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Can The Skinny Food Co cope with the weight of ambition?

Written by Ronnie Dungan on Wednesday, 17 March 2021. Posted in Fresh faces, Interviews

Wayne Starkey and James Whiting’s Skinny Food Co project is delivering a range of low-sugar foods at a rapidly expanding pace. Retailers seem keen, but can they keep pace with their own ambitions?…

Can The Skinny Food Co cope with the weight of ambition?

Wayne Starkey (pictured left, above) and James Whiting’s The Skinny Food Co project is delivering a range of low-sugar foods at a rapidly expanding pace. Retailers seem keen, but can they keep pace with their own ambitions?…

With a decidedly more….cuddly… population about to emerge blinking into the post-pandemic light, a brand with the moniker The Skinny Food Co might just be about to find itself in the right place at the right time, as a nation looks to get back in the gym and shift that lockdown timber.

The explosion of food brands that are noteworthy as much for what is not in them as for what is in them has been added to by the arrival of Skinny’s range of low-sugar table sauces and condiments.

Inspiration for the range came from the founders’ own experience of having diabetic family members that avoided sugar by necessity. It’s another tale of kitchen tables and low development budgets.

Co-founder, Wayne Starkey, explains how he and his partner, James Whiting, came together on the project: James used to work for me on the marketing side of things when I built my own sports nutrition brand. So, it was when I felt it was time for a fresh challenge that we decided to set up a business together. We both have diabetic family members, so that is where the original inspiration came from. They were forced to avoid many flavoured, sugary foods and it was about creating healthier, diabetic friendly alternatives with no added sugars.”

The pair were working to a strict budget initially but were in the fortunate position of having already established contacts through 20 yearsexperience in the industry. Starkey enjoyed some success selling sports nutrition products prior to forming Skinny Foods. Those contacts and that experience really helped them hit the ground running.

“The initial £3,000 went into web-build, trademarking, orders and marketing,” explains Starkey. “Through our contacts we were able to negotiate initial stock without the payment of up-front fees and this helped when kickstarting our journey.

“The website build came to life in just six hours, starting at 8am and finishing at 2pm. That same day we threw ourselves in at the deep end with a trade show in Geneva. We had 50 orders by 5pm equating to £2,500. It was a careful planning process, and for any budding entrepreneurs I would say planning and foreseeing eventualities in granular detail should not be underestimated when starting a business.”


How Skinny Food Co started

Although it was family health issues that nudged him in his  current direction, Starkey believes he was always destined to take an entrepreneurial path. His initial Rodney Trotter-level of GCSE success was a factor in the direction he eventually took, he says.

Even when I was at university, I think I was, yes. I only received one GCSE so had to work hard to get there – from GNVQ, to BTEC National Diploma, to BA Hons. I was always willing to learn though, and have worked incredibly hard to get The Skinny Food Co to where it is today. I worked two to three jobs on the side when studying for my degree in fine art and illustration. When I graduated, I first started working in a local gym. At the time the Apple Mac had just launched and I took it upon myself to learn Adobe Suite , etc. I was always curious as to what the gym members were doing and this led to working for a gym member to deliver their businessdesign and packaging requirements. It snowballed from there and I set-up my own design agency, taking it to the point where I was designing labels for big brands such as Tesco and Wilko.

“Id found my calling for design, but in time I realised that I wanted a brand of my own. Id spend 20 hours a day working on logos, packaging and website builds for other brands. I reached out to my old boss (the gym member I first worked with!) and he started supplying me in bulk with sports nutrition ingredients to get my own sports nutrition brand off the ground. I turned my garage into a white cleanroom and would go round all the rugby and MMA clubs in the evenings - I travelled up and down the country bidding to grow the brand.”

The duo decided to take the brand to key FMCG trade shows in an effort to build awareness and momentum and educate the market as to what the brand stood for and where it fitted into the category. It might have been quicker to go up in front of Dragon’s Den but, in fact, the Skinny lads have declined the show twice. Their breakthrough has been achieved without that injection of capital and non-exec advice and they have held onto their share of the company.

