ISSUE 02 | ENTREPRENEUR

Starting afresh in Somerset

Charlie Bigham has a challenge: keeping his cottage-industry ethos when his cottage pie business is booming. In his vast new countryside campus, he shows Furnace how he balances a hands-on approach to food production with corporate expansion.

By Clare Dowdy | Photography by Trent McMinn

Charlie Bigham

When is a factory not a factory? When it’s a kitchen. At Bigham’s new facility in Somerset, meals are prepared with the love and attention of a fancy restaurant. There are even people fluffing up the fish pies’ mashed potato by gloved hand.

This, combined with the use of fresh ingredients, is what helps his ready meals stand out from the crowd. Bigham, 50 (pictured above) says, “There’s no shit in our food” (we assume he is speaking figuratively). As a result, more and more customers - currently around 300,000 a week - are happy to part with around £7 for a ready meal for one, boosting annual sales from £23.5m in 2012 to £52m in 2017.”

The brand, which first appeared on Waitrose’s shelves 20 years ago, is now all over the place: Waitrose has been joined by Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Budgens, Booths, and Ocado.

Business is so good we ran out of space on our two sites on the Park Royal Trading Estate in west London,” says Bigham. But rather than expand there, he has added another facility in an old limestone quarry near his home in Somerset. And even more extraordinary – for such a company – he brought in a firm of young architects to design a £21m building.

‘We do what’s important by hand’

Having his own site is an important part of breaking with food-processing convention. “We want the new campus to be everything that a food factory isn’t,” says Bigham. “This is a fantastic opportunity to raise the bar.” Dulcote Quarry, whose 18 acres are home to peregrine falcons and great crested newts, is now also home to Bigham’s food production campus, and breaks the mould in a number of ways. Architects Feilden Fowles have designed a timber-clad building with a single entrance for all employees, a staggered pitched roof, 5m-high ceilings, and loads of windows. And instead of a mezzanine full of suited office workers overlooking the production floor, up there are the canteen and break-out space.

When Furnace visited the 6,500chillim² building in December 2017, it was operating at 20 per cent capacity. Staff – a combination of locals and existing employees who relocated from Park Royal - were busy making chicken tikka masalas and fish pies. “We do what’s important by hand,” says Bigham, gesturing to workers sprinkling nigella seeds, chili and freshly chopped parsley atop portions of curried chicken.

As for the cooking, rather than colossal pieces of unrecognisable industrial equipment, it’s all done in bigger-than-average ovens, saucepans and frying pans. And, unusually for a convenience food manufacturer, all the ingredients for a dish are cooked at the same time. “That’s about freshness and making things difficult for ourselves.” He insists that this sentiment continues in the home, meaning the food should go into in an oven, not a microwave.

‘We’re a very small business with the opportunity to grow’

Bigham’s wooden cartons are labelled with cartoon line drawings that wouldn’t be out of place in a broadsheet newspaper. Packaging design is handled by Big Fish, the same company responsible for another middle-class indulgence, Gü.

This aesthetic has helped Bigham’s do something that some other convenience food brands struggle with. Jackson Woods, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel, has put it like this: “In a category dominated by older, empty-nester shoppers, Charlie Bigham’s has stood out for appealing to younger buyers.”

“People start eating our food when they have kids and want a night off from cooking,” explains Bigham.

A former management consultant, Bigham set up with no background in the food sector – bar a bit of work experience in a Notting Hill deli – because he didn’t like the look of the convenience food on offer, and saw a gap in the market.

With his chunky-knit jumper and fly-away hair, he looks as if he’s just back from walking the dog rather than running a demanding business. But that is misleading. His ear to the ground and his taste buds tuned in, he’s forever on the hunt for improvements to the range and the production process.

“I spend a lot of time talking with my customers and my staff, and I taste every product at least twice a week. The whole time we tweak and make things tastier, because we’re focused on trying to make the food better.” New products will appear on the shelves in late spring, though Bigham declines to be drawn on details.

“We’re a very small business, with the opportunity to grow,” he adds, through increasing the number of stockists recipes and customers. And some of that growth will manifest itself in the picturesque quarry. So far just one kitchen building and a gatehouse are built, but there are plans for another two kitchens, a visitors’ centre, pavilions in the landscape for employees to take their lunch break, and a Bigham’s Academy.

Some of this could be a decade away, because “the site belongs to us, and that gives us the freedom to do things on a different time horizon,” he explains. In the meantime, the UK’s time-poor foodies continue to bring home the Bigham’s.

Take-out: For a premium product, expansion and growth must go hand-in-hand with sticking to your guns

Marcin Czuba

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