Despite being one the UK’s biggest names in frozen meals (see: 1,600 employees, 90 shops, and 900 concession retailers), COOK has taken a humble road to the top.
And it’s paid off.
Having filled the freezers of middle Britain for 25 years, sibling owners Rosie Brown and Ed Perry continue to operate independently, refusing to do business with the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets, and have turned over £100 million ($111 million) in annual sales regardless.
Quite a feat, considering neither sibling had planned on working in the food business.
Their parents owned two coffee shops (which the pair worked in as teenagers) and a bakery, but didn’t always have time to cook dinner for the family in the evening.
To best navigate this, their mom batch-cooked meals so they always had healthy, nutritious food on hand in the freezer. A personal treat which, after four years as a travelling salesman for the bakery, Ed started to see professional potential in.
“Everything goes back to our parents–and not just because of the DNA,” says Rosie. “Ed figured there must be lots of other people who wanted the same solution, so he left the family business and started COOK.”
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With friend and chef Dale Penfold enlisted as a co-founder, Ed started to think about how the business model might work, but there was no clear path to success.
This was 1997 after all. A time when most of the ‘meals’ found in grocery store freezers boasted more chemicals than foodstuffs on their ingredient lists.
“Calling what we wrote a ‘business plan’ would be generous!” Ed admits. “But it was enough to persuade the bank to loan us £22k and our parents to put in £8k.
“While we didn’t have much of a plan we knew we wanted to be vertically integrated: both making food and selling it through our own shops, not the supermarkets. We were clear it was all about home cooking for the freezer.”
In the words of their founding statement, they wanted customers ‘to COOK using the same ingredients and techniques that a good cook would use at home, so everything looks and tastes homemade’.
“We were naïve but we knew we were operating in a big market and were ambitious for what might be possible. We still are!”
Unfulfilled working in an investment bank, Rosie would join the business three years later, believing the opportunity to help build a food company with a positive impact on the world was just too good to miss.
And, from there on out, the business has averaged 10 percent growth each year.
Still, making their own food in-house does come with its own challenges. They’ve had to grow a manufacturing arm at the same pace as their sales, without ever compromising on quality.
“It means we have to be mindful about not being too aggressive with growth. People make our food, not machines. As we grow, we need to be able to recruit and train people who will cook with love and care.”
There are currently 700 people working in the business’ three kitchens, and 1,600 across COOK altogether.
“We succeed and grow because they do remarkable work,” she says. “If our growth outpaces our ability to find great people, we’ll have killed the golden goose.”
Fearing external investment would put additional and unsustainable targets on growth, they remain privately-owned and happy to take things slow and steady.
“It means we won’t compromise our culture, our quality and our positive impact on society. That might not sound sexy from a venture capital perspective, and that’s absolutely fine by us.”
Without too many cooks in the kitchen, the founders have learned to take a number of careful yet considered risks.
“Our first three shops had been small spaces, set up on shoestring budgets,” says Rosie, “but with Sevenoaks we decided to go for it.”
The Kent-based shop became available in 2001, almost fifteen years since COOK first launched, which seemed like the perfect time to take a calculated risk.
“We took a big space and spent five times our usual shop-fit budget,” she continues. “But the first week we took £10k in sales—as much as the other shops put together. It was the moment we knew what might be possible.”
And they haven’t stopped there. As well as opening in many more cities, they’ve expanded COOK’s product range into new categories (including a super-innovative vegan range), created extravagant pre-prepared dishes that serve one-to-twelve people, and launched a number of restaurant-worthy holiday specials (like their high-welfare ‘Celebration Crown’ of turkey with six duck breasts rolled inside, stuffed with spiced apricot, ginger and Speldhurst butchers sausage meat).
Not that it’s been easy. Having survived a number of financial and food industry crises during the business’ 25-year tenure, they’ve learned many difficult lessons.
“We almost went bust in the 2008 financial crisis,” Rosie admits. “We had borrowed too much money, grown too fast and been completely caught out when the crash came and sales fell off a cliff. We were on our knees.”
Tempted to finally accept external investment, they considered their options but soon realized the short-term bailout would tarnish their long-term values.
“We survived by growing our concessions and franchise shops—which didn’t need as much capital as shops—and by becoming truly expert at managing cash.
“Our cashflow forecast was called The Wiggly Line. It was sacred and we worshipped at its altar. It’s a skill that has served us very well since.”
These days, those lessons learned are not only keeping the business stable but allowing the founders to invest in important initiatives.
“We’ve had nearly 150 people come through our RAW Talent Scheme—which supports people into meaningful work after prison, homelessness or mental health challenges— and seen how a good job can change lives. Not just for the people we employ, but their extended families and, by implication, society as a whole.”
This summer, the scheme was recognised with a Queen’s Award for Enterprise.
Though these initiatives come at a cost, they’re also committed to becoming a net zero company by 2030.
“Getting there won’t be cheap. Given how inflation has hit food prices we could be looking to save money by changing the quality or provenance of our ingredients, but that’s something we refuse to do.”
Instead, they’re investing in long-term relationships with great farmers and suppliers.
“Neither of us will be any happier if our sales double, or even reach £500 million or £1 billion,” says Rosie.
“Growth for its own sake isn’t what motivates us. What matters is demonstrating we can run a commercially successful business that has a positive impact on people and planet.”