A glut of beetroot and apples on the family vegetable-patch of Frankie Fox led to some child-friendly experimentation – and a British-made ketchup that’s now going global at speed. Christian Annesley talks to Fox’s co-founder Desiree Parker about a helter-skelter two years for The Foraging Fox.
Conventional wisdom would have it that growing a two-year-old, bootstrapped food business with just three similar products will necessarily be a slow burn. But sometimes a business and a product range is disruptive enough that the momentum and logic of the company’s growth takes a different path.
That’s what’s happening with the alternative ketchup business The Foraging Fox – and the founders are running with the opportunity at full tilt.
The ketchup market
Here’s a question as we get underway. How can you disrupt the long-established ketchup market – worth at least £300m in the UK alone, and £6bn globally – in a meaningful way? It turns out there’s a decent and simple answer: by swapping tomatoes for beetroot and apples as your base ingredients.
“Frankie Fox founded the business on the strength of a kitchen project with her kids to find a way to use their bumper crops of apples and beetroot from the family veg-patch,” explains Desiree Parker, who linked up with Fox on the then-fledgling project in the second half of 2014.
“It took her some time to hone the original recipe, and the project kicked off in earnest with a stall at the September 2014 Speciality & Fine Food Fair in London.”
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Taking this food-fair pitch was barely more than a proof-of-concept punt, however, on the back of strong enthusiasm from family and friends for the prototype ketchup Fox had created.
“I had only recently got involved at this point,” notes Parker. “But we ran the stand non-stop all day – and from start to finish we had queues and great interest. It was eye-opening and amazing all at once.”
We had to abandon any plans for a soft-launch – put it that way!
The ketchup wasn’t just piquing the interest of idle bystanders but of big-name department stores with world-class food halls like Selfridges and Harrods, plus overseas distributors, independent wholefood retailers like Planet Organic and more.
“We were frantically busy that day, and making great contacts – but we also knew we only had 400 bottles of a handmade product. That was our total stock.”
A step-up in seriousness
So far, so exciting. But plenty of small-business founders would step away from a moment like that and panic about the next steps. What’s striking, talking to Parker and to Fox, is how sure-footed they have been in the two years since.
“We knew we couldn’t follow through immediately with many of those who had expressed interest. It just wasn’t possible,” admits Parker.
What they did instead was to follow up honestly with all those leads and to set out some priorities to make the next 100 days count.
“We knew we couldn’t hand-make the product; we also knew we had a window of opportunity to follow through and prove our seriousness. We had to abandon any plans for a soft-launch – put it that way!” says Parker.
Topping the list of things to do was to find a trusted manufacturer that could scale production of the ketchup for the startup to start fulfilling orders. Alongside that, there were raw-ingredients suppliers to find – and the thorny question of trouble-free fulfillment, not to mention all the relationship-building to be done among retailers and distributors.
“It was a quite a list of challenges, make no mistake,” says Parker. “We had some money behind us to carry the proposition forward, but only if we outsourced nearly all functions and kept the core business nice and lean: just the two of us, as it still is now.”
Relationships and trust
How do you approach that challenge of finding partners? Parker and Fox did it by looking for recommendations and working out their priorities before talking in detail to the companies they wanted to target.
“You have to trust your instincts and your ability to understand and to challenge those you want to work with,” says Parker. “Part of our success in the past two years is certainly down to the picks we made across the board. We are still using the same partners now, which is testament to how smoothly things have gone.”
It’s a question of getting out there, too. For example, Parker says they interviewed nine fulfillment houses before making their pick. Clearly there was rigour applied and a willingness to attend to the detail from the off.
The question of how to fund a fast-scaling operation was also unavoidable.
“At the start of any new-business journey you are unknown quantity and can get no credit. It doesn’t matter how much people like or believe in the product – that’s the reality,” says Parker.
“For the first year we were fortunate to have the finances to fund it ourselves; there was no other way. Even with orders flowing in, you have to bridge that gap between paying the outsourced production and fulfillment costs and being paid by retailers and distributors on their standard terms for new products.”
It’s a situation that has since got easier for the business, however: once a period of trading is behind you it opens up that chance to renegotiate terms with suppliers and stockists alike.
UK or overseas?
Let’s turn next to what is perhaps the crucial element in The Foraging Fox’s speeded-up growth journey. How have Fox and Parker prioritised on all the opportunities that come their way?
“Part of the challenge with overseas opportunities is working out whether it is the best use of your time,” says Parker. “It’s exciting and even flattering, but there’s that question of whether you are better off unlocking more UK opportunities. Exports can take up so much time you need to understand whether the returns are worth it.”
What the two business partners decided, faced with a world of opportunities, was that the UK had to be the first priority, and would therefore get the lion’s share of marketing and other support spending and attention, but that shouldn’t exclude them going after the best prospects overseas.
“How has that played out in practice? There have been lots of elements to balance, but we’ve stayed true to treating the UK as our primary domestic market and made it the focus for media planning and other marketing. You simply have to be visible. We’ve focused the PR initially on getting noticed in trade publications rather than consumer titles, as we have wanted to build familiarity among stockists.”
Alongside the UK drive, The Foraging Fox has been using resources like Passport to Export workshops through the Department for International Trade to weigh the potential of all that overseas interest.
“We followed up within months, in early 2015,” says Parker. “We were assigned a trade adviser and worked with the adviser to identify the best initial targets in Europe. There are lots of variables, from logistics to trade tariffs to the food culture in each country. There is a great deal that needs to be understood. We found through our work that Sweden and Finland and Germany were all good prospects in the round, and we drew up a long-list too that we’ve pursued.”
We are in eight markets now, having launched in February 2015. We should be in many more by the end of 2017.
As for how you find the partners for overseas opportunities, Parker and Fox went about it the same way as they had in finding UK partners, though relied more on recommendations through the network they were building as a short cut.
“You want to work with enthusiasts for the products that will also pay you! Every overseas order is a big shipment for us so you need some confidence to proceed. The Department for International Trade has been great in that respect, providing reviews and reports and personal insights from which we’ve learnt masses.”
Beyond Europe, the opportunities also needed to be weighed carefully, adds Parker.
“Trends and habits change all the time. The Middle East is adopting some Western tastes right now, so there is opportunity there, but there are good options in Asia-Pacific and North and South America too. There is a lot of information and assimilate to act on, so we just do what we can.”
And The Foraging Fox is definitely making strides. There is the chance to go after North America in 2017, and to build on some of the progress it has already made in Germany through a subscription food-box scheme it is successfully supplying.
“We are in eight markets now, having launched the original beetroot ketchup in February 2015. We should be in many more by the end of 2017, but the real measure of progress will be how established we are in these overseas markets,” says Parker. “It’s not just about sending off a single pallet and chalking up a new country.”
And what are the company’s overall numbers doing now? Here Parker is understandably cautious, given the rate of expansion, but says exports are accounting for 22% of sales and says revenues have tripled in 2016 compared with 2015 – with a conviction that will triple again in the year ahead.
“All the time the complexity is growing, of course. Now every production run takes in three different products - hot, smoked and original – and nine different sets of labels for all the overseas markets. That’s a lot more work compared with where we started out – at Frankie’s kitchen table.”
Innovation isn’t just tech
It’s an inspiring and inspired tale – and it’s only just begun. Perhaps the main lesson here for all of us is that innovation and disruption isn’t the preserve or technologists: anyone can innovate and disrupt in myriad ways in just about any market. Even a business underpinned by beetroot, apples and child-friendly cooking.
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