Few small entrepreneurs have a contacts book as bulging as Catherine Gazzoli’s.
But then not everyone has enjoyed an illustrious career involving working as chief executive of Slow Food UK, a not-for-profit body that promotes and supports local food networks across the world, as well as running food and agricultural programmes for the United Nations.
So when Ms Gazzoli, 39, spotted an opportunity for a Mediterranean-influenced organic baby food brand, she was able to get some big names from the food industry on board.
Her business plan for Piccolo developed on the kitchen table of Green & Blacks co-founder Craig Sams.
Shortly before launching the brand last year, she won seed funding from an impressive list of investors including food campaigner Prue Leith, former Pizza Express chief executive Mark Angela and ex-Duchy Originals boss Andrew Baker.
“It was important for me to have investors who knew the food industry. While I was coming from a non-profit background which involved helping the public eat better, I needed support in creating a company that would be commercial as well as have social values,” says Ms Gazzoli, who was born in Geneva to Italian parents and grew up in Rome.
The investment allowed Ms Gazzoli, who left Slow Food UK in 2014 after a six-year stint, to set up a development kitchen for testing recipes. “Sometimes investment gets a bad rap but if it’s the right investment it can help you,” she says. “The directors involved have helped steer the company and have been extremely important in the initial success.”
The funds also helped Ms Gazzoli to attract the right talent. Her recruits included Alice Fotheringham as head of nutrition and product development, who had previously worked with the leading baby food author, Annabel Karmel. And Kane O’Flaherty – a former Itsu and Metcalfe’s Food Company’s design expert – joined as head of creative.
Ms Gazzoli reveals how she managed to poach Mr O’Flaherty: “I kept making him his favourite dish – a Maltese rabbit stew – which takes 24 hours to make.” Whether it was the cooking or her tenacity, Mr O’Flaherty eventually left MetCalfe’s to join Piccolo.
Ms Gazzoli’s aim was to create nutritious, organic baby food packed with flavour. For this, she turned to her Italian roots. “My family had a grocery store in the north of Italy and I grew up with a room just for making pasta, where ravioli and fresh pesto was made every day,” she says. “I wanted to include lots of grains, pulses and herbs to create variety and a healthy balance.”
Piccolo started with six products, such as fruit and yogurt blends, and now has 16 offerings including vegetable risotto and sweet tomato and ricotta spaghetti that cost between £1 and £1.60 a pouch. The range – most of which are made in the Mediterranean – will rise to 30 products by the summer.
Since launching in April 2016, the brand has found favour from both retailers and consumers. Piccolo products are available from 750 stores in the UK including Asda, Planet Organic, Whole Foods Market and Abel & Cole, and has just started selling in stores in China too.
Turnover for its first year is expected to reach £2m, but the Covent Garden-based company is yet to turn a profit.
Although the path from idea to production may appear smooth, Ms Gazzoli says the reality was more challenging as she hadn’t done any negotiations with supermarkets before.
The slide in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote has also created problems. “We source from all over the Mediterranean, for example, apples from the Dolomites, and there’s price fluctuations… prices are all over and it’s a difficult time for grocers too. It’s a very special time to be learning.”
A recent vegetable shortage has been another spanner in the works. “I’ve had these sourcing issues and trouble getting products on time. I can’t change courgettes to peas [in her products], so it’s a very complicated scenario.”
Like many business owners, Ms Gazzoli has to balance managing a fast-growing firm with childcare, raising her three-year-old daughter Juliet. “During the week there’s no separation between my child and the business,” she says.
“Juliet is often in the office, and if I’m stuck in a meeting the staff help me with the nursery run. They’re both my babies and are both interweaved. Juliet loves Kane and Alice, she’s grown up with them. I don’t think you can separate when you’re a start-up.”
Her “very supportive” Italian husband and his parents help out with childminding duties as well.
Piccolo products have arrived on shelves as sales in the baby food sector are now worth about £700m, according to market research firm Mintel.
Daniel Selwood, food and drink editor at trade magazine The Grocer, says that while Ella’s Kitchen – the top baby food brand – dominates the market, Piccolo still stands out.
“The focus on Mediterranean variants makes it a bit different to existing players. It offers a good rate of new variants, and also Catherine has got some pulse in the industry from being chief executive of Slow Food UK,” he says.