popularity of humous in the UK, which I was amazed to discover has a market size of over £60 million. My research showed that humous is a high-volume product but that the category was lacking innovation. I wanted to fill that gap!

I put my professional research and cooking creativity together and did some market testing on the smoked humous. Google showed that there was no other smoked version on the market so I arranged a blind taste testing session at my local deli to get some unbiased feedback on the product.

It turned out that people loved it and wanted to buy it, so I decided to set up The Little Smoked Food Company Ltd. and launched a range of ‘Moorish’ smoked humous products to sell in delicatessens in my local area.

2. Talk about the early days of the business.

Sales were going well, people were repeat purchasing and I soon got additional listings in Planet Organic and Wholefoods. Early success meant that I had the confidence to approach Waitrose to see if they’d like to stock my products. Things moved very quickly with Waitrose launching the brand at the end of 2012. I’m still friends with my first Waitrose buyer and we often talk about how the listing came about and how I was so fortunate to hit upon something trendy and delicious.

One issue with the Waitrose listing was that my initial production set-up wasn’t going to work; it was too small. Even though I was making the products in a BRC accredited factory, my section was on the side of the main production line and they just didn’t have the specific humous expertise I needed or the space to make the large volume orders I now needed to fulfil.

I was introduced, through a mentor, to a manufacturing consultant and was able to get a grant to fund 50 per cent of his fees (sadly the manufacturing advisory service which paid this is no more).

We found a factory that fitted the bill perfectly. But there was a snag…the factory wouldn’t sign the NDA as they were worried I would be asking them not to produce something for other people that they already had in the pipeline. How could they be sure signing my document wouldn’t restrict their own business plans? I told them I was very sure they wouldn’t already be planning a product like mine (I knew smoked humous was a pretty off-the-wall idea) but they were still concerned. Time was running out and production had to be up and running in a matter of weeks for the launch in Waitrose. Eventually, I told them that if they could prove they were already developing their own version of my product (after signing the NDA) that I would walk away. They agreed, they signed, they weren’t already developing smoked humous and all was well!

3. How did you scale the business from there?

Now that I had the manufacturing set up to produce volume orders, I was keen not to have all my sales eggs in one basket. So I contacted British Airways, where I had worked as a graduate in the ‘90s as I knew they’d be a great fit for my products. They loved the humous and wanted me to create a special ‘snack pack’ for the travel sector. I describe it as it an upmarket Dairylea dunker; humous and breadsticks all in one pack. The product has been extremely well-received by passengers in British Airways Club Class since 2013 and we create a new version every year.

In retail our products bring incremental profit so we’re a very attractive proposition as a brand, we don’t cannibalise Own Label sales, we just bring more money! We’re now a major player in the dips category, adding 100’s of thousands of pounds to our retailer’s bottom line. We also offer longer shelf life as the smoking effectively cures the product, so our wastage is way below category expectations, in fact it’s almost zero – win, win!

Now that we’ve grown we have the funds to invest in properly supporting our products with marketing which keeps our retailers happy, but because we’re still relatively small we only invest in marketing that has a proven and strong ROI. Being lean because we have to, has made us incredibly effective in every part of the business, from operations to social media. We have a fantastic supply chain and are always complimented by the big guys on the quality of our product and how easy we are to work with.

We now have a range of four lines in Waitrose; two smoked humous lines (original and chilli harissa), a smoky aubergine babghanoush and a fabulous new aioli. Getting great taste award stars for our products has been a great way of encouraging consumer trial.

We now also supply Ocado, Booths, food service wholesalers and a number of independent retailers.

4. How can similar companies in hospitality learn from your success?

I think it’s all about the product. If you have an amazing product, the sky is literally the limit! Once the product is nailed, it’s just about doing the right things in the right way to achieve success. From manufacturing to branding, packaging, sales and marketing. A lot of small business success depends on the personality traits of the founder(s), the food and drink market place has become hugely competitive since I launched in 2012.

Competition used to me mainly from retailer own label products, which is not to be under-estimated. But now there has also been an exponential growth of new food and drink producers looking to take their products to market. To get ahead and stay ahead requires an enormous amount of tenacity and drive, coupled with a strategic mind-set and the ability to develop strong relationships with customers and consumers.