Thea Alexander, Young Foodies

Thea Alexander, Young Foodies

James Sandrini 29th May 2018

What’s it really like to start a business in hospitality? We started an interview series to find out.

This week, we talked with Thea Alexander, Founder of Young Foodies, about Propercorn, start-ups vs. scale-ups, and how many pizzas your business meetings really need.

Q

First up, tell us a bit about Young Foodies.

Young Foodies is the UK’s community of the most exciting food and drink brands; sharing knowledge, experience and resource to level the playing field for challenger brands.

Our brands are start-ups and scale-ups making waves in food and drink – 50 in total including the likes of Pip & Nut, Mallow & Marsh and Propercorn – and they all work together to make the everyday of being a challenger brand easier and more enjoyable. Alongside our community we offer ‘Young Foodies solutions:’ A suite of services solving the everyday needs of our brands:

Backoffice – outsourced operations and finance designed specifically for Young Foodies brands

Talent – Recruitment, talent acquisition and consultant platform

Toolkit – our shop full of templates & tools that make essential tasks easier

And we plan on adding more solutions later this year at the request of our community.

Q

You lead the operations at Propercorn for 4 years. What was that like?

Incredible. What a journey. I was lucky enough to be “Head of Everything-that-nobody-wanted-to-do” – the Operations and Strategy Director – and enjoyed the growth from 5 to 45 employees, from our field sales team consisting of just our mums to it becoming a nationwide army.

In a business moving at that pace, you learn quickly and can’t afford to get things wrong – it was a unique job opportunity that I am hugely thankful for.

"My view is that not enough attention is placed on the true life of a start-up (warts and all) - the 'Why we didn't make it' stories"
Q

Operational and strategic mindsets are often divorced from each other. How did you manage to combine the two into a day-to-day role?

A hell of a lot of self-control and conscious planning. In a fast-paced environment, days, months and years all blur into one and I massively believe in the time management principle of separation of urgent from important.

For me, Friday mornings were always away from my inbox and thinking bigger picture and I would squeeze the business-as-usual operational work into set times in the day.

Q

Smaller, challenger brands seem to be dominating growth in just about every market, but particularly food & drink. Why do you think this is?

It’s a combination of things. On the one side, everyone eats and drinks and most people have a passion for food in some capacity.

This means that you can get Joe Bloggs on the street making the best possible chilli sauce or flavoured snacks. The barriers to entry are low thereafter – Joe Bloggs can start selling his chilli sauce pretty easily in his local shop and go from there. This reflects itself in the fact that more often than not the founders of start-up FMCG businesses are actually not from the industry beforehand – that just isn’t something you see with other industries like fintech!

On the other side of things, as competition heats up in grocery, there has never been more opportunity for challenger FMCG brands where supermarkets are seeking differentiation. Consumers want challenger brands, which means supermarkets want them, which means they can do incredibly well incredibly quickly if pitched right.

Q

Are we in danger of oversaturating the market to such an extent that the extremes are magnified, the choice overwhelming and – eventually – consumers lose faith?

The risk is definitely there but the theory goes that strong consumer insights and a good buying function should protect from that.

Buyers are not going to say yes to every single jam that comes to market. They are thinking carefully about the utility of every product on the shelf and a good range gives choice without overwhelming. So, a couple of basic jams, a premium one, a reduced sugar one and some alternative flavours and sizes, catering to every shopper need based on insight.

The answer is not to list 500 jams. The good news for Young Foodies is that it’s the challenger brands innovating so they should win that space.

Thea Alexander Young Foodies
Q

We’re living in the start-up zeitgeist; there seems to be far less attention paid to scale-ups. Is it time we all grew up a bit?

I don’t think it’s fair to say scale-ups don’t get attention – if anything it’s the other way around. The lines between start-up and scale-up are blurred but the public love an entrepreneurs’ success story, that’s why you see a lot of press around scale-up brands like Pip & Nut, Propercorn, and even larger brands like Graze, Lily's Kitchen and Tails.com.

It’s the scale-up brands over the start-up brands because it’s the ‘how we’ve made it stories’ – the brands that can even afford a PR contract. My view is that not enough attention is placed on the true life of a start-up (warts and all) – the ‘Why we didn’t make it’ stories.

Q

There’s a famous Bezos quote about only ever having meetings when 2 pizzas would fill the whole group. There are clear points of inflection in the growth of any brand – what changes as a brand goes from start-up to scale-up, to ‘we need more pizzas’?

The main challenge I see is always around culture and people.

Individuals working within the team always find it hard when they have more constricted roles and less direct involvement in the running of the business. It’s the role of a good MD to communicate change and ensure people are brought in on what’s happening so they don’t feel like ‘everything’s changing around here and it feels so corporate these days’.

Other things that change? Necessary processes, technology and systems that come with running big businesses which also threaten the freestyled start-up culture!

Q

And what does the future of grocery look like? We want a sneak peak…

We’re expecting further consolidation of major players (Booker-Musgrave, Tesco-Booker, P&H’s disappearance, now Sainsburys-Asda), smarter online and on-demand solutions as Amazon and Ocado invest more in supply chain and tech, more product transparency and better visibility of unhealthy products; and the continued success of challenger brands.

With Young Foodies, we’re hoping that the playing field is leveled and challenger brands can play a much more prominent role in the UK grocery market.

Thanks to Thea Alexander.

To speak to Young Foodies, head over to their website. Or to keep up with the Young Foodies community, follow them on InstagramTwitterFacebook or LinkedIn.