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Simon Guest and his wife, Philippa, are the founders of Little Cook Box.
Simon Guest and his wife, Philippa, are the founders of Little Cook Box.

Interview: Little Cook Box, Simon Guest

This year, for the first time, the Quality Food Awards have categories for recipe boxes and subscription boxes to reflect the growing trend for these meal solutions. We spoke to Simon Guest about Little Cook Box, the company he and his wife have launched to bring this idea to children’s meals.

How did this idea come about?

About 18 months ago my wife Philippa and I were on a self-catering holiday. When we turned up on the first day, we very quickly realised we didn’t have any food for the children whatsoever and the site’s shop was closed. It was pretty much a lightbulb moment as we were faced with the questions “what are we going to feed the boys?” and “what are we going to feed the boys that’s healthy?” and not really coming up with any answers, other than your usual fare of fish fingers and chips and pasta, the usual dishes you would serve your children, especially during the working week when you’re busy.

That got us chatting and I asked Philippa if she was aware of Hello Fresh and wouldn’t it be great if there was something similar for kids. I’d become much more aware of the subscription box model when I was working in London. I’m from a marketing and advertising background and I suggested why don’t we do something similar to that but for school age children. She replied that she thought that was a good idea so we did a bit of research and couldn’t really find anything specifically aimed at children of five to 11 years old.

About a month later, I quit my job and started work on developing the idea with a specialist food consultant agency in Cambridge that works with new food brands taking an idea and turning it into a product concept you can trial.

You make it sound so relaxed, as if you had the idea and cracked on, but surely with all those different components in the box, it must have been a logistical nightmare with different suppliers and regulations etc.?

When we tried some of the other boxes out there, we found that it wasn’t suitable for children because when you’re cooking for children they demand to be fed almost immediately. With the other boxes you have a number of the ingredients packaged separately and not all of them can be refrigerated. You get a recipe card and you might have six meals requiring multiple packages of ingredients.

You have to match back what you have to the recipe when you decide to cook it so in the finding the ingredients, preparing them and cooking, it can take around 45 minutes to an hour. We decided we wanted something you could take out of the fridge, prep and cook simply and quickly within 20-30 minutes.

We needed a much more convenient way to package the ingredients, which is why we came up with the six compartment tray. That tray concept has never been done anywhere in the world by anyone. It was totally brand new and we had to work with a specialist manufacturer to see if it could be done.

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When we were designing the recipes, we hired a development chef and gave them the brief and they developed recipes that have the right calorie counting so it is one third of a child’s daily calories for that age range at around 600 calories. The recipes also meet the requirements of the Government’s Eat Well plate, a nutritional balance of ingredients that should be on a child’s food plate.

Part of the criteria was also to select ingredients that could all be refrigerated. The development criteria had so many points on it to be able to create a perfectly nutritionally balanced meal that can be made in 20-30 minutes.

It was always our intention on the manufacturing to outsource it, but pretty much every food manufacturer said that they weren’t set up to do it because the boxes have raw meat in them. The food segregation facilities required would have meant they’d have had to do something bespoke for us and the volumes needed to justify the cost weren’t there. So we thought, okay, we’ll build our own and we built a bespoke facility in Birmingham. [Laughs]

Oh my god, I feel tired just listening to you. The amount of work that must have been…!

I know, I know, I’ve got to say I’m just absolutely shattered. [Laughs]

It took us six months to design the facility and three months to build it and it allows us to put raw meat and then vegetables in the one tray so they’re self-contained and easy to use.

How will you be distributing?

It’s purely online. You choose the size of box. There are four different box sizes. Click your delivery date, up to two weeks in advance. Sign up for a subscription and then you can pick your meals from a menu online or we can curate for you.

Do you think, in terms of parents who cook with their kids, they’ll be foodies anyway and cooking their meals from scratch? What demographic are you aiming it at?

I think real foodie people will have the time and skills and probably sit down and eat together during the week. Our product isn’t based on that sort of person. It is for relatively busy working families looking for recipe inspiration and getting home cooked meals done for kids quickly. We segmented our market into what could be called the commuter parent who is a busy working professional but wants to feed their kids healthy stuff.

The other group is mums and dads working part-time and from the school pick up have a three to four-hour window to spend with their children. In that time, they want an activity that’s food-based. It’s a bit like Philippa and I – neither of us are great cooks but when Philippa went part-time, she thought this was a great way to spend time with the kids cooking together.

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Research has shown that if we give children a sense of ownership through allowing them to help cook it themselves, they are much more likely to try new flavours, new textures, new food generally. It gets them involved. The feedback has been fantastic.

People saying things like “I can’t believe my son has tried some noodles with a bit of soy sauce in them instead of plain” or that they’ve tried salad or broccoli. So, in short, there are two target markets – one convenience-based and one activity-based.

In terms of your suppliers, are they local to you?

At the start we had 11 different suppliers and it was a logistical nightmare – we had a meat supplier in Burnley that was three hours away. We make the boxes the day before delivery so it is very immediate and that wasn’t working plus from a sustainability angle, it wasn’t great.

So, we rationalised it down to five suppliers and 95% of our ingredients come from within the Midlands now. It is a large area, but still fairly local to the factory and that saves on transportation time and costs. Plus as a business, we’re now that much more sustainable.

Little Cook Box costs £4.70 to £4.95 per meal kit. For more information, visit www.littlecookbox.com/box-prices

If you have a great recipe or subscription box brand, enter it into the Quality Food Awards – open for entries now!