Niche created within a niche
No money, no job, and Primrose Matheson had just broken up with her boyfriend.
In her mother’s cottage kitchen, she started to make up recipes for breakfast cereals – her favourite meal of the day – and realised that just maybe, they could represent a business opportunity. A saturated market? “I didn’t think about things like that at the time,” she laughs.
She was though contemplating the notion of empowerment through food. Or to quote Hippocrates, which she does on the website of Primrose’s Kitchen, the company she set up: Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’.
“There’s always been this association of a healthy breakfast cereal with something hippyish, with little taste. I wanted to show that muesli and granola can be colourful, exciting, full of taste, as well as being healthy,” explains Matheson.
What she created was a niche within a niche – no-one had included vegetables in their muesli before. Raw beetroot and ginger muesli resulted in Planet Organic and Waitrose listing her products. There hasn’t been much more progress on the supermarket front because Matheson isn’t prepared to lower her price points. “When I started the business four years ago I didn’t have a horizon,” she says. “Twelve months in, I met a couple who made food products, and that made me realise I couldn’t just pootle along. The trouble is that entrepreneurs try to do too many things. I decided I want to build a business in a way which would allow me time to concentrate on product development.
“The word strategy terrifies me though. I’m impulsive, and I would prefer to talk about intention. You need an idea of where you want your business to be, which could be having a product in 600 branches of a supermarket, but also the energy to follow through. If you have a completely firm idea that this is how it is all going to happen, it means you have no space to let something better in.
“Like all entrepreneurs, I’m not good with taking instruction. I prefer finding my own route and seeing where it takes me. I look at how much faster some other companies are growing, and how they do it, but it’s not me. As long as you recognise what it is you’re striving for, you will know when it presents itself.”
Diversification has taken Primrose’s Kitchen into spreads (such as raw almond and chia butter), and powders to boost the potency of smoothies. “With the internet we can launch a new product in a couple of months and if it doesn’t work, we just sell out the initial stock and move on,” Matheson explains.
But then one morning, at 7.30, when Matheson was on holiday, she received the phone call to say that there has been a fire in the premises next door, and that the smoke damage alone would mean that everything had to be written off. Contingency planning meant that production was switched to a contract manufacturer.
“People were saying what bad luck, and yes, you can look at an event like that and say nightmare, but it’s just possible that something better can come out of it,” says Matheson. For Primrose’s Kitchen, the silver living was that investment could be made in new plant.
“You often hear about business owners talking about luck, but I have come to the conclusion that what they often referring to is timing,” suggests Matheson. “I approached Waitrose, for example, just when they happened to be reviewing their range.
Her brother has a stake in the business, but Matheson is reluctant to look for outside finance. “I don’t want to relinquish control,” she says. “Crowdfunding looks great, but my mind doesn’t work in that way.”
She doesn’t believe that if a business is fuelling up primarily for monetary gain it can be sustainable. “It will fizzle out, because it won’t have a true sense of purpose,” she says. “And that sense of purpose should keep the business moving forwards. That’s essential because if people love your products because they were new and different, they are going to expect that again from your brand.” From Primrose’s Kitchen, an example of brand new is lemon, goji berries, and black pepper granola.
Then there’s the organic courgette and cacao granola. Matheson would like to see her products sold a little differently as well. “As a manufacturer our environmental responsibilities are important,” she avers. “It would be better if our cereals were available from bulk containers in a shop, where the customer scoops how much they want into a bag which is weighed at the counter.”
She says that maybe in five years time she would be prepared to consider selling to someone who can take the business more internationally. Through distributors, Primrose’s Kitchen are already in chains of stores in Switzerland, Spain, and Norway. “I would like to keep a small stake, and continue to focus on creating new products,” Matheson explains. “I’m more of an artist than a business person. I think it is important to make choices as to what makes you happy. For me it isn’t about getting up at seven in the morning and getting back home at seven in the evening. I am a strong believer that you should create the life you want, but you have got to know what it is you actually want rather than imitating someone who is doing well because you feel you should be following their example.”