Angus and Shoo Oliphant of Miniscoff Organic Children's Meals in Wiltshire
"Natural is good, but organic is natural certified, so it's more controlled. Most other claims are far too prone to abuse and shameless spin."
Angus and his wife Shoo started their children's ready meals business from the eight by six foot kitchen of their London flat eleven years ago. Initially supplying 10 London delis, including Planet Organic, they now employ 11 people at Scoff Central, in Wiltshire, and supply over 350 restaurants – including Center Parcs, the Rainforest Café, Thistle Hotels, Esporta and Little Chef – as well as Ocado and Abel & Cole. Their meals and sauces, for children aged 12 months up to 12 years, are 100% organic and have won many awards. Shoo was the 'Practical Parenting' 'Business Parent of the Year 2006', and more recently Miniscoff was voted Best Children’s Food Range 2010/11 by readers of Practical Parenting magazine.
Can you describe a typical day?
We have 3 children aged between 5 and 14 - so every day starts with (or is started by) them. Between my wife, Shoo, and I we will ferry the kids to school at 8.45am. We then convene at Scoff Central for the 9am daily staff meeting, production review and general 'kick start' to the day's work.
Shoo and I have a business update meeting once a week to run through customer needs and look at overall business development, sales and marketing. The idea now is that Shoo and I get to spend more time planning ahead rather than just running the kitchen. We still collect some of our raw ingredients from local suppliers and we do some local deliveries too.
Growth costs money whichever way you look at it. It's not good enough just to have loads of businesses beating down your door (though it helps), and that first step into an investor relationship is a tough one to take - we are still hesitating. At around 5pm it's time to collect the boys. This reminds me to have lunch and I make a quick sandwich. Back to Scoff Central around 7pm to shut down the office, then 7-9pm will be a battle to catch up (or tussle) with the children and get everyone to bed in the right order. By the time this is done I am even more useless than earlier, and unless I can make it to about 11pm, when I get second wind, it'll be goodnight Vienna.
Organic principles - why do they matter?
The principle 'what goes around comes around' is something most people now understand and agree with. What differs is what people are prepared to do about it. It's great to have access to so much of the world and with such ease, but not if it means robbing one part to make another richer. Centralised and global policies have to be balanced with regional sustainability. Organic principles are about just that and can be applied as much to social issues as to environmental ones.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
As a movement becomes more mainstream so the tendency to dilution increases. We need a committed and principled organisation to be the standard bearer and guard against cheap imitation.
What is your greatest achievement?
Personally - our family.
Professionally - still not being found out, 11 years on, and remaining as enthusiastic about the benefits of our product as we ever did, despite the horrendous stress of setting out on our own and nursing the business through the recession.
How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?
Stick to our guns. Good food - artisan, honest and simple. It is very simple to scale too, keeping strictly to small batches. Despite this, the larger manufacturers still insist on 'assembling' rather than actually cooking the product. No wonder they have no flavour and need other techniques to substitute for it. The next step has to be a chilled range (we already do sauces), to enter the supermarket sector and to start bringing on our other product lines that are bursting to get out.
If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?
Hindsight would be crippling – some things will happen best with complete innocence (or should that be ignorance).
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don't put life on hold waiting for a 'rainy day' or you'll miss out big time.
Who or what's your biggest inspiration?
Horatio Nelson (from age 5 to about 10) and my wife Shoo, who convinced me we could do this, and continues to do so every day.
What do you love most about what you do?
It does what it says on the tin - and children seem to quite enjoy it too.
What keeps you awake at night?
What single thing would most improve your life?
An extra day in the week (that no one else has!)
Any unusual hobbies or past careers?
My training was in graphic design and Shoo worked in fashion. I once designed a jug for Habitat too, which I am very proud of.
How can the organic market be improved?
Better organisation of the UK organic supply chain to provide more reliable (and more competitive) supply to the growing number of successful specialist manufacturers.
Natural is good, but organic is natural certified, so it's more controlled. Most other claims are far too prone to abuse and shameless spin. However 'organic' doesn't guarantee 'quality', so we must maintain this standard just as vigorously.
What is the key to your success?
Family, friends and total conviction.
What is your favourite meal?
Roast lamb - but I also have an embarrassing penchant for butterscotch angel delight, preferably with smarties on top.
What's the main benefit of being organic for you?
Clear point of difference. Consumers want a quick one-word reason to buy, not a lengthy explanation with percentages and scientific gobbledegook.
What other organic ventures do you admire and why?
Hipp and Organix have undoubtedly forged the way in baby food and in so doing paved the way for the likes of us to cater for the next stage.
Ethical values are great to have but, if you are going to do anything effective with them, they need to be marketed in an engaging and relevant fashion to the consumer at large. Good ideas don't sell themselves, unfortunately.
Supermarkets - good or bad?
They are a great concept in theory and most of us rely on them heavily. But let's not kid ourselves that quality and consumer health is high up on their agenda. Apparently they only stock what we want – how many of us ever asked for MSG, aspartame or hydrogenated fats? Of course, now they are starting to realise we didn’t.
What is the biggest threat to what you do?
Consistent availability of high quality ingredients.
What's the best thing about organic food?
It's as nature intended. You won't make quality basic ingredients any healthier or tastier by mucking about with it.
If I was Prime Minister I would...
Re-introduce school kitchens – integrate food and sport back into the curriculum on an equal footing with other lessons – reduce class sizes and include PE and food standards as key measures in the league tables. It is without doubt that healthier children will learn more and be easier to teach. The difficulty is people are reluctant to introduce any measure that will take more than five minutes to see a return. We have to re-learn a whole food culture in this country.
The world would be a better place if...
More people enjoyed their work. If you're happy in your job you'll give a better service. The same goes for food of course...
What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?
A decent mattress.
To find out more about Miniscoff visit www.miniscoff.co.uk.