Thinking of launching your own business? The rise of Manfood’s provides a textbook example of how to go from zero to hero in two short years.
The brand is the brainchild of 40-year-old Andre Dang. Born to a Malaysian mother and Vietnamese father, British-born Dang studied horticulture at Reading University.
A placement with leading department store chain M&S – which brought him into contact with buyers and food students – convinced him that he actually wanted to work in the food sector.
After graduation, he found work as a buyer. A spell at Selfridge’s was followed by an eight-year stint at one of the UK’s most famous stores: Harrods. He began as a buyer for the delicatessen section, but ended up as head of PR and marketing for the food halls and restaurants.
Five years ago, with an enviable insight into food marketing and a valuable knowledge of what catches the eye of consumers, Dang left to set up his own PR company.
Manfood can be traced back to a conversation with his partner, Jon, about piccalilli; a spicy English relish made from pickled, chopped vegetables.
‘Basically, Jon complained one day that it was really hard to find a decent piccalilli. He seemed to remember a time when you could open a jar, stick a fork in, and pull out a chunk of cauliflower. Shop-bought piccalilli now was all just wet mush.
‘So I said I’d make him one. And he loved it. He said, “You should sell this”.’
The seed of an idea was sown.
Andre and Jon got married in September 2013, and Dang made pots of piccalilli – decorated especially for their wedding – for guests. They went down a storm, with many friends contacting them again later to ask if they could buy more.
‘I developed three other products,’ says Dang. ‘One from a recipe from my mum, which was a Malaysian achar recipe; a caramelized chili and vegetable pickle you traditionally have alongside a curry and rice. I did a smoked tomato sauce and a bread and butter pickle, which is sliced cucumber.’
Dang threw himself into creating an image for the brand and began to sell his wares at farmer’s markets around Cambridgeshire – where he and Jon live.
Continuing his PR work during the day, he cooked the products himself at home in the evenings but demand soon saw him having to rent a production unit. He now employs four staff.
But what about that name: ‘Manfood’?
‘It was from a conversation Jon and I had at the very beginning. Jon was very much, “I want something really chunky; real, proper man food”. So I said “OK – Manfood sounds like a fun name.”
‘At the time, to be honest, we didn’t really think of the gender bias. I was thinking of my dad, who would come home, and even though he saw my mum preparing dinner, he would be raiding the cupboards looking for stuff to eat. It made me think that men and women do eat differently. It was also at the time that Yorkie [the chocolate bar brand] were doing their campaign, “It’s not for girls”.
‘I was a little bit worried that it might be seen as sexist but at the same time I thought, you know, the average person should get it. And most people that I have spoke to since haven’t found it offensive and they don’t even think of it as being sexist.
‘Sometimes at shows we get the odd woman going “What about us women?” But in fact, 80% of our sales are from women. They say “I don’t eat that sort of thing but I know my partner loves it,” so it’s actually worked out quite well.’
The concept has helped shape the development of the brand, which has now grown include 20 different pickles and chutneys. This includes ‘Beer Chutney’ (made with Woodforde’s Norfolk Nog ale), ‘Asian Spiced Ale Jelly’ (particularly recommended for duck and game), and ‘Chip Shop Curry Sauce’ (a bespoke and aromatic version of the sauce traditionally sold at British fish and chip shops).
The brand has proved instantly popular in farmer’s markets and delicatessens. The Queen’s food supplier Fortnum and Mason’s were the first big name store to place an order, followed by appearances in John Lewis specialty hampers last year.
Late last year, Dang entered the brand into Ocado’s ‘Britain’s Next Top Supplier’ competition. Ocado is the online operation of high-end supermarket chain Waitrose. Dang says that he didn’t really expect anything to come of it.
‘Hundreds of people entered, but then we got shortlisted for the final 50, where we had to pitch to a buyer. And he loved it! We went home and got a call pretty much straight away saying “You’re going to be in the final five”.’
The ‘nerve-wracking’ final involved them pitching to celebrity chef Tom Kerridge, Ocado chairman Stuart Rose and others, all of whom were equally impressed. This month, Manfood was duly declared the winner.
The prize is a year’s listing with Ocado and £20,000 ($31,000/â‚¬28,000) worth of marketing support through the Ocado magazine and website.
Dang says that Manfood is producing around 300 jars a day, and he still has a very hands-on role in the food production. The Ocado win puts the brand on the cusp of the big time. Does he have advice for anyone dreaming of starting their own business?
‘Research is key’, he replies. ‘I was lucky because I come from the food world, so I kind of knew about margins and costs and what a good price point would be. Most producers don’t have any idea about that sort of thing.
‘But particularly with food, if you’re wanting to get into it, talk to other people who are doing it, because especially in the food world, people are helpful and supportive, and if you ask for help, most of the time they will give it to you.’
He says that in the UK, local councils tend to want to help small businesses. Grants may be available from regional bodies to help SMEs, and – if banks are unwilling to help – the internet and crowdfunding-style sites are a great tool nowadays to raise funding.
Andre says that he and Jon have built Manfood using just their own savings, so they’re not – as yet – answerable to any investors. Is there any advice he would give himself if he could turn the clock back a couple of years?
‘I would probably sit myself down and say, “Actually, you can do it”,’ he confesses.
‘I still have moments of doubt, even nowadays. I’m not the most confident person, but I’m lucky that Jon is my counter balance. He’s very much, “Yes, you can!”’