At the table with….Alan Rosenthal

20/07/2012 - 16:51
Entrepreneur Alan Rosenthal launched stewed! just over four years ago, and since then he has never looked back. Maria Bracken finds out how he plans to grow the business.

Tell me the stewed! story

Like lots of people I was slightly disgruntled with what I was doing with my career. My background is product development in retail as well as some project management and buying and marketing. I have worked for WH Smith in the UK as well as in Australia. I also spent some time at Woolworths, when it was trading.

It was in 2006 that I started to think about the things I could do. I wanted to come up with a niche market – something nobody else was doing. It was on the underground – circle line – that I first thought about the whole stew and hot pot meal idea.

What made you consider stewed! as a business?

It’s a really difficult question. I knew there were lots of soups and ready meals out there, but nobody was focusing on stews. I felt it was a great opportunity to sit in between the soup market and ready meals. I came up with the idea, and filed it somewhere and then a year later I decided to quit ‘Woolies’, and started a three month training course at Leiths Cookery School. I spent April through to June 2006 at Leiths, with a view to do something with food, but I wasn’t 100% sure on what it was going to be at this point. I went on to do some catering and private cheffing. I worked in restaurants such as the Providores and did some work experience in other high profile establishments.

I was 30 when I decided to change careers, and deep down I knew I didn’t really want to start working in a kitchen.

I decided I was more suited to marrying up my retail background and understanding product development, with the interest in food. I went back to the whole stew, one pot meal idea. I approached a local market in early 2008 and started selling there on a cold snowy day in April 6th.

Do you see your career change as a positive step?

It’s amazing really – four/five years ago, there I was cooking my own recipes in my own kitchen; something which is now in hundreds of stores.

I often think about what I used to do for a living and what I do now, and it’s so different. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot and learnt what I like doing and what I don’t. I’m much happier running my own business, and having achieved what I have in the last four years is massive for me. I think if I hadn’t got out of bed that morning in April then I wouldn’t be sat here having this conversation.

Part of this whole entrepreneur thing is that you keep on striving for the next big thing. It’s a great thing, but at the same time it makes life difficult because you always want more. You’re never quite satisfied.

What does your day to day job involve?

A bit of everything. This morning, for example, I was doing a bit of product development for the kiosk business. I was looking at kiosk plans as well as doing some consulting for a small restaurant chain. This afternoon I am talking with our web designer for our new retail side of the web so there’s a lot going on which is very exciting. It just means I’m here there and everywhere.

Did you always want to have your own business?

I always felt that I wanted to have my own ‘something’. I don’t know where it has come from. My parents have always been very ‘do what you want, find the career that suits you’ which is great because you have that freedom, but on the other hand you’re always constantly thriving to find that perfection. I certainly I have a feeling of reward from what I have done, which I didn’t get in what I was doing before.
Every element has been a challenge, and it is very, very hard work. You have to do it because you want to do it. There’s no point doing things half heartedly. I think it’s very important to put down some personal goals to get out of the business. You have to make sure the majority of what you do, you enjoy.

How were customers reacting to your stews?

Customers loved it and they still do. At this point I was manufacturing at home in a very small quantity but when I got into shops I had to move from home into a unit I hired in West London. It was a facility I could use on an hourly rate so I didn’t have to invest a huge amount of money. This was all about trialling a concept.

Then I started talking to manufacturers that could help me produce, as well as bigger retailers such as Waitose and Sainsbury’s who are selling our pots today. We also have customers in foodservice – Nosh in London and Yuforia in Covent Garden, London and we supply to quite a few independents. We have distribution with SFD (Specialist UK Food Distribution) and Simple Simon. Serious Foods take care of our catering packs.

What’s your philosophy?

We’re all about really good, tasting food. It’s not a gimmick, it’s food that tastes as if you have made it yourself. It’s got a real homemade feel; it’s chunky and has really good ingredients. It’s all made as if you have produced it yourself.

Your kiosk site opened in Reading in May. How is that going?

It’s going well. The original plan was to open our first kiosk site in March, but due to a series of delays from First Western Railways, the kiosk finally launched on 6th May and it is already doing well!

The kiosk idea is all about selling one pot meals, from breakfast straight through to dinner. For breakfast we have beans, bacon and bangers which consist of a little pot of Boston beans with gluten free sausage and bacon inside it. You can have a poached egg on top or a tomato if you want

We’re also offering porridge pots with a variety of toppings – from fruit compote to granola.

