Interviews

Charlie Bigham is still on top of the 'ready-made' food game

7 min read

18 November 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Charlie Bigham was a forerunner in the world of ready-made meals back in 1996. Today, his quality first and agile approach has ensured his brand's survival and success where others have fallen.

Quality ‘ready-meal’ pioneer, Charlie Bigham was ahead of the curve when he set up his namesake business, ‘Charlie Bigham’s‘ in 1996.

Not only did he provide ‘short on time’ consumers with delicious meals that required no preparation, by working with passionate chefs and using high quality ingredients, Bigham’s brand was able to bypass the anti-ready-meal culture that’s taken hold since (cue* the horse-meat scandal and the backlash against salt and additive heavy products).

Four years after our last interview with Bigham, we meet again to refresh ourselves on where it all began, what’s going on right now – and what’s in store for the future…

Real Business, (RB): What made you start Charlie Bigham’s?

Charlie Bigham, (CB): In 1995, l took a sabbatical from my job as a management consultant and set off in a campervan, travelling through Europe and into the Middle East and India.

During this trip, l had the idea of starting my own business – making delicious food you could quickly serve at home, with the same care and attention that you would put in when cooking for yourself.

RB: Why did you align yourself so closely to your brand?

CB: I made the decision to put my name to the brand, and my photo on every packaging sleeve, to reinforce our points of difference. Bigham’s is real food made by real people.

Our food is handmade in small batches, by skilled teams in kitchens, not factories, using much of the same equipment and techniques you would at home – only on a slightly larger scale.

My name and face on pack ensure we never lose sight of this home-cooked experience and my personal commitment to the quality we always aim to give consumers.

RB: What makes your rural kitchen site Quarry Kitchen, sustainable? 

Bigham hopes his Quarry Kitchen will one day employ 1,000 local people in Somerset.

CB: Our Quarry Kitchen is specifically designed to work with the land, not against it, minimising energy and resource usage without the building’s workforce even noticing.

We’re very proud of features like its industry-leading water recycling system, natural air vents instead of air-con and motion sensor LED lights across the entire site.

In 2018, we were named RIBA’s South-West Building of the Year, in recognition of the building’s technological functionality and positive environmental impact, which was an incredibly proud moment.

RB: Are younger consumers really moving away from ‘Big Food’ brands?

Charlie Bigham site

Bigham, (pictured), says ‘Big Food’ brands no longer hold dominance over younger consumers.

CB: There’s been an explosion of food and drink start-ups in the last decade. SME brands are now pushing the boundaries of the sector and taking on some of the big names, who were previously able to dominate through massive marketing and advertising budgets.

Speaking from personal experience, as an SME food brand, you have the benefit of remaining close to your product, as well as the creative process behind every recipe – how it’s made, packaged, marketed and sold – values which l believe Gen-Z shoppers consider at point of purchase and are willing to pay more for.

RB: Was it a conscious decision to employ local people at Quarry Kitchen?

CB: As I split my time between the kitchen in Park Royal, London and my home on the Wiltshire/Somerset border, l could see for myself the direct impact that a food production campus could have in the South-West region.

Our Quarry Kitchen has already brought 300 jobs to the local area. At full capacity, we’re hoping to increase this number to 1,000.

Creating a workplace such as our Quarry Kitchen, which continuously sparks innovation, which invests in its employees and empowers them to fulfil their aspirations, plays a vital role in the brand’s growth.

RB: As a business owner, how do you stay motivated and positive?

CB: My motivation comes from still viewing Bigham’s as a challenger brand. After more than two decades of making food, it would be easy to cut corners or overlook attention to detail.

Instead, my talented team and I continuously strive to make the brand the very best it can be – whether that’s through ongoing taste tests, reading every single piece of customer feedback, designing new packaging or launching new advertising campaigns.

Our sales have grown on average by 15% every year for the last 15 years, which makes me proud to know we’ve won the trust and confidence of shoppers.

RB: Have any major events in your industry impacted your business for the better?

CB: The horse meat scandal in 2013 was a low point for many of the companies we compete with but it ended up being a high point for Bigham’s because it made people ask themselves the question: What is the real price of cheap food?

Nowadays, shoppers are more likely to scrutinise the origins of their food and are willing to pay more for meals that champion ingredient quality, which is what Charlie Bigham’s offers diners.