Ted Winder talks with Ben Jones, co-founder of healthy snacks company Graze, about the history, philosophy and complex technology behind the business.
Upon entering Graze HQ in Richmond, you wouldn’t think you had entered the headquarters of a company that specializes in sending food by post. The building, affectionately named ‘The Giant Graze Box’, is stylish from floor to ceiling; two large glass doors mark the entrance and Alissia, the receptionist who greets me, sits behind a 27″ iMac. I am ten minutes early, so we chat for a bit about the history of the building, which it turns out was once a building fabricators. Before long, Ben Jones, co-founder of Graze, appears. His passion and enthusiasm quickly reveals itself as he takes me straight on a tour of the building, and one thing becomes apparent immediately: Graze is about much more than just food – it’s also a cutting-edge technology company. Upstairs, there are computers everywhere – a development team sit behind Macs in one corner, one with the company’s Twitter reply feed down one side of the screen. Elsewhere, there are larger islands of computers dedicated to marketing, customer service and product development. Complex algorithms are scribbled on panes of glass and television screens mounted on the walls display live sales statistics. One figure is particularly impressive: they have collected over 50 million snack ratings to date.
Marrying Food & Technology
“A lot of people see us a food business, which we are, but we’re also a really, really sophisticated tech company. All our creative teams are in-house, and we control everything, from the web-based systems to our warehouse down the road in Feltham. I always talk about Richmond Upon Thames being the new ‘Silicon Valley Upon Thames’, because we’ve got eBay, Gumtree, PayPal and now us, all located here. We want to be the most innovative food company in the world, and we’re definitely on our way there.”
We head back to the ground floor, and settle in a small meeting room. On the way, we pass through the ‘breakfast room’ – essentially the office kitchen – but which boasts a large oak dining table and a plentiful supply of fresh fruit. So what is Graze, I ask Ben, and how does it work?
“Graze delivers boxes of healthy snacks to you by post. From a customer’s experience point of view, you go online, you tell us when you want your box, where you want your box, and you rate food. So you can say, ‘I love flapjacks, send me flapjacks regularly,’ or, ‘I hate olives, never send me olives.’ We then pick a box based on your ratings and preferences, and we send it to you on the day you’ve requested.
“From our side, we have a patented algorithm called DARWIN, and every day down at factory we run an allocation through this, which assigns products into people’s boxes who need to receive them the following day. We pack in postcode order, so we pack all the Scottish and Irish post first since that has to go the furthest. DARWIN also takes into account dietary requirements and makes sure that we have a variety of tastes and textures in each box.
“We do all our own procurement buying – there’s about 250 ingredients we use across 106 products. We pack all the food ourselves, some of it by hand, since you just can’t put certain products through an automated process and have it come out looking as perfect as we need it to. It’s seriously complicated.”
“We are the first company in the world to marry tech and food, in a fundamental way. That’s one of the most exciting things about Graze, and the reason I personally believe we’re one of the most exciting businesses in the UK at the moment, and it’s because of the value chain we own. We are the procurers, buyers, manufacturers, pickers, packers, fillers, distributors. We do pretty much everything. We also do all the sorting for Royal Mail, so the first time they touch a Graze box is for the final mile when they deliver it to your house. We are everything in one and we can do anything we like. We’re in charge of our own destiny.”
Obsession with Perfection
The company’s eye for detail and obsession with perfection runs throughout everything they do, and it’s a really genuine obsession.
“It’s all about perfection. Every single thing that we put into a Graze box is absolutely perfect, from the personalised booklet we include which changes every time, to every single nut or dried fruit or olive. We’ve got 54 quality control checks on, for example, an almond arriving at our factory to the almond leaving in your Graze box. That’s just down to us having this obsession with perfection. You have to think, if you outsource this, they’re not going to care as much and you have to spend all this overhead managing that. So why not put all our own effort and time energy into doing it ourselves? No-one in the world could pack Graze punnets as well as us or as cheap as us, without a doubt.
“So if you said, ‘I like fresh grapes, send me fresh grapes’, we send you 24 fresh grapes in a nice big punnet. When those grapes turn up on your desk, or wherever you are, every single one has to be perfect. It’s only a small portion and you’re going to eat it all, so every bit has to taste really good. But it also has to be perfect because we’ve chosen it for you, and if we’re wrong, you’re going to leave us. If you walk into Tesco and pick up a bag of grapes and you eat through it and there’s a few bad grapes in there, that’s your fault because you picked that bag. If we’ve picked them for you, then that’s Graze’s fault and you’re not going to use us again.”
Do Not Disturb The Robots
Even the machinery that Graze uses is custom-built for the job, and is all manufactured in the UK. I was allowed a peek round the door into Graze’s brand new onsite test kitchen which is currently under construction. “I can’t let you in any further than this in case you see something,” Ben tells me. There’s no danger of that – everything in the room is still very much under wraps.
