Going Cuckoo for modern muesli
02 March 2016
Interview with Lucy Wright, Cuckoo Foods
At the age of 24 school friends Lucy Wright and Anna Mackenzie set out to create an easy, delicious and healthy breakfast for people on the go and Cuckoo Bircher muesli was born. Three years on Natalie Langley met them to find out what life is like in a start up in the food business.
Anna and I met at school when we were thirteen and were really good friends from day one. After university Anna started working on a business plan for the Bircher muesli recipe that her and her mum had developed that summer. They were looking at recipes for food with slow energy release and oats were ideal for this. We met up the summer after we graduated to catch up and Anna explained the idea, I immediately became very excited and we decided that day to give it a go! We had no food business experience, so we wandered down to Whole Foods, looked at all of the new start-up brands, made a list of the ones we liked that weren’t direct competitors, contacted them and said, ‘We’re these two girls, we’ve got this idea, can you give us five minutes?’
We were overwhelmed by how many people replied and wanted to speak with us. They gave us an invaluable advice and contacts and before we knew it, we started to have a better idea of what we were doing. We realised we needed to find a manufacturer to make it and started to look for ingredients and build the brand. We’re still friends with all of those people now and still ask them for advice. We now get contacted about once a week with someone saying, ‘Hey, got this idea. Can you help me?’ We will always, always give them time and advice.
How did you get the business up and running?
Our first challenge was finding a manufacturer, because a lot of dairy sites don’t allow gluten, and oats may contain a trace of gluten. So we made a checklist of questions and phoned around all the UK dairies and finally found one that ticked all the boxes. They wanted to work with a start-up and had experience with this type of product before, so we were really lucky to find them.
The next stage of the journey was building the brand. We worked with an agency to design the packaging because we wanted to get that right from the start. We continued meeting up with as many people as we could and learnt which retailers we should approach first. We booked a trade show in September 2013 to launch at because we wanted to give ourselves a bit of pressure and a deadline and the feedback from that was brilliant.
We then started reaching out to buyers and went to places like Whole Foods, Harvey Nichols, and Selfridges. Selfridges came back to us immediately and said, ‘Love the look of the product. Send us samples.’ After we sent samples we had a meeting and then they told us they wanted to launch it exclusively in store for four weeks. So we launched it in December 2013 and we’re still with them today!
Then in August 2014, we won our first listing with Waitrose and last year we got into Tesco and Ocado.
We do a lot of PR, which we have found really invaluable. For example, we have an overseas opportunity that came about because someone read about Cuckoo in The Grocer magazine. It’s really good to be able to go to buyers and show that you’ve been in The Times, Telegraph and the Evening Standard. So we do that and social media, which Anna and I do ourselves. We think it’s really important to keep it in-house and personal. We do office drops where we turn up in the morning with 200 pots of Cuckoo and give them out. We also do events, so we’ll give products at places like London Fashion Week and yoga events in the morning and we also do in-store tastings. Our policy is to convert people person-by-person. It takes a lot of time and it’s a lot of energy but we think it’s the most effective way for a small business like ours.
As a start-up, how difficult was it to access the buyer’s at large stores?
It’s difficult - they obviously get hundreds of emails a week about new products so it’s really hard to get noticed. With Waitrose, we were sending emails but not getting a response, so we thought we would try doing something a little different. We jumped in the car and drove to the head office and hand delivered some samples. Finally we got a meeting and he said, ‘Let’s give it a go.’
How you managed the growth each time you get a new retailer on board?
It has been challenging. We work with an accountant, a PR company and have a non-exec director who’s the ex-managing director of Rachel’s Organic yoghurt. He’s got experience with food, and particularly with dairy, so he’s a brilliant advisor. We have the right people around us to help with that, but we spend quite a few evenings working pretty late and we never really switch off. We do work quite a few weekends, but you just have to put your phone away sometimes and do yoga! We have to look after ourselves because otherwise you can go a bit crazy.
What’s your plan for the next 12 months?
We really want to grow within the retailers and there’s huge potential. Then we would like to get into further retailers and expand our product range. We’ve had this exciting overseas opportunity which we are working on, but our main focus is still the UK
We’re also interviewing at the moment to take on our first employee which will be a field sales person. We have had two interns helping us. They’re great and they work very hard, but we make sure we teach them and spend time with them too. They’re part of our team and we couldn’t do it without them.
What advice would you give to other founders starting a business?
The three bits of advice I would give would be firstly get a mentor, someone with experience specifically in your field, for example for us we needed someone with understanding of selling a chilled product - selling an ambient product is so different.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask for help and be persistent. If a buyer says no, we try and find out why and overcome that. Finally, do things your way. If you need to get a buyer’s attention and you want to do something a little bit weird, just do it.
Looking back, is there anything that you’d do differently?
We’ve made mistakes, but then we’ve learned from them, which you have to do. I would recommend getting a business partner, because I don’t know how you do it on your own. Anna and I have been unbelievably lucky. Normally the first question people ask us is ‘How’s your relationship? Do you guys get on?’ We’ve never had an argument, ever. We get on so well and we both agree on everything. We also have very different strengths. You hear of partnerships going wrong, but I know that mine and Anna’s will never go wrong.