Niche food producer Pure Organics has built a strong presence in the UK in just 11 years by focusing on children’s organic convenience foods, most recently gaining a major contract with Asda for chilled ready meals. Kicking off just-food’s new Just the Answer interview series, Katy Humphries spoke with Pure Organics co-founder Pauline Stiles about the company’s vision and strategy.

J-F: What prompted you and your husband to establish Pure Organics?

Stiles: We set up in 1996. Our daughter Georgia had been diagnosed as autistic and our doctor suggested that we take all the additives out of her diet. But when I looked at the ingredients labels it became clear that just about everything aimed at children that was remotely convenient, was full of additives. The whole focus seemed to be on marketing, on gimmicks, on having dinosaur shapes and Fred Flintstone, and on producing something at 99p a bag.

It hit me very hard that there was no choice, that this was being dictated to us by manufacturers and suppliers. If we wanted something convenient for children there was not the option of something that wasn’t compromising them. Everything had MSG and artificial colours and flavourings in.

I thought, if this is the way the industry is going I can either be a victim of it or I can turn it a different way. I thought Georgia is here to teach us something. Looking at her needs – the need to find a balance – that’s really how it all started.

J-F: Was it at this time that you decided to produce an organic option?

Stiles: When I started looking at what went into food, the other thing that became quite clear to me is that there are a lot of things that aren’t labelled. Just because it is not classed as an ingredient it doesn’t get labelled, so if food is being grown with a lot of pesticides and phosphates it gets into your food without you realising. Because of this, to my mind it was quite clear that the way to go was organic.

J-F: But you also produce free-from foods?

Stiles: We have two companies: Pure Organics Ltd and Additive Free Ltd, which was set up later.

When we were putting together an organic menu for one of the big breweries we found that a lot of people didn’t understand what organic food is, but they did understand what additive-free food is. The brewery asked us if we could make the same products but use conventional meat, which is what we’ve done, in order to produce a line of free-from foods.

The difference between the two is that Pure Organics doesn’t contain the unlisted chemicals that are used in production (of non-organic produce).

J-F: How did you come to target the children’s market?

Stiles: We decided to focus on children’s food because there is a massive gap. You have fantastic baby foods now, so it’s easy to feed the little ones. But as they become toddlers and older there is still very little choice.

Our first products were called a pork hula and a beef hula. We literally made a burger with a hole in the middle, which sounds crazy but it was actually very popular. We eventually got a lot of support from Iceland who took those first products on. From there we started making burgers, sausages and chicken nuggets.

Everything we made was organic, gluten-free and dairy-free. We made it with reduced salt because we didn’t see the point in adding salt and we were automatically doing it as a lower fat content because we were using good meat.

From the outset, we had a lot of people saying: “You’re barking up the wrong tree. Organics are for 20-somethings with disposable incomes.” We took the view that the people who really need organic food are young children growing up.

J-F: So how does price fit into your product concept?

Stiles: We are making good honest products at a very sensible price. There is a price difference but with conventional products there are a lot of hidden costs in terms of health, the environment and animal welfare.

People often use premium like it’s a dirty word, like companies are sticking on an extra bit of profit margin. For us it’s quite the opposite. I would say we take much less margin than most manufacturers.

Our mission was to make organic food available to the majority and we have kept true to that purpose. It doesn’t have to be about spending all of your income on organic food, but it is about choice and perhaps re-evaluating your priorities.

J-F: What are your primary routes to market?

Stiles: Our business is divided fairly evenly between foodservice and retail customers. We do frozen organic for Tesco, and we do a lot of free-from products for Sainsbury’s. We have just launched some chilled ready meals with Asda.

J-F: What is the size of the Asda roll-out?

Stiles: We’ve rolled out five of their own-label ready meals under the Great Stuff Organics brand. We have three more varieties launching at the end of August and then some more towards Christmas.

For Asda, it is probably quite scary going for a smaller supplier who doesn’t have a track record in chilled ready meals. But they have put their faith in us, given us support, given us guidance, and we have delivered. Now we are looking at what else we can do with them, what other products we can develop for them.

J-F: Has the launch been supported by promotional activity?

Stiles: Asda has supported the launch. We aren’t in the position to do so. To make the meals at the price that we are we simply don’t have the excess padding for promotional activity. But Asda believe in the concept very much, and as they grow the range I’m sure they’ll be 100% behind it.

J-F: What has the initial consumer response been?

Stiles: It’s been absolutely brilliant. The meals hit the shelves on the weekend of the 20 April and we haven’t had any complaints so far, touch wood.

J-F: How do you see the business moving forward?

Stiles: Very clearly, we do have a vision for the future. We want to develop more along the lines of the fresh meals. We think this is a really important way of moving forward.

Our business is vertically integrated so we can develop products according to the ingredients we’ve got. For example, we don’t buy in bacon, we make our own. At the moment we are looking at doing a lot more in soups because, say, where we are cutting ham we have the off-cuts. It makes sense to use all the ingredients and turn them into a pea and ham soup.

We want to increase our vertical integration because that’s our secret to being able to keep our prices competitive, because we are reducing the links in the chain.