Dragons’ Den success story Spoon is giving commuters and cereal lovers a healthy taste of home
Frustration is the cause of many a foray into entrepreneurialism. For Annie Morris, co-founder of Spoon Cereals, a lack of decent breakfast options on the morning commute spurred her into action. “What I love doing is making my own bowl of cereal,” says Morris. “’I’ll have muesli and add my own seeds and nuts before adding some fresh yogurt and blending in some fresh fruit. But I just couldn’t find anything like that on the way to work.”
Morris is certainly not ashamed to call herself a cereal nut. “I’m a bit of a grump if I don’t have my breakfast in the morning, which is why we have our little mantra ‘no small talk before breakfast’,” she adds.
It was whilst working for an ad agency in Soho that Morris became convinced she’d stumbled on a business opportunity. “Soho is a haven for inspiration and there are so many little start-up things going on especially in the food market,” she says. “I used to go along on a Friday lunchtime and speak to all the guys down there. I was also just talking to friends and family who had started up their own businesses too. They were all really supportive and gave me great advice.”
Nevertheless, whilst Morris had the seed of an idea, she didn't possess the business acumen to go it alone. At a family BBQ last summer, Morris’s sister Pippa provisionally agreed to join her in launching the business. Meanwhile, Jonny Shimmin, boyfriend of the third Morris sister, Sarah, offered to become a mentor to the pair. At the time, Shimmin was working in private equity in Amsterdam, having previously worked as a research analyst in the City covering food manufacturing for various banks. He ended up taking Pippa’s place as the co-founder of Spoon. “My sister’s career had just started to take off and she was doing really well,” explains Morris. “She couldn't quite commit to the amount of time that we’d have to put into the business.”
You could say it was an unlikely partnership but Shimmin’s experience of the food industry combined with Morris’s creative spark was just what was needed to get Spoon off the ground. “Our skill sets are so different, which is why I think we work so well together,” comments Morris, who was solely responsible for Spoon’s branding. “Annie is a graphic designer by trade, which is why our branding looks so clean and sharp and lovely,” comments Shimmin. “We just wanted the product to speak for itself in terms of its quality and health properties. We didn't want to have to shout about it.”
Entering the cereal market was evidently a daunting prospect for the first-time entrepreneurs. However, the pair are hoping that the taste of their product will stand them in good stead. Spoon sources all of its ingredients in the UK, with the granola and muesli coming from a small cooperative in Somerset and the fruit hand-picked from gardens in and around London. It’s sweetened only with maple syrup – a big thumbs up for calorie counters. The dry ingredients are hand-rolled in the Spoon kitchen in Park Royal, north London, and the fruit turned into compote. The latter has proven a challenge but Morris says it’s been worth the hassle. “Compotes get absolutely everywhere and transporting them is a bloody nightmare,” she laughs. “But they've gone down really well.”
Whilst a focus on quality inevitably comes at a cost, Shimmin thinks it’s a price worth paying at a time when consumers are growing tired of what’s on offer from corporate cereal giants. “When you buy a pack of cereal or granola from a supermarket you‘ll pay £2-3 for that product but what you’re actually getting in terms of money that’s gone into the ingredients is probably somewhere between 40 and 60 pence,” he says. “That was one of the big drivers for us when we started Spoon. We wanted to use really high-quality ingredients and actually bring back some of the taste and flavour profile that had been lost by high-volume manufacturing.”
Needless to say, the pair sensed they were onto a winner as soon as they launched the product at Barnes Food Fair last September. “That first outing at Barnes Food Fair basically proved to us that we had a good product,” Shimmin adds. “We spent the next few months trading at pop-ups, food markets, and various events. We even served breakfast at the BBC headquarters. We used that period to refine our ingredients, find the taste profile and refine the branding.”
Spoon also started to sell its cereal online and made its initial approaches to retailers, with Harvey Nicholls the first to place an order. The company’s imminent appearance on Dragons’ Den had some part to play but all of the supermarkets, along with Harvey Nicks, were suitably impressed with what the entrepreneurs had managed to create. “We spoke to all of the retailers before Dragons’ Den aired and they all loved the branding and they all loved the product,” says Shimmin.
So, despite only having a few months of trading under their belt, Shimmin and Morris decided to time was ripe to take on some extra help, and some additional capital. The business had been totally self-funded up until that point. The pair were given just a week’s notice of their appearance in the Den; the call coming whilst they were running a pop-up at Old Street station. “In a way it was a good thing because it meant I didn't have the time to freak out about it too much,” Morris laughs.
Spoon’s limited trading history was also a blessing in disguise. “We probably had about £5,000 in turnover at that stage so we were selling them little more than a concept,” says Shimmin. “There was no Duncan Bannatyne questioning the five years of trading that we’d had and why we’d made such massive losses.”
Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones – the investors Morris and Shimmin were most eager to get on board – were suitably impressed with the entrepreneurs and their fledgling cereal brand. Entering the Den with an equity offer of 10% for a £50,000 investment, the pair jumped at the opportunity to work with Meaden and Jones, even if it meant giving away 30% of the business. “These guys have lots of other business interests and £25,000 is not going to garner a significant amount of their time,” says Shimmin. “But what you get with Peter is the history of developing a food business with Levi Roots and Deborah is fantastically well-connected and just really good on the marketing side.”
The Dragons are already making their presence felt since joining Spoon earlier this year. “We have been super happy with both of them as investors,” says Shimmin. “They have been really hands-on and have really helped us out a lot. We have absolutely no complaints about the deal that we did.”
The immediate focus for Spoon is securing retail deals with the supermarkets along with a manufacturing partner. However, Shimmin is keen to stress that this will not signal a move away from Spoon’s USP. “It’s going to remain a hand-turned product but our packaging is all done by hand at the moment and that’s something that is very easily automated,” he explains. “We’re basically trying to find someone who shares our principles and can help grow the wholesale side of the business.”
The fresh side of the business isn't taking a back seat either. Spoon had pop-up stalls at a handful of music and food festivals during the summer and Shimmin is adamant its cereal pots will remain a core part of the brand. “We get really good exposure from fresh because it gets people excited about what we’re doing,” he says. “So whilst we’re absolutely focused on retail, fresh is always going to be a part of what we do.”
Pop-ups by their nature provide a good test ground for future product launches and Shimmin has many plans brewing. “One of the great things about the Spoon name is that it has some nice natural extensions into other product areas,” he says. “So potentially down the line, I would like to see us doing our own range of yogurt and maybe some compotes to go on top of cereals as well.”
Morris adds: “What’s been quite good about the way we've been working so far is that we've been quite open-minded and tried our hand at lots of different things.”
And, as yet, the partnership hasn't led to any family rifts. “We’re still speaking – so that’s good,” Morris laughs.