It all started on his kitchen table 25 years ago. Today, he employs more than 500 people. We talk to Britain’s comfort-food king Charlie Bigham and extract nine lessons from his extraordinary entrepreneurial journey…
Charlie Bigham started cooking up his business at home in 1996. Sitting at his kitchen table, he began to combine ingredients to create dishes that he hoped to sell to local food shops and delis. Today, his company employs more than 500 people, turns over £70m-plus a year, and has grown by an average of 15% annually for the past 17 years. Indeed, from those humble kitchen-table beginnings, Charlie has gone on to carve out a niche as Britain’s comfort-food king; rustler-up of the Rolls-Royce of pre-prepared food. Every day we place thousands of his fish pies, jalfrezis and lasagne – now sold through Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Ocado – into our ovens knowing that half an hour or so later we’ll be enjoying a special, carefully prepared treat.
Turning a kitchen-table start-up into a household brand has been quite a journey. We spoke to this entrepreneur to find out how he’s done it.
Lesson 1: You can do it – you don’t have to be uniquely brilliant and it’s not mind-bendingly complicated.
The first lesson we can extract from Charlie’s story is that business success does not depend on unique talent or rare knowledge. This founder knew pretty much zero about the food industry when he started and by his admission he has no specialist skills. But that didn’t stop him and neither should it stop you.
“The good thing about launching a food business is that you can start and experiment at home. You don’t need to be sophisticated about it and you don’t need to spend huge amounts upfront. I started in my kitchen and knocked on the doors of delis and food shops to make sales. That went OK so I scaled up a little and took on a lovely chef called Spike – my first employee. We went from my kitchen to a small unit about the size of an average domestic kitchen. Our growth has been very organic.
“Most people start out being good at nothing. That was me. But if you work on something for a long time and try hard, you get better. Was I a brilliant chef when I started? No. Do I have better taste buds than anyone else? No. I simply like food and I wanted to launch a business. I still don’t have any specialist skills – I’m a jack of all trades. But if you enjoy doing something, the pleasure you get from it will sustain you for a long time. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I believe there’s some truth in the idea that putting in 10,000 hours means you become just a bit better than people who’ve done it for less – and one day you might even become an expert ….”
Lesson 2: Get your hands dirty.
Charlie became a more effective entrepreneur after working in a deli. It gave him the chance to lift the bonnet and see his chosen industry’s moving parts. If you’re looking to start a business, your head will be awash with thrilling business models and clever ideas – but will they survive reality? Will they power the engine or just clog it up? Getting close to the action helps you find out.
“Having decided to start a food business I thought I’d better get some cheese under my fingernails. So I took a job at a deli near my home at the time off the Portobello Road. It was a great thing to do because I found out quite a lot. The two main things I learned were:
1) Food is bloody hard work because it starts early and finishes late – that’s just how it is.
2) Don’t trust your assumptions.
I assumed that fancy delis would be full of customers wanting elaborate food. Wrong. What they want is what everyone else eats but just done a little better. That was a very useful lesson. If you make sandwiches, the obvious ones will sell. In truth, people don’t say: ‘I’m in a fancy deli so I want smoked guinea fowl breast with pomegranate molasses.’ They want ham and cheese and are in the deli because they think you’ll do it better than anyone else.”
Lesson 3: Mistakes are inevitable. Reduce them by shamelessly tapping into the knowledge of others.
If you’re starting a business, you’re bound to get lots of things – often pretty fundamental things – wrong. One way to avoid some of those mistakes, however, is to accept that you and your ideas are fallible. It follows, therefore, that you should swallow your pride and ask others for help and advice.
“Over the years I’ve made more mistakes than I could fit into this conversation. Early on, despite what I’d learned at the deli (because if you don’t want to hear something you don’t hear it), I still thought cheese and ham was a bit boring and that people should like smoked guinea fowl and pomegranate molasses. I was stubborn and persistent so I said: ‘OK, customers don’t seem to be buying this product but that’s only because they haven’t tried it. I’ll make them try it and then they’ll love it.’ But after a while – and it took me a good few years – I realised I was pushing water uphill trying to get customers to eat things they didn’t feel comfortable with. So then we set our focus on classic dishes. An awful lot of people (including me) want to eat fish pies, or lasagnes, or steak and ale pies. So how about we make the very best fish pies, lasagne and steak and ale pies that you can buy?
“You can avoid missteps by talking to people with more knowledge than you. If you pick up the phone to people in your industry, particularly when you’re starting out, they are incredibly generous with their time. Whenever someone told me: ‘You need to speak to this person’, that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t wait for an intro, I found their number, called them and asked for advice. For example, in the early days I wanted to be the saviour of independent food shops. I thought supermarkets were evil places that should be avoided at all costs. But someone clever and experienced whose advice I’d sought said: ‘Charlie, your idea of selling to delis is interesting but you won’t sell much; to sell good amounts you need to focus on supermarkets, and Waitrose is a great place to start.’ So that’s what I did. My advice is to listen to people who know more than you – I still do that today.”
Lesson 4: Don’t imagine brick walls that aren’t there. Believe in your idea and don’t get intimidated.
Charlie has a positive message about making sales and growing your business. His advice is to ignore fear, hearsay and mystique because they get in the way of hitting your biggest targets. Think positively and let your belief in your business shine through.
