The couple who thought outside the lunchbox

How can a school meals service gain the attention of busy mums?
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The Independent Online

Jenny and David Bennett's business idea was born when Jenny was standing at the school gates, waiting for their child. The school had recently ceased to provide hot lunches, and the mothers were complaining about how difficult it was finding enough time to make good-quality packed lunches for their children every day.

"Please don't think I'm mad, but what about us selling lunch boxes?" Mrs Bennett said to her husband that night. He thought nothing of the sort, and the couple went on to build a successful online company supplying healthy balanced lunches directly to schools in south-west London, delivered mid-morning in individual coolbags.

"The problem is that, while the orders flowed in initially, we now seem to have reached a plateau in terms of numbers," says Mr Bennett.

It's not that parents don't like the idea of, he continues. "They tell us they love the concept, and once we get them on board we rarely lose them. The trouble is their inertia when it comes to placing that first order. Mums are always busy, and buying our lunches just keeps sliding down their 'to do' list."

The six schools that lunchboxes4kids operates in so far have done everything they can to help promote the service, he says. "When we go into a new school, they let us give the kids a leaflet, usually accompanied by a letter from the school, to take home. We follow that up a week later with a leaflet of Frequently Asked Questions, and follow it up one more time again."

The youngsters are keen on the idea too. "In fact, children pester their parents because our lunches are high-profile, and having one makes them feel special. They enjoy the newsletter and jokes we provide with the lunches and they also like the fact that their parents can go online until 6pm the night before to change the order. So if they're fed up with tuna, they can change their sandwich choice or any other item at the last minute."

The parents who use also appreciate the flexibility of the service, he says. "Our prices start from £2 a day for three items and £3 for five items. They can book for one to four weeks ahead, and they don't have to order our lunches every day of the week."

Mr and Mrs Bennett have tried a number of marketing ploys, but they admit they have run out of ideas. "The first week is free, to encourage parents to try the service," Mr Bennett says. In addition, lunchboxes4kids has focused on marketing by email and has started a text messaging service. A "recommend a friend" loyalty scheme is just about to be launched.

The long-term plan is to use franchising to expand the business beyond London. "We have just taken on our first franchisee in the Berkshire and Surrey area to pilot the scheme," Mr Bennett says. "We think it will work well as a franchise because the overheads aren't high, it's easy work and you don't need anything more than a basic hygiene course behind you."

But if the company is to grow both in its existing area and further afield, fresh ideas will be needed to tempt parents to take that first bite of its nutritious, time-saving packed lunches.