Making a meal of it

The man behind Bigham's found his inspiration on the road
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The Independent Online

The idea for Bigham's came like a bolt of lightning from the Eastern skies. While travelling around Iran and Pakistan, Charlie Bigham had the idea of bringing the concept of street market cooking to kitchen tables in the UK.

The result is Bigham's, a company that takes fresh ideas and ingredients from around the world and turns them into pre-prepared foods, supplying to the retail, food service and catering sectors. Formed seven years ago, it has an annual turnover of £6m and employs more than 80 staff.

After leaving Edinburgh University in 1990, where he studied English literature, Bigham started in business with Andersen Consulting, as a management consultant.

He stayed there for two years before moving to a specialist consultancy, The Arts Business. But the seeds for Bigham's were sown in 1995, when he decided to abandon the world of work, bought a camper van and went travelling with his wife around Europe, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, India, Iran and Pakistan.

One night when he was lying awake on the border of Iran and Pakistan he came up with the idea for his own business. "At some point there was a blinding flash of inspiration," he says.

"Not being able to get to sleep on a hot night, it struck me that I have been driving around eating all this great food, which has been thrown together and cooked on the roadside and thought: 'Food interests me, and I would like to do something similar back in England,'" he says. "When I was a management consultant, I was always very busy but I never used to buy ready prepared foods that you reheat in the microwave. It never appealed to me from a food point of view although for convenience, it should have. I thought it doesn't take a very long time to cook if you enjoy cooking, especially if some of the stuff has been pre-prepared. So it all started to gel in that moment and I thought there might be something in this."

When Bigham returned to England in 1996 he looked into his idea of preparing raw ingredients for people to quickly cook at home.

"I looked into it seriously and it seemed that all the bad things about pre-prepared food, for example the lack of taste, and unhealthiness, started to fall away. If you pick up a ready meal and look at the ingredients list it's awful. It struck me as a chemistry lesson. I like food, I am not a chemist," he says.

Bigham found he didn't need to use "rubbish" when preparing foods. Instead of dried herbs, they use fresh ones. "All the things that you are not meant to do because they are too expensive or too difficult, we just did," he says.

So Bigham visited banks to try and get a business loan, but, after 15 attempts, failed. "Getting the funding was the usual headache," he says. "I had written business plans before, professionally, and I thought this is no problem. I then went to banks and said: 'I don't want very much money but £10,000 or £20,000 would be great, I need a business account and a bit of an overdraft would be handy.' But - surprise, surprise - they said: 'Lovely business plan but goodness me you don't seem to have any experience in this market and hang on a second you are talking about selling a new product that no one has ever sold before. This all sounds very risky and it's terribly nice to meet you, but sadly we can't give you an overdraft and actually we would rather not have an account for you.' So that was a bit depressing but quite useful." Eventually, he funded the company from his own pocket, with money raised in his management consultancy days.

"When I formed the company, I thought a good starting point would be to approach it from a consumer's perspective. I went off and spoke to Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and all the posh places to see what they thought of my idea. I also spoke to Waitrose and they said: 'Okay you sound a bit mad but come in and show us what this strange new idea is,' and we have been working with them ever since," says Bigham.

Today there are two sides to the business. One is supplying retailers (principally Waitrose, Booths, Harvey Nichols and Cullens) with pre-prepared foods and the other is carrying out prep work for restaurants, hotels and caterers.

Bigham says he isn't worried about other companies trying a similar approach. "If people want to advertise on TV then hopefully we might derive a little benefit off the side of that."

Looking towards the future, Bigham, who is now 36, says he has no exit strategy and isn't a serial entrepreneur: "There are some people who love starting a company, growing it, flogging it, and then starting another one, but that's not for me. What we are doing here is very much for the long term and I really enjoy that aspect of it. We have got so much potential to grow.

"Our target is to have a £20m turnover business within the next three to four years and we've got every reason to think we can achieve that."

He advises those considering their own businesses to do it.

"Lots of people think about it and they don't do it," he says. "The way I see it is some people are just suited to start running their own businesses and others aren't. Luckily I am more suited to it and I don't get too stressed about things. I can shut the door at the end of the day and leave most of it behind. I enjoy it and if you are like that and predisposed to it then do it and you will have a great time.

"I am quite a believer that if you start in a small way, you will make your mistakes early and we certainly made ours. It is also a good idea to listen to what your customers want."