Supply chain · 15 January 2018

Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Spar listings were just the beginning for this online food retailer

MuscleFood
Healthy eating brand Muscle Food launched in 2013

Business Advice caught up with Steven Curran, chief operating officer at online food retailer Muscle Food, to find out how to successfully juggle relationships with multiple national supermarkets whilst maintaining steady growth for your new business.

With listings in Sainsbury’s, Spar and Co-op, and talks underway with other major UK food retailers, it’s been an encouraging first few years in business for healthy eating brand Muscle Food.

Since launching four years ago, the Nottingham-based online food retailer has surpassed £100m in turnover – selling around 53,000 items every day to a wide range of customers, from gym bunnies to health-conscious families.

The unique niche the brand has carved out for itself – selling a combination of lean meat products, high protein foods and healthy ready meals – has made Muscle Food a fast-growing online food retailer.

Having already expanded its footprint to France, Germany and the Netherlands, the brand now has its sights set further afield, with plans to be on shelves in supermarkets in Austria, Spain, Poland and Iceland by the end of 2018.

But what’s been the secret to the company’s fast growth when there’s so many competitor brands to contend with? According to Steven Curran, Muscle Food’s chief operating officer, it’s all about having the tenacity to try something new.

Speaking with Business Advice, he said: “The most innovative products that will be on [supermarket] shelves in three years’ time probably aren’t even thought of yet, so don’t be scared to try something different.”

The Protein Pizza became an instant hit with shoppers
The Protein Pizza became an instant hit with shoppers

The innovative product that catapulted Muscle Foods to international success was its low-fat Protein Pizza. First stocked in Sainsbury’s in 2015, the product proved immediately popular with shoppers, and some 600,000 units having been sold in the UK to date.

On the back of the Protein Pizza’s success, the online food retailer created a range of other healthy, protein-based alternatives to people’s favourite junk foods.

“We’ve launched protein beer, low fat, high protein chocolate, our hazelnut spread ‘Prutella’ and various other unique products,” added Curran.

Each retailer has its own challenges, needs and desires

For smaller producers, it can be hard enough meeting the demands of a supply agreement with just one national retailer, let alone a handful.

Curran explained that when Muscle Foods began supplying multiple national retailers at the same time, his strategy was to hone in on the specific need each retailer had for its products, then focus on fulfilling that need. That way, Curran said, Muscle Foods gave itself a better chance of keeping all of its clients happy.

He told Business Advice: “For example, since launching our high protein pot meals and pizzas into [Irish supermarket chain] Musgraves, we have been able to turn around the retailer’s overall decline in the frozen category into year-on-year growth!

“Our approach has changed based on the individual needs of each retailer. Each retailer has its own challenges, needs and desires, and being able to partner with a high street retailer based on fulfilling one or all of these is our aim.”

Understanding the specific needs of a retailer requires a firm knowledge of each one’s processes, from how they select new products to the logistics of their supply chains.

Curran added: “The most important lesson is that every retailer has its own way of operating. It’s vitally important to understand the process thoroughly before committing to an initial order.

“Empty shelfs, unplanned deliveries and a quick succession of follow up orders can quickly catch you out, so be prepared. If the [retail] partnership works, get ready to turn up the volume control!”

Scaling up

Having secured supplier relationships with a growing number of major retailers, and with a firm foothold in several European markets, the next task facing Curran and Muscle Foods was to expand the business.

Scaling up is a phase many small companies struggle with. But, for Muscle Foods, having a proven track record of being able to cope with high growth levels in the company’s first three years made the firm attractive to private investors.

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Following a £50m valuation at the end of last year, at the start of 2018 Muscle Foods secured a £10m investment from BGF – an eight-year old investor that’s funded some 200 small UK businesses, including the likes of gym chain Xercise4Less and Trunki suitcases, to the tune of £1.3bn.

Curran emphasised how much of a milestone the deal represented for the online food retailer. “It will allow us to scale faster and wider than ever before,” he said.

“We will aggressively up-weight our operations across Europe and invest heavily in improving our customer journey and IT infrastructure, as well as continuing to increase our operations in the UK.”

Muscle Foods is an excellent example of what a small UK food supplier can achieve in just a few years. By taking the time to understand its place in the market, and the purpose its products served for each of its retailers, the business has achieved far more than its chief operating officer could have imagined.

“We’ve only just started,” Curran added. If we can build a £50m company in four years that has changed so many people’s lives using food, then I can’t wait to see what we can do in another four years.”

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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