“There’s this great myth that it’s almost impossible to sell to large organisations like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. The myth says you need an intro from someone special and you must jump through some impossible hoops. That’s nonsense. All I did was pick up the phone and call the Waitrose switchboard. I eventually got a meeting with a buyer, showed them my food and they very kindly decided to back me. That was probably partly down to luck but anyone who starts a business needs luck. So my message is to believe in what you’re doing rather than believing the myth that you need a magic wand to succeed.”
Lesson 5: Managing growth will be one of your toughest challenges.
After making the Waitrose breakthrough, Charlie had to deliver the goods on a much larger scale than before. Achieving that growth required careful and disciplined planning. If that’s not your strong suit, you need the right kind of help, otherwise you could hit trouble.
“Scaling the business after doing the Waitrose deal was challenging, and fast growth is where quite a few entrepreneurs come unstuck. Food is all about scale – nobody makes a great deal on each item they sell, so you have to sell quite a lot to even break even. Before launching the business, I was a management consultant, which set me in good stead. I planned things. It’s what I did. So setting out to grow the business from two people to 26 almost overnight was a comfortable challenge for me. I was able to say: ‘This is where we are and that’s where we need to be, so let’s work through methodically and plan everything – the people, the building and the kit.’ It played to my strengths because it was something I’d done before. But, if you don’t have that experience, it might be a good idea to find someone who does.”
Lesson 6: Running a business is about profit. But it’s about much more than that, too.
In 2020, Charlie Bigham’s attained B Corp certification – only awarded to companies that use their business as “a force for good by balancing purpose with profit”. Getting B Corp status is no mean feat. The company had to deliver more than 3,000 hours of team training and commit to long-term environmental responsibility. But B Corp certification is just the latest embodiment of an ethos that’s been at least 20 years in the making. The Charlie Bigham’s story shows that, to thrive in the modern world, companies need to look beyond profit.
“B Corp certification is great because it shows that the business balances profit with people and the planet. It’s good common sense and we’ve been trying to balance those things for many years, a long time before B Corp was born. We’ve worked hard to treat people well since day one, and we’ve been building links with our local communities in London and latterly Somerset for more than ten years. On the sustainability side we’ve been thinking about our impact on the world for over 20 years and I’m proud that we moved from plastic to wooden trays 15 years ago.
“B Corp began in the US and is gathering momentum. But I’m not interested in just getting the badge. I’m interested in the process. I’d much rather get the accreditation slowly, thoroughly, without cynicism, to help us become better. It’s a good discipline to have people looking in from the outside and it gives you more ideas, too.”
Lesson 7: Resist the temptation to control everything – keeping one’s oar out is often the best policy.
As his company evolved and grew, Charlie took on an MD and later a CEO. The experience has taught him that disagreements are OK when handled constructively, and that it’s wise to resist a founder’s natural urge to control and overrule.
“I hired my first MD around 18 years ago. I needed to because food is an ‘always-on’ business. We start at 5am and finish at 10pm seven days a week and only close on Christmas day, so it’s too tiring if you’re the only person carrying the can.
“It’s good to have robust conversations but disagreements sometimes happen. There’s nothing wrong with that but you need to make sure that they are constructive disagreements. As the business grows and you take on good people, you’ve got to let them do their best. Be careful about stepping in and saying: ‘Don’t do that – it’s a bad idea.’ Of course you have to intervene if the business is careering towards a cliff edge, but if you see someone going off in a direction you’re not sure about, sometimes you’ve got to let them do it. We all learn from our mistakes and moreover times change. I try to stop myself saying: ‘We tried that ten years ago and it didn’t work’, because this time around, with a different approach, it might work.”
Lesson 8: Try to make your business better in everything it does.
As Charlie looks to the future his primary aim is not growth or profit but improvement across the board. That broad goal has served him well over the years because it results in a balanced approach to the business. If you focus on one specific area, you risk stunting your growth so water the whole garden, not just one plant.
“We’re probably now regarded as a medium-sized business but we’re still tiny in food-industry terms – the companies that make the food we sit next to on the supermarket shelves are turning over £1bn-3bn. We’re in a good place because we’re still in the early stages of our journey and we’ve got lots of potential.
“But I’m not interested in growth for growth’s sake. I’m interested in becoming a better business. However, if you want to constantly improve across all areas as we do, it does help if you are growing because it provides a dynamic backdrop, career opportunities, and fast progression.
“In what ways do we want to become a better business? B Corp is part of it but we also we will never lose our focus on making our food better. On top of this we also want to improve our IT systems, recruitment practices, career progression opportunities; engineering skills, financial acumen and more – in short we want to be better in everything we do. Growth and profit are outputs. They happen if you do a good job. If you try to improve everywhere, the rest will follow.”
Lesson 9: Don’t waste any more time.
Charlie ends our conversation with one final message. If you want to launch a business, get on with it!
“If you are thinking of setting up a business, I have one piece of advice. Don’t dither. Do it now.”
A business that starts life on a kitchen table and grows into a household brand employing more than 500 people is the stuff of entrepreneurial dreams. Nevertheless, Charlie’s overriding message is grounded in reality: anyone can launch a business, doing so is not rocket science, and we should fight our natural tendency to imagine brick walls that don’t exist (remember this founder won his breakthrough Waitrose deal by calling the main switchboard, not through a mysterious introduction from a friend, or thanks to a crazy PR stunt). Of all the insights in this article, however, Charlie’s final call to action – if you want to launch a business, get on with it – is perhaps closest to his heart. After all, he couldn’t have reached this point if he hadn’t done precisely that. He cast his doubts aside, cleaned down his kitchen table, rolled up his sleeves, got creative with food, and started knocking on doors. Everything else followed. It might just be the same for you…