Little Dish, the children’s food firm founded by Hillary Graves in her home kitchen in 2006, now reaches 200,000 youngsters every week. Husband Dean Brown joined in 2014, helping to drive turnover to £12m. They share their recipe for growth…
Hillary Graves The first time I met Dean, I tried to set him up with another woman. It was 2000 and I’d just moved to London – I’m from New York – to establish a UK office for the website iVillage. We had a meeting with Tesco.com, where Dean was working. His boss said, “This is Dean, he’s newly single.” I said, “iVillage has a cute receptionist – we should set them up!”
Dean Brown Then she did. Fortunately, nothing happened. However, I got to know Hillary more. Three years later, we married.
Hillary Graves I left my job at Yahoo to start consulting various companies, including a baby-foods business. It was extraordinary that children’s food was mostly long-life that could sit on shelves for two years. At the same time, there was a growing consciousness about nutrition thanks to reports about childhood obesity.
Dean Brown When Hillary told me her idea, I saw the opportunity instantly. She then developed the business plan, working with John Stapleton, co-founder of the New Covent Garden Soup Company.
Hillary Graves Little Dish was launched from our home in London, developing recipes in the kitchen. We funded ourselves through friends and family, raising £400,000. We employed nutritionists from the start.
Dean Brown I was working as strategy director at Waitrose, but always behind the scenes, helping with modelling and finances.
Hillary Graves This is a label-driven category, so we knew we needed to differentiate – we created characters for the brand [a range of animals]… Our first pitch was at Waitrose in June 2005, who responded to the fact Little Dish was something that could jump out on shelves to get mothers interested. By April 2006, our healthy kids’ meals were stocked in 20 Waitrose stores.
Dean Brown The difficulty was getting parents to find it. We would drive around these Waitroses at weekends, visiting nurseries across the road from the supermarkets, handing out vouchers.
Hillary Graves After [first child] Monty was born in December 2006, I started weaning him on Little Dish’s chicken butternut squash. He became our first chief taster. Today, some of our best-selling recipes are those approved by Monty and younger brother Ridley – we have a team of ‘Tiny Tasters’.
Dean Brown Was it tough launching a business while raising a baby? No, it was great. If you don’t take on the challenge because it’s safer to work for ‘The Man’, who’d do anything?
Hillary Graves In those early days before social media, we had a community marketing team. We’d also have mums – with a young child or on maternity leave – asking to work for us. We developed a programme where mothers could work for a few hours a week as ‘brand ambassadors’, which translated online.
Dean Brown By the end of 2007, we were in 50 stores. Within two years, we were in 200 and had passed £1m in turnover. It can be a white-knuckle ride dealing with supermarkets but if you stay true to your mission, eventually you’ll find someone who believes in you.
Hillary Graves Although many retailers believe they have a social responsibility, you occasionally meet some who aren’t interested. We even had one person say to us, ‘We don’t care about nutrition.’
Dean Brown Another challenge is that chilled children’s food was an entirely new category. If you build a category from scratch, you’re not only battling for shelf-space but also mind-space of shoppers so they know where to find it. When mums buy stuff for their kids, they head to the baby aisle. But letting them know there’s nutritionally superior food elsewhere in the supermarket [some Little Dish products are in refrigerators] is difficult.
Hillary Graves By 2014, I wanted to recruit a managing director to strengthen the team. I asked Dean. He’d been working in private equity [for Terra Firma].
Dean Brown We always said we’d be a good team if we weren’t married. Hillary is the inspiration, the reason why staff get up in the morning and believe what they do. As for me? I’m numerate.
Hillary Graves: I’m brand guardian. Before Dean officially joined, he was always helping in the background and providing lots of value. When he was finally part of the team, it was amazing how the business was run more efficiently. When he joined, our turnover was £6m. Two years on, it’s £12m.
Dean Brown My only regret is that I didn’t join this company sooner.
Little Dish: Vital stats
Business Little Dish
Staff 14 (12 permanent, two part-time)
Who Hillary Graves
Career Vice-president, marketing, iVillage; head of marketing, Yahoo; freelance consultant
Who Dean Brown
Career Consultant, OC&C Strategy Consultants; commercial, marketing and business development roles, Tesco; head of growth/head of strategy and financial planning, Waitrose; business director, Terra Firma
Did you know? Among the awards won by Little Dish to date is a World Food Innovation Award in 2016 for ‘Best New Children’s Food’. Entries came from 25 countries.
To find out more about Little Dish visit littledish.co.uk
Hillary Graves and Dean Brown are members of IoD London