We pride ourselves on offering really good food on the move. Eating from a pot opens up such a wider range of products.

How is the market responding to the kiosk?

Everyone I have spoken to so far think it’s a fantastic idea. As a result, we are opening a second site in Clapham Junction, South London, so lots happening!

What made you go for these two locations?

Great footfall. Reading is the highest footfall station in the country and it is having a massive makeover in the next year. So we know in the next year there will be the opportunity to move into a different part of the station and I think it’s going to be a top notch station. It’s a good testing ground for the concept. And Clapham Junction is just like gold dust.

How many units are you hoping to open?

We’re hoping to open multiple units in the first three years. We’re trying to expand it fairly quickly.

Average price?

For lunch you can have a regular or a large pot for £3.95 to £5.50. All of the dishes are gluten free. And breakfast is around £2.00. We’re going to be very competitive on our hot drinks offering.

Who are the core team members at stewed!?

We have Catherine (investor/friend), who has moved to Canada but is still very much part of the organisation, Mark Seymour Mead, operations director at stewed!, who started a year and a half after the business began and Richard Nieto who is the chairman. He used to be the CEO at West Cornwall Pasty which is a great intro for the kiosk business. We also have a kiosk operations manager, Anna Woods.

You launched your own cookbook earlier this year. Tell me about that.

That was amazing. I went into Ebury Press with an idea, and it turns out the editor used to buy my stuff from Alexandra Palace Farmers Market so she knew the brand and loved the concept. She presented it to her sales guys at Ebury and they went for it. The book market is a very tough one at the minute. You either need to be a celebrity chef, or it to be a gifting item.

The book is doing really well on Amazon and it’s fantastic to have it out there and it definitely gives the brand an authority in terms of what we are about.

Aside from this I run demonstrations and workshops at Leiths Cookery School. I do these every few months. For example, in April I ran 10 weekly workshops with the Havelock Primary School in Southall. And in May I also ran one of my one pot cooking courses at Leiths cookery school. I demonstrated a Catalan fish stew with caponata, chicken fracciatores, paella and chicken and a sweet potato tagine.

What’s your favourite stewed pot?

It’s a very difficult question because I have developed them all. I have lots of favourites because they are all very different. I think they are all as good as each other. But I genuinely believe there isn’t another vegetarian product on the market place that tastes anywhere as near as good as our chickpea soup.

What are your top sellers?

In foodservice, the beef pots, beef and ale and beef goulash are really good products. On the retail front it’s difficult to say what sells best because all of our customers sell different things. But we just get great feedback. There are some real fans out there and they are fans because the product tastes so good. It tastes good and it’s also very good for you.

For me, the most important thing is whether our pots taste good. The nutritional and health qualities come along with these products naturally.

What are your future plans?

The kiosk business takes up a lot of our time and on the retail side it’s all about increasing distribution and the number of stews in shops. It looks like we are heading in that direction, and building awareness of the brand.

How important is CSR to stewed!?

This issue is very important to us which is why we have teamed up with Trees for Cities, which is an independent charity working with local communities on tree planting projects. We are constantly thinking about how we can make our products greener. We have very low wastage. We pasteurise our products, which means supermarkets aren’t throwing anything away because of shelf life, which is great for sustainability. We’re not just throwing food away.

In terms of ingredients and sourcing, our meat is always British, high welfare Pork. It is something every business has to think about. But there are certain things that we can’t do. So for example, the packaging films are non recyclable as there is no alternative on the market, as far as I am aware. And you must remember we are still a little company.

What reaction are you getting from the foodservice industry?

It’s a premium product, so we’re not as cheap as some of the other products out there on the market. We’re more expensive because we have 25% of meat in our products. But the places that sell our products love it. It does depend on your customer base and your offering. But I do think these products work anywhere where you want a quick and easy snack, where you don’t have the service behind the scenes. It’s perfect for low skilled staff, which is really important these days.

Financial performance of stewed!?

Our sales target for 2013 is one million units. And our kiosk business is already hitting targets.

Tell me about yourself?

At the moment I am working a lot. Outside of that I enjoy my sports; I swim, I run, I play Badminton and I play the violin. I enjoy going out to restaurants and bars. I also love travelling. Lots of the ideas I got for stewed! came from having an international background.

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