Building a business from scratch was pretty thrilling, but it also threw up all sorts of questions around the type of company we wanted to build and be.
I don’t believe that you can start a brand now without thinking about what you want to give back, and also leave behind. But, the reality of sticking to principles in a commercial climate is that changing politics, public opinion, nutrition research and even the weather can all directly impact your company in ways I couldn’t even have imagined!
When I started coming up with the plan to launch an organic baby food, I knew that I wanted it to be an ethical brand that gave back, and I knew that the only way to do was to be very close to the suppliers and understand their concerns.
My background working with Slow Food UK and the UN on food policy in Rome meant that wherever possible food should be good, clean and fair, so it should be good for you, it should travel in a clean way, and the farmers who grow the ingredients should be paid fairly. It is a belief stemmed from the way my family cook to seeing the benefits of fair sourcing and supply chains first hand. It is the way I shop and cook for my family, and it is the way I was determined to run my business.
It’s why I invested in a development kitchen in the heart of the Mediterranean, which is literally a few fields away from some of the vegetables we were using in our recipes. It also meant lots of trips to see suppliers and farmers, and for our kitchen to work closely with all the supply chain from farm to pouch.
This was my goal from the beginning, and it’s something I have been able to stick to my guns on, but has taken a lot of time, additional investment, elements of risk, and a lot of left-field thinking, to be able to work through it all and make it a reality.
These challenges, from scaling production, to supply shortages, are always better dealt with face to face, and with cake.
I thought I understood what it would mean to use smaller farms and suppliers in terms of increased risk due to factors out of my control; from the weather to the exchange rate, but it has taken some quick thinking and some late-night meetings with the team and my more financially-minded husband when things like Brexit hit, or the recent terrible weather in parts of the Mediterranean.
For example, the recent national shortage of courgette was not something Alice, our head of nutrition and development chef, and I planned for in our new products, so it meant a few last-minute flights to Spain to talk to the farmers and work a way around it. It also meant a weekend in Spain with my family, so sourcing from these beautiful places definitely has advantages!
Our supply and production model has shortcomings, and as I am so closely tied to the business and involved in all aspects of its day-to-day running, these sticking points and challenges are the first to hit me by email or WhatsApp, whatever the hour. I have had to become a lot savvier when it comes to negotiation.
Coming from a charity background I used to approach things with a bit more diplomacy and delicacy! However, these challenges, from scaling production, to supply shortages, are always better dealt with face to face, and with cake. I am a firm believer in the importance of relationship building. Getting on that phone, plane or train and talking to that person and knowing the names of their kids, nieces and favourite food. It is something the whole team and I believe - email is not a substitute and can be lead to misunderstandings as there is no connotations and body language to go off of!
Knowing you want to be an ethical company is the easy part, it is working out a way to make your company social beyond lip service that starts to make things more interesting. We took the decision very early on in our brainstorming of business ideas to use our connections and experience in the education arena to give back to food education projects, specifically with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and our sister charity the Food Education Foundation.
Millennials are very much behind a growing awareness of capitalism-with-a-conscience. Consumers are no longer passive, but through social media, can engage instantly with a brand.
Brands such as Innocent drinks and Toms Shoes have been a great inspiration of how companies can lead the way with ethics at their core. I think with parents as our customers it is especially important. From my own experience, my social care and sensitivity to the world’s ills and desire to help to help find a solution to the many issues we are having in the world today only intensified further when I became a parent.
At Piccolo, we want to build long-term relationships with our parents and connect with them beyond the simple act of a transaction. I always felt deeply that creating a company should always be about more than profit, and more hard-nosed than just saying a company cares about more than just about profit. Words are much easier than action to stick to. I think that parents who are embracing Piccolo are getting on board with that in a way that has exceeded our expectations. This only drives us further to do the best job we can for them.