How a stew made me pots of money
Alan Rosenthal sold his first dish two years ago. Today, they are stocked in major supermarkets across the UK.
Reason to smile: Alan Rosenthal sells 3,000 of his stewed! pots a week
With an ever-maturing convenience food market, companies need to create new ways to stand out to price-savvy customers.
Doing his best to stay ahead of the game is Alan Rosenthal, a newcomer to the industry. The self-confessed foodie is the founder of stewed! - a range of potted stews and slow-cooked dishes inspired by flavours from around the world.
Launched in 2008, initially to target the lunchtime market, the stews are now selling in Ocado, Sainsbury's, Budgens, Harvey Nichols and Waitrose.
Mr Rosenthal, 34, says: "I realised that there were a lot of soups out there and a lot of ready meals but there wasn't anyone doing stews.
"Convenience and potted meals are a huge growth area and the supermarkets are recognising this."
Feeling that there were no ready-meals which were based on hearty or nutritious stews, his aim was to reinvent the concept of the more traditional ready-meal with a range of single-serve gourmet microwaveable potted stews, that are freezable, additive and preservative free.
The company sells around 3,000 stewed! pots a week, and Mr Rosenthal hopes to achieve £1m worth of sales this year. Business has in part been helped by the recession as people choose to eat at home during financially hard times.
"People cut back and maybe don't go to restaurants but buy better quality food from supermarkets so they can have a restaurant-style meal at home.
"We just happened to be building the business at the time of the recession but stewed! does tap into the idea of people wanting comforting foods - something homely - in difficult times. It was coincidental really."
The pots, which cost between £3.49 and £3.79, are now in 100 stores across the UK. But it was not so long ago, in 2007, that Mr Rosenthal, who did a French and Spanish degree at the University of St Andrews, was a disillusioned DVD product manager for Woolworths.
"This wasn't really what I wanted to do. It wasn't floating my boat. I had always wanted to run my own business and food was my passion."
He undertook a three-month cookery course at leading London cookery school Leiths, and worked in France as a private chef. On his return, he began thinking of ways to marry his love for food with his retail experience. Stewed! was born.
He sold his first pot at the Alexandra Palace farmer's market in April 2008. He then secured a deal with Budgens and Harvey Nichols, and by the end of 2009, the products were stocked in Waitrose and Ocado. Last year, they launched in more than 80 Sainsbury's stores across the UK.
A silent business partner has invested around £60,000 in the company, which is London-based with all manufacturing outsourced to a factory in Yorkshire.
What about innocent's vegetarian hot pots? Are they not a major rival? "They are hitting a similar consumer because they are a meal in a pot but they are more about the 'five-a-day' whereas we are more about the flavour."
That said, stewed! pots do pride themselves on being wholesome. At under 350 calories, they are free from any additives or preservatives. But there are other one-pot products around, including Easy Bean.
He says: "I'm sure we are taking market share from some of these guys. We are not just about 'give me something healthy'. We are about giving people natural food, as if it was cooked at home. It is an alternative to a sandwich or a soup. I am thrilled that it has gone as far as it has. We have achieved a great deal in the past two years and we want it to go further."
Besides, he must be doing something right. The Londoner was commissioned by Ebury Press to write a cookbook, 80 Irresistible Stews and One-Pot Wonders.
Stewed! has recently appointed as chairman, Richard Nieto. Mr Nieto was managing director of SSP, part of major catering company Compass plc, when it was believed to be the world's largest catering company, before becoming chief executive officer of the West Cornish Pasty Company.
As for other current opportunities in the food industry, Mr Rosenthal says that anything centred around convenience is a winner. "This is a huge growth area and supermarkets are realising this now - Waitrose are opening up convenience stores.
"Anything that makes things easier and quicker for the consumer is a winner, such as kiosks in tube stations and shopping centres." He is focusing on the stewed! brand, specifically driving sales, expanding within existing retailers and increasing the range.
There is also the possibility of a stewed! own-brand unit and launching the products abroad. "I can see it working in the US and New Zealand," he says. But first, Mr Rosenthal is focusing a little closer to home - his kitchen, where he is always working on the next delicious concoction.