How a British ready-meal start-up inspired by India has made it big in France

How a British ready-meal start-up inspired by India has made it big in France

Posted: Mon 13th Mar 2017

Lisa Sohanpal quit a career as an international director of a large company to set up her own ready-meal business following a desire to feed her children healthy food inspired by her Indian heritage. The products are now available through Ocado.

Nom Noms is also exporting overseas, with France a key market. Here, Lisa explains the story behind her business, how she managed to get her products stocked by 550 Carrefour stores in France and her advice for exporting across the Channel.

How did you come up the idea for your products and turn that idea into an actual business?

Nom Noms came out of a personal need as a busy working mum. I was an international director of a medical devices company, managing 47 countries whilst also constantly travelling around the world.

I then had three children in three years and I wanted to make sure they were firstly, eating healthy and nutritious food and secondly, being culinary curious and enjoy the flavours of the world including, of course, traditional Indian cuisine.

Finally, as a busy professional, I found myself spending hours in the kitchen and spending less and less time with my family and friends. I decided there must be a simpler option and this is when I came up with the concept with Mini nom noms.

I realised that I would be filling a gap in the market by creating nutritionally rich and authentic prepared meals for kids made with no nasties.

Although we started with Mini nom noms, we quickly realised that there was a real appetite for it amongst adults. We did a taste testing tour for families who are members of Virgin Active Health Clubs and I saw that the adults were equally keen to buy the products for themselves.

We started noticing that the combination of taste, the healthy elements and convenience perfectly complemented their lifestyles and this was the start of Mega Nom Noms.

What key start-up challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

The first challenge I faced was changing industries from a career in the medical sphere to the food world. It was a steep learning curve as I had to change the way I approached situations and adapt to a different set of industry norms. I was seen as the new kid on the block and my main challenge was to show myself to be a serious contender.

I overcame this by learning as much as I could about the food industry, attending industry events and networking as much as possible. I wanted to soak up as much information as much as possible. I became good at anticipating hurdles and persisting through all the challenges.

The second challenge I faced was the costs from third parties at the concept and development stages, which were hard to come to terms with at times.

I managed these challenges by continuously negotiating and building long term partnerships by inviting them to be part of our journey and ultimately our success. This is where my sales and business experience in the medical world proved to be invaluable.

The third challenge I faced was finding a suitable production partner, who could deliver on what they promised and were willing to invest in a start-up company, which is often considered a risk. The only way to overcome this was to be being resilient and constantly proving myself.

Lastly, the pro-forma payment of orders of extremely large minimum order quantities was difficult to accept without taking on outside investors. To overcome this we completed a seed round of investment to get us started.

What research did you do before picking France as an export market for your products?

It wasn't until I was approached by an international sourcing specialist that I decided to contemplate France as an export market. I began a comprehensive research project by mentoring MBA students attending Cass Business School where I am an alumni. The group were tasked to identify our strategic route to market across Europe.

They firstly started by comparing the UK ready meal market to the French ready meal market, checking price points, preferred cuisine, companies and brands and presented back with in depth analysis. It quickly became evident that there was a huge gap in the market for healthy ready meals and there was no brand owning the world food space, even more so in France than in the UK.

We were subsequently approached by a European sourcing specialist who had a number of European buyers that had expressed an interested in meeting with me to discuss possible collaborations, so I was invited to Paris for a meet the buyers event. We won an award for best ready meal brand and packaging in Europe and this is how we were introduced to buyers from Carrefour.

As we had already planned to redefine the ready meal category in the UK, expanding to France seemed like the obvious move to make. In France, because of the gap in the market for our product, the potential to establish a leadership position is fairly high and this was an opportunity we didn't want to miss.


A plate of curry and rice and a tagine, from the Nom Noms brand


How did you persuade Carrefour and Monoprix to stock your products?

They were interested in Nom Noms from the moment I presented it and from the beginning, it felt like a perfect partnership.

They were keen and very excited to add new, innovative brands to their stores and therefore gave us a listing across 550 Carrefour stores exclusively for the Mega Nom Noms collection, meaning Monoprix were able to take the Mini nom noms collection at the same time.

What's your advice for business owners wanting to pitch their food products to a French retailer?

Although this applies in every country, you must create an innovative product that has outstanding shelf presence

My second piece of advice would be that to know your market. Get under the skin of their culture, understand their attitudes to food, know how they shop, cook and eat. French consumers are very different to British consumers and you must adapt your messaging without diluting the brand to suit the market in which you are launching.

We tweaked our concept to appeal to the French appetite, translated all of our packaging into French, changed the back of pack description and even the way in which we told our story. French consumers engage with brands in a different way and it is vital that this is acknowledged from the beginning and understood when launching in France.

What key characteristics should UK food and drink entrepreneurs bear in mind when targeting the French consumer?

Firstly, consumer choices towards food products are greatly influenced by lifestyle. The tastes and preferences of French consumers are evolving and although traditional French cuisines remain popular, our research shows that French consumers are becoming increasingly culinary curious.

A survey conducted by Madame Figaro Magazine highlighted that 87% of French consumers reported that they cook Italian food at home, 40% indicated that they cook Chinese food and 31% declared that they cook Indian food.

Secondly, there has been an increase in demand for convenient food and beverage due to a new generation of cash rich time poor consumers, who are living increasingly busy lifestyles but do not want to compromise health or taste. Snacking and 'food to go' categories are expected to grow in the coming years in the French market.

Thirdly, obesity, diabetes and heart disease combined with an aging population across France means that nutritional value of food is becoming increasingly important to buyers, who are looking to stock products and consumers who are looking for healthy alternatives.

What are your top tips for making a success of exporting to France?

My first tip would be to assess your competition and determine your target consumers. The latter point is particularly crucial so you can successfully engage with your customers, encourage them to try your product, repeat purchase and ultimately develop brand loyalty.

Behind the scenes, it is also imperative you understand the sales cycle behind the buying behaviour of consumers and the process of getting your products to shelf.

It is also important to source a credible distributer and PR firm to help you launch in the French market. You must invest time in their training, sales support and marketing as they will be the driving force behind getting customers to the shops to purchase the products.

Finally, arrange to sell ex-factory so that you do not have to arrange logistics and distribution yourself. My distributor will collect stock from the UK and distribute directly across all the Carrefour depots.

I would also advise charging in British sterling to minimise currency fluctuation risk especially when starting out, particularly in these turbulent times.


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