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“Consumer research is key.” with Hillary Graves

Consumer research is key. Not only understanding what is most important to your target audience, but also getting feedback as you refine product recipes and packaging. We asked parents what was most important when it came to feeding their children. Results showed that they wanted fresh, healthy meals made from natural ingredients, and it was […]

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Consumer research is key. Not only understanding what is most important to your target audience, but also getting feedback as you refine product recipes and packaging. We asked parents what was most important when it came to feeding their children. Results showed that they wanted fresh, healthy meals made from natural ingredients, and it was also important that their child liked the taste. That feedback was the inspiration for our taste testing panel; because it doesn’t matter how healthy something is if your child won’t eat it.

As a part of our series called 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hillary Graves, the Founder of Little Dish, the #1 brand of fresh, nutritionally balanced toddler meals. Little Dish is sold in the refrigerated produce section of all major UK supermarkets feeding over 200,000 children every week. Hillary recently launched Little Dish in the US, making their debut in Target stores nationwide.

Hillary has won numerous awards including Top 25 Women to Watch in Marketing by Advertising Age, Top 35 Women in Grocery by The Grocer, and the Mumpreneuer of the Year by Natwest and The Daily Mail. In 2020 she was named Management Today’s Food Entrepreneur of the Year at their Inspiring Women in Business Awards.

Hillary is the author of two family cookbooks: The Little Dish Favourites Cookbook and The Little Dish Family Cookbook. Hillary divides her time between London and the US and lives with her husband Dean and two sons, Monty, 13, and Ridley, 11.)

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Ispent my early childhood growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, and later moved to New York. Everyone in my family loves food and cooking, so it is no surprise that I ended up starting a food company. My brother followed a similar path and owns a restaurant in Chicago.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

When I had my first baby, I could not believe that baby and toddler food sold in the supermarkets had a shelf-life of up to two years. It didn’t’t seem right that the food was older than my baby! I wanted to make a range of meals like you would make in your own kitchen — made from 100% natural ingredients and no added salt or sugar. And importantly, meals that were kept in the fridge and not the cupboard.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think some of the most successful food brands are the ones that identify a true gap in the market or bring something unique and differentiated from competitive products. Make sure you are clear what it is about your product that makes it better, tastier, healthier, etc. and why someone would want to buy it.

Also, ensure you have a clear target audience. Even if you think your product could appeal to everyone, it’s important to have distinct brand positioning and an understanding of who you are making it for so you can really effectively meet that group’s needs.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Test it with consumers. A lot of great, independent food brands have started at Farmer’s Markets or even just testing with family and friends. It’s an easy way to gauge appeal and also get real live market research as you perfect the recipes.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

Ensure your idea has a strong business plan behind it and the commercials work. Understand all the costs to make and distribute the product. If the near-term commercials aren’t perfect, make sure you can see a clear path to attaining strong margins as you grow volume.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

In my experience, one of the keys to success is having the self-awareness to know your strengths and weaknesses. So, I would suggest focusing on what you are good at and potentially bringing in support to fill the gaps. Also, leverage your network and contact base. Often friends, family, and past colleagues can help, and there’s a virtuous circle in the entrepreneur community. When I was starting Little Dish, I was so surprised and grateful how many people who were further along with their businesses were willing to give advice and make introductions. Now I try to do the same when someone reaches out to me.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Great question. I am always inspired by bootstrapping stories and Founders who own 100% of their business. If you can grow your business and take advantage of market opportunities using your own resources, that is ideal. But in some cases, bringing in additional capital can help your business grow faster or achieve a strong competitive advantage, and that’s when outside investment can be a good option — either through venture capital or even an early friends and family round. Just make sure you and your investors are aligned on the same vision and have good communication.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Identify a gap in the market. What is the consumer need that is not currently being met that your product will solve? In our case, parents wanted to feed their children fresh, just like homemade meals; however, the options for baby and toddler food were limited to shelf- stable products which had a shelf life of up to two years.
  2. Consumer research is key. Not only understanding what is most important to your target audience, but also getting feedback as you refine product recipes and packaging. We asked parents what was most important when it came to feeding their children. Results showed that they wanted fresh, healthy meals made from natural ingredients, and it was also important that their child liked the taste. That feedback was the inspiration for our taste testing panel; because it doesn’t matter how healthy something is if your child won’t eat it.
  3. Have a defined company mission. At Little Dish, our mission is to make a positive difference in children’s nutrition and set every child up for success. This mission not only provides direction and focus for the business, but also motivation for the team. Everyone at Little Dish feels passionate about what we are doing, which creates a positive, high performing company culture.
  4. Surround yourself with a good support system. Know your strengths and weaknesses and bring in complementary skill sets as you build your team. Find good advisors, either through setting up a formal board or putting an informal mentor relationship in place. Over the years, we have had various advisors and board members who have provided great advice as we navigated through retailer negotiations and fundraising.
  5. Have a contingency plan. Everything will take longer and cost more than you think, so conserve cash and have a Plan B if needed. In 2008, we braced ourselves for a tough couple of years and ensured we had enough resources if things did not go to plan. We were lucky because in the end, consumers didn’t cut back when it came to their children, so our sales continued to grow over these years, but we felt more confident knowing we had cash in the bank.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

In our experience, it is not only about creating a fantastic product, but also building a meaningful brand which resonates and connects with your audience. Having a consistent look, feel and voice, as well as paying attention to the small details at every touch point with your customer, can have a big impact. We try to offer helpful and relevant content, so parents think of Little Dish as a great resource beyond just our food range. Examples include weaning and nutrition tips; family recipes; and this year we launched the Little Dish Book Club, featuring our favorite children’s authors.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Unfortunately, there is a terrible nutrition crisis right now, and we know that what children eat from a very early age has a strong link to their long-term health and wellness. We hope that by bringing Little Dish to as many families as possible in the UK and in the US, we can help parents feed their children truly healthy, nutritious food, even when they are short on time. We have also published two Little Dish cookbooks full of simple, healthy family recipes.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We are on a mission to make a positive difference in children’s nutrition. A balanced, nutritious diet is key to setting children up for success. But unfortunately, too many food companies are making products full of additives, preservatives and high levels of salt and sugar. We would love to inspire a movement to change the way children eat, encouraging a transition from an overly processed diet to healthier options.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I have recently become a huge fan of Jennifer Garner because she is a Founder of a company which is also committed to making fresh, healthy food for babies and toddlers. Additionally, she is very involved with Save the Children and uses her public platform to genuinely make a difference in children’s nutrition.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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