When we started going to trade shows in the first year,” says Starkey, “no-one in the FMCG world had heard of us except through social media. I think those shows helped consumers understand who we are as a brand – not a diet brand, but a healthy food and drink alternative brand. People now know what were about and momentum has gathered almost exponentially as a result.”

Snubbing Dragon’s Den

He feels the firm has progressed beyond the need for extra financial input or advice now. Hence the snub to the Dragons.

Thats it – once in 2019 and again just last year. Its very humbling, but in honesty I think its just we didnt really need it as we had an established portfolio of clients around already. It wouldve been great for PR and marketing, thats without question, but we didnt need to give it away. With the majority of our business actually coming from online, we have strong cash flow. International growth would be, perhaps, the main area it could have helped but we have the big brands coming to us, such as Iceland and B&M bargains. Our reach on social has also served us incredibly well.”

The two things that are taking up time for the Skinny boys at the moment are, as you would expect, new product development, but somewhat more frustratingly, a whole new load of red tape caused by Brexit. So much so that the firm is having to allocate staff to the problem.

Its a lot different,” says Starkey. “A lot more admin and paperwork for starters. Weve cultivated and are continuing to cultivate new roles to assist around exports and imports. Weve also had to shift our warehouse to two shifts to keep up with demand. Weve grown our customer service team by 50 per cent as well to cope with an increased number of inbound inquiries. I think through the pandemic people have developed a heightened appreciation of risk factors involved with obesity and such – thats created further demand for healthier alternatives.”

New product development

Good news for the brand and that increased demand means growing the variety of product options is paramount and a constant focus for the company. A sure sign that the brand and the company are on an upward curve.

Were in the process of trying and testing out 15 new products right now in fact, and the plan is to bring at least five new products to market every month. In three years and through 18+ collections made up of over 205 products weve only ever turned off three products. So, I would say it also helps that weve been able to streamline the processes involved incredibly effectively. The more products we can test and take to market the better, and we are currently recruiting for positions specifically around NPD.”

With an impressive list of stockists including Morrisons, Lidl, Holland & Barrett, Co-Op, Home Bargains, TK Maxx, Spar and B&M Bargains, the firm is now forging a relationship with Iceland too.

But, domestic success is not the only driving factor for the brand and the intention is to grow from its existing low base of around two per cent to get up into significant double figures with its export business.

International is certainly a massive opportunity for us and I believe weve only really begun to scratch the surface. Our international sales contribute around two per cent at this time, but that should be more like 20-30 per cent. As we continue to bolster our team to deal with the increased stringency around imports and exports, we see a real opportunity across Europe.”

Things are progressing at a fast pace for the company, which has gone from 12 employees to more than 40 and is projecting turnover of £18m in 2020/2021; £30m for 2021/22 and £50m for 2022/23.

Keeping pace with that growth will be key to the firm’s success, but it hasn’t curbed the ambition of Starkey and Whiting, which is to create a huge range.

We want to deliver over 1,000 healthier alternative products to consumers,” says Starkey. “The vision is to get to a point where theres an option for everything in the pantry. We launched our ready meal Fakeawayrange this quarter and have ambitions to extend that to frozen ready meals in the future. Were disrupting the market, and ultimately, we want to continue doing so while delivering on a promise to make great tasting, healthy products.”

With a nation that has spent the last 12 months focused almost entirely on matters of health and wellbeing, the timing could not be better for the company and if it can manage the speed of its growth in a burgeoning sector, the Skinny boys could soon become genuine heavyweights. 

About the Author

Ronnie Dungan

Ronnie Dungan

Ronnie is a business journalist and comms specialist of some 30-plus years' experience, although thanks to a rigorous moisturising regime, and the right lighting, you wouldn't necessarily know it. He has edited and published so many titles that he has properly lost count. It's well over a dozen, but he shows no signs of calling it day just yet.

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