Over the past few years, Hillary Graves has turned the idea of producing tasty, nutritious meals for toddlers and children into a hugely successful national business. She tells us how she started Little Dish – and how her two sons play a big role in the company as her chief tasters!
Tell us about your career background
I’m from New York and my background is in marketing and business development. I moved to London in 2000 to open the UK office of the company I was working for at the time. My assignment was to launch the business in the UK, hire a local team and then move back to the States after two years. However along the way I met my husband (who is English) and I never left London.
After deciding to stay I did a bit of consulting, and one of my projects was in the baby food category. I got to really know that market and felt there was a big gap for a better tasting, more nutritious range of proper food for young children, which you keep in the fridge and not the cupboard. This was in 2006 and I was expecting my first child.
What inspired you to start Little Dish?
There were two things. I thought there was a significant commercial opportunity to cater to this gap in the market, but also there was a social side as well. There is a terrible nutrition crisis happening in the UK and beyond. One in four children is going to school obese (at the age of four!) and that struck a chord with me. The combination of a great business proposition that could potentially make a positive impact on children’s health made me very excited.
I wanted to replicate what mothers were cooking in their own kitchens – using only 100% natural ingredients and not adding any salt or sugar. At the time the only choices for prepared meals were the long life options in the baby aisle (which can sit on the shelf for up to two years) or traditional adult ‘ready meals’ which often contained additives, preservatives and high levels of salt and sugar.
I thought mums should have access to convenient meals for their children which were kept in the fridge not the cupboard, so tasted great and were of the highest nutritional value.
How did you go from idea to launching the business?
The first step was to test the idea with mums and get their feedback, which I did firstly with friends and family and then through a research company surveying 200 mothers across the country.
The response was so positive that it gave me the confidence to spend a bit of money on initial product and packaging development. I also went to the business library to research the market and used this information to write a business plan.
I raised some initial seed money through friends and angel investors and then pitched the idea to Waitrose who agreed to a small trial in 20 stores. Over time, I have hired a small team and we have grown distribution to the full estate of Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Ocado. We are in discussions with Sainsbury’s about a listing later this year, too.
Now we are feeding over 100,000 kids every week and are excited to be thinking about new Little Dish products.
What’s your vision for Little Dish?
The ultimate vision for Little Dish is to be the number one healthy children’s food brand, loved by mums all over the world. We have started with meals but are exploring opportunities to move into more categories here in the UK and abroad.
When did you realise the business was actually going to be a success?
After we finished our trial in Waitrose and started to roll out to more stores – we had proven that this concept could work in a major supermarket. When Tesco, Asda and Morrisons came on board as well, that was a huge vote of confidence.
The consumer feedback has always been so positive as well, and just confirms that mums really want Little Dish and find it helps them to feed proper food to their little ones.
What have been your challenges – and how have you overcome them?
We have had lots of challenges along the way. Trying to find the right supplier, negotiating with the retailers (which can be tough), and getting the right team in place. I think we have overcome most of our challenges by staying true to our mission of ‘healthier kids’ and convincing people to be a part of it, whether they are a manufacturer, a buyer or a potential employee.
How do you fit your work around your family?
One of the great things about having your own business is that you can set your own schedule. There are definitely long hours, but I can work those around my children. I’m able to do the school run and go to their various school and sports activities.
I still need help with childcare in the afternoons after school and so I have a part-time nanny I couldn’t live without. My husband is also supportive and very involved with the children.
My advice would be to try to keep work and family separate, when you can. So put away your laptop and phone when you are with your kids so you can be fully present. Bring that same focus to work too. That may sound obvious, but it took a bit of time and discipline for me to get this right!
Your sons, Monty and Ridley, are your chief tasters – how fussy are they? And what happens if they say they don’t like a dish?
I feel lucky they are really good eaters. They don’t eat everything and we have our fair share of challenges around certain vegetables. For the most part though, they love a broad variety of food and I can’t complain. Our rule is that we have to try everything and that has helped, because they end up liking some things they were sure that they wouldn’t.
As our ‘Chief Tasters’ they play a big role in our recipe testing but as the business has grown, we have put together an official tasting panel – 50 children across the country. So while their opinion is important and has inspired some of our best sellers, I think it’s great we have a more robust taste testing process beyond just my children.
What advice do you have for other ambitious mums?
If you have a good idea for a business, go for it. Just make sure you have a great support network in place – your husband, family, friends, and a few good business advisors.
You’ll need to think carefully about the idea and test the water by doing a little bit of research to give you confidence that the product or service has potential to work. There will be difficult times, but in the end for me, setting up my own business was one of the best things I ever did – and it means you can be completely passionate about what you do every day.
You can find out more about Little Dish and their range of meals on their website.