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The Name: Cook

The Place: 65 stores dotted around the country and its products stocked in lots of farm shops

The Story: Here’s a tip – don’t call co-founder Edward Perry’s headquarters in Kent a factory. He won’t like it. The place where his top of the range frozen meals are produced is a kitchen and that’s all there is to it. This business is pretty much unique in producing and retailing its own stuff – a perfectly vertically integrated model. They produce 80% of everything they sell, the remaining 20% being from other specialist producers.


Edward Perry
And where did it all begin? Back in 1996 he and chef Dale Penfold thought that it was a good idea to open a business selling ‘home made’ quality ready meals on a large scale and haven’t they been proved right because now, 16 odd years later, Cook is poised for greatness (sales up 20% in the first half of this year alone) and they have barely tapped into the great opportunity that is home delivery.  150 people now work in Cook’s kitchen and, rather like Burts chips, they all sign their dishes off individually.

Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t there still an impression that frozen food is a bit, you know, infra dig? You’re so out of touch. This is the upper end of the market, these customers had mothers (like Perry’s) who cooked their own very good food from scratch in large quantities and then froze it in portions. The assumption is that this is food to be substituted for their own home made when they don’t have time to cook – the same quality is a given. It’s not a hundred party snacks for a fiver.

OK, OK. Now let’s get to the nub of this straight away. How many people are passing this food off as their own? Oh you are mean. Well, quite a few actually. Perry talks of a steady flow of letters asking for recipes from people who have cheated at a dinner party. He estimates 60% of purchases are for everyday use and the remainder for entertaining.

I’m getting the impression we have a high-end quality of customer here?Indeed. They split into two – the 30-40 year old mothers with families and the 55+ age group. Both of which have high disposable incomes, although Perry feels that his prices compare favourably with any luxury supermarket range.

Talking of supermarkets any chance of a listing? Absolutely none. The executives at Cook have been beating them off with a blunt stick for years and most have now got the message. As Mr P says he wants to own the relationship with the customer himself and ‘is not interested in being told how to sell his product by a 25 year old store manager’. Having said that he is very interested in what the supermarkets are doing as his only real competitors are the premium frozen meal ranges at Waitrose, M&S and Sainsbury’s. If you are determined to buy Cook products outside their own shops then try a farm shop. 20% of their turnover is wholesale and the farm shops love them because they are an independent.

Quite. Dare I ask about producing own label food for other retailers? The same applies. And the answer is no. And whilst we’re on the subject the same goes for external investment. The business is committed to staying private and family owned so it can govern its own pace of expansion. As Perry says manufacturing can only be ramped-up at a sensible pace otherwise the quality will be lost.

Well, it’s good to have that sorted out. What are the growth plans in that case? Cook intend to open eight stores per year of which five will be company owned and three franchised. Currently out of 65 stores 32 are franchised, and Cook run all the outlets in the south east where geographically it makes sense for them to have control. There has not been much representation within the M25 but that is all about to change with the arrival of a concept store.


Cook in Muswell Hill
Where? Leafy Muswell Hill, N10.  The shop has an urban feel to it in terms of lighting and décor, it’s on a very prime corner site and most importantly is catering for those who only want to purchase one or two items.

Is that different from the norm? Absolutely. The other shops have been in secondary sites because buying frozen ready meals is just not a spontaneous purchase. It is a planned trip with people spending around £20 on a visit to fill a freezer drawer. If Muswell Hill works then it’s the ticket in to affluent professionals buying dinner on the way home. Kerrching.

So, enlighten me as to the best sellers? Perry says he is often asked what are the summer favourites to which he answers lasagne, fish pie and beef bourguignon. And in winter? Err lasagne, fish pie and beef bourguignon. Still, Cook soldiers on developing new ranges all the time. Brit Pot is one of the latest (kedgeree; fish and chips; beef, tatties & neeps) and January 2013 heralds the new lunchpot range which can all be microwaved from frozen in about five minutes.

  

It’s all go isn’t it? Yup. And let me tell you about home delivery because they are all excited about this one. At the moment it’s 7% of their turnover but there is a very high minimum order level (£70) and it comes in a box delivered by a major carrier. Cook customers are good middle class citizens – lots of excess packaging is a no-no, uninformed van man is a no-no. So a new delivery model is being trialled where a van is attached to a specific shop’s delivery area, hopefully this brings down packaging and minimum order level plus a friendly Cook employee can answer any questions at the door.  Hurrah. The future looks rosy. Perry predicts turnover of around £31 million this year and they have just made some serious director level appointments. As he says ‘we’re going to grow quickly over the next 3-4 years and this is part of growing up’.

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