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Souped up to create a stir in the States

Helen Jones on the rise of a gourmet chilled-food firm
Carrot and coriander soup that can be passed off as home-made has become a staple at dinner parties thanks to the New Covent Garden soup company.

But chocolate, Aussie Roo and Nettle may find fewer takers. They are just some of the recipes that the company has collected together for its first cook book to be launched next month. Although it is well known for its eclectic range of fresh soups sold in cartons it is unlikely that some of the more exotic recipes will make it on to the supermarket shelves. William Kendall, the managing director, says: "We are always looking at new recipes and we like to excite our customers by offering unusual things but it is a business so we can't be too crazy. The book lets us show off some of the recipes that we might not actually put on shelf."

The book launch is the latest in a series of moves, which includes advertising and direct marketing, to build the New Covent Garden brand in the face of growing competition from own-label suppliers such as Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury.

Mr Kendall says that while others have jumped on the band wagon ultimately it may not be a bad thing for the company. When it was first set up in 1989 soup was something that indulgent mothers with time on their hands made for their offspring or it came out of a tin, had a slightly metallic taste, a gloopy consistency and a few indefinable bits of vegetable floating on the surface. Mr Kendall says: "When we started, fresh soup in cartons was a totally new concept and one that took some time getting accepted by supermarkets and consumers. For the first few years we were trying to convince the supermarkets to give us any shelf space at all but now it has grown into such a valuable, dynamic sector the supermarkets are making their own and they give more shelf space to our products."

The company is now trying to persuade American supermarkets to do the same. It has already established markets in France, Belgium and even Hong Kong where expatriates are prepared to pay half as much again for the product. As Mr Kendall says: "New Covent Garden Soup has joined the ranks of Marmite and Chelsea buns as one of those essentials that you cannot be without when thousands of miles from home."

America, with its interest in healthy living, "offers bags of potential", says Mr Kendall. "They are into fresh food but the UK is way ahead in terms of chilled products. They don't have anything like our product out there."

The company has set up a small office in the United States and is aiming at supermarket chains and up-market delis in San Francisco and New York state. Most of the recipes are the same as those here although sales of pumpkin soup are higher in the US and some of the products contain less salt to appeal to American health consciousness.

But Mr Kendall admits that exporting to the US is not without its problems: "We are currently flying all the product out there via Virgin, which is very expensive."

The company has suffered financial difficulties in the past and soon after its launch had to refinance. Mr Kendall says: "We were a start-up with private finance and this business is very capital-intensive.

"Our factory took longer to build than anticipated and so we needed to refinance. But our problems are the same as any growing business. We are short of cash and would like some more."

To cut its export costs the company is now in negotiations to begin production in America early next year with a view to expanding sales beyond New York state and the Bay area.

Mr Kendall says: "There is no infrastructure in the US. Their supermarkets are not as advanced as ours; they are about 20 years behind and don't have the same capacity for chilled prepared foods. However, we feel we are ahead of the game and that there is potentially a big market."

California is a long way from the New Covent Garden Soup Company's humble beginnings in an out-building loaned by Reading University but the company is confident that it can create consumer demand. Aussie Roo soup may not be on the menu for most American families but pumpkin soup might be, and the company has a host of products planned including fresh pasta sauces and gravy in cartons, which may change the face of American supermarkets for ever.