“When we launched Graze, our unique selling point was that we sent fresh fruit through the post, and we were actually the first company in the world to ever send fresh prepared fruit through an ambient distribution chain.” An ambient distribution chain, he tells me, is a delivery network that doesn’t use chillers or freezers on its journey. “With us, we didn’t want to use any artificial additives or preservatives or anything like that – we wanted to do it naturally. Literally everyone we met said, ‘No, it’s not possible,’ and we kept saying ‘Yes, we’re going to do it’. It was lots of little things that added up to give the big picture in the end, and we ended up having to build our own food packing room. People were sanitized on the way in, and we had big air filters on the roof to keep dirt out.
“We also developed this packaging with tiny little micro-perforations in the film lid of each pot – this allows gases to exchange and buys us the extra 24 hours we need to get the fresh fruit to the customers. And it turns up looking and smelling great. That was a really good feeling proving all those experts wrong, and it inspired us to pack everything ourselves.”
But there’s a real human side to Graze too. “We have to educate people a lot, all the time, especially when it comes to health. Snacking has such a bad name and no-one really knows how to snack well. We’re very realistic at Graze – we’re not diet food. No-one eats diet food for long periods of time, and we want people to buy Graze boxes all the time, so it’s about getting that balance of healthy eating and treats. We’ve always had this 80/20 rule where if you’re good 80% of the time you can treat yourself the rest, and that’s kind of dictated a lot of our products that you see now. So we are trying to re-educate the UK on how to snack better, and it is tough, but luckily a lot of people spread the word for us.”
Now Is The Time
Successful startups like Graze don’t come about on their own, that’s well known. But what exactly does it take to risk everything on an entirely new venture?
“You’ve always got to be willing to take risks. Our biggest risk… was borrowing £6million to start Graze.” Ben stops and laughs – it’s almost as if the enormity of this has still not taken its toll. “Graze was – is – a brand new concept. Nothing has ever been done like this before, so we had nothing to gauge it on. But being young and naïve you always question why. There’s always a way. No isn’t an answer when you have a vision.
“One of the reasons I think Graze is so successful is because the seven of us [the co-founders] brought a skill set to the table that is very rarely found in this industry, and that meant two things: firstly, we always knew the best man for the job, so no-one was ever questioned when a particular thing had to be done – it was always just obvious who should do it. Secondly, we’re friends, so we speak to each other very frankly, and we don’t have to tiptoe around each other. Four out of the seven of us were techies but everyone brought their own thing.
“I never wanted to work for anyone else. I always wanted to work for myself. After leaving university, I started a design consultancy with two of the other founders. One of them owned a student house in Bournemouth, an when it came to the end of the university year and the students went home, we stayed there and set up a little office in one of the bedrooms. We just thought, ‘Right, what services can we provide to make some money?’
“I always say that the best things we’ve ever done have come from when we’ve had no money, because that’s when we always really thought about stuff. To get stationery we went and got pens from the bank, because they’re free. We didn’t take the piss; we only took a few but when they ran out we just went back to get more. And I remember getting our printing done at the local library because we befriended the librarian. You can be very resourceful when you’ve got nothing. You’re also not bogged down by what money does to people. When I think back now, it was quite a refreshing time. We were really thinking very clearly and creatively. We were completely free.”
Ben clearly has a wealth of experience under his belt, and I asked him what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs.
“This is one thing I always say to people who are thinking of starting out – I went to my dad, and I said I want to do my own thing, and he turned straight round to me and said, “If you want to do it, you should definitely do it, and you should do it now, because the longer that life goes on the harder it’s going to be for you to have the freedom to do it. Now is the time.”
Does he have any regrets?
“I have no regrets,” he answers immediately. “Never have regrets. We’ve made plenty of mistakes, we make mistakes every day. If you’re not failing and not making mistakes you’re not pushing yourself. They’re definitely necessary. We’ve almost thrown in the towel twice on this journey, and that’s because we spent money too quickly. We didn’t know how much capital expenditure we’d have to put into the business to get it going, and it was just not modelled. Yeah, we’ve definitely had some rocky rides with Graze.
My last question causes him to pause for a few seconds before answering: does he plan to sell the company any time soon and move on to new ventures, or carry on developing the business?
“Ah, it’s completely unknown. At the moment everyone’s really excited, really energized. We’re all friends working together on a business which is becoming successful and there are so many things that we can do with it. We really, really want to change the way the world eats, and we think we’re on to something. It’s really exciting. You wouldn’t want to go anywhere while this is happening.
“We’ve got international aspirations, we’ve got the diversification of the product range, we’ve got the retail shelves, the kid’s market, airlines… It’s really exciting. To be honest, though, I don’t think we’ve nailed what we’re currently doing yet. The whole company is focussed on getting customers to buy more Graze boxes in the UK, and we’re doing that by surprising them and delighting them with new and interesting foods. There’s so many things we can go after and chase after that we are so far from perfect at. We pinch ourselves every day, because we’re living the dream.”
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