Childhood friends Andrew Watmuff and Michael Beckett have come a long way since founding their soups and risottos ready meal business together ten years ago. With Michael's background as a chef working in Michelin-starred restaurants, and Andrew's background in retail and farming, their passion for food and produce is evident in their delicious ready-meals that use quality produce sourced from British farms. Their passion has taken them from developing recipes at home in their kitchen, to having their products stocked on shelves nationwide, and recently a successful visit to the Dragons' Den. Co-founder Andrew Beckett talks to us about their roots, growth, and what it's really like stepping out of that elevator into the den.
What inspired the idea of your soups and risottos business?
Michael and I have been friends since school, and growing up together we had always dreamed and talked about setting up a business together one day. Five years ago we were in the kitchen making soup together, and came up with the idea of making ready meals that used quality produce sourced from British farms. We wanted to create a farmers market style high-quality ready meal that was easy and quick to heat up, but also easily accessible and relatively inexpensive.
What were you both doing before setting up Watmuff & Beckett?
Michael left school at 16 to go to catering college, and trained as a chef before working for a Michelin-starred restaurant in Putney. Although my passion was in farming, I studied retail at university and went on to work as a clothing buyer. I learned a lot from my retail years, but my greatest passion is still farming.
When did you set up the company, and how has it evolved over the years?
We came up with the idea and founded the company back in 2007, ten years ago! It then took us three years to perfect the recipes, and to build the confidence to package it and sell it to others. We got through a lot of batches of soup to get there.
What were your challenges in developing the recipes?
We found that risotto is a tricky product to make as a ready meal. A lot are made with frozen rice, a white béchamel sauce and then a topping, but Michael has always said that risotto should never be like a pizza – with the topping and flavour of top – instead, the risotto needs to act as a sponge to fully absorb all the flavours. Our way of cooking the risotto is very specific, and we have strict cooking times in order to have it at the perfect consistency for re-heating. We cook our risotto the way you would at home, combining quality Carnaroli rice with fresh ingredients, allowing the rice to soften whilst aborsorbing all the juices and flavours.
Do you have a personal favourite soup or risotto?
Of course! My favourite is the Perfect Pea and Fresh Mint soup, and Michael's is the Chorizo & Butternut Squash Risotto.
You recently went on Dragon's Den, which aired on Sunday. What did it feel like stepping out of that lift?
It was genuinely the most nerve-wrecking thing I've ever done. It was almost an out-of-body experience. The lift doors seemed to take an age to open, and then walking out of the elevator was very surreal; the room looks exactly as it does on television, with the same lighting and the same famous faces – it's so surreal, it's as though you're watching the moment on TV, rather than in real life.
What was it like delivering your presentation in front of the dragons?
I had prepared and rehearsed in advance, so had all my figures prepared and felt relatively confident. It was also more nerve wrecking as it was just me, without my business partner, so I was under quite some pressure having to deliver the presentation and answer all the questions on my own. I'm really looking forward to watching the episode, watching their reactions up close, and hearing people's feedback.
Where will you be watching the episode this Sunday?
From behind the sofa! No, I'll have friends and family round to support, but I'm very nervous about how it's going to be portrayed. When two hours of talking gets condensed into just ten minutes of footage, it's hard to know what bits they'll end up showing!
What was more challenging, convincing ASDA to stock your product, or the dragons to invest?
Pitching to retailers such as ASDA definitely helped to prepare me for my presentation in the Dragons' Den. The due diligence of a buyer and the dragons is very similar. But of course Dragons' Den is a much more pressured environment as you've got the added pressure of the cameras filming you! When I pitched to ASDA, our products were the 'star' of the show; retailers won't mind if you're nervous or sweaty, as long as the product tastes good, is high quality and the right price. It's a different story with the 'dragons', as you have to deliver a good performance as well.
Who was the most intimidating dragon?
Nick Jenkins – because of the number of questions he bombarded me with. It was just me in front of the whole panel, and Nick kept firing questions which was a little intimidating to say the least.
Which dragon were you hoping would invest?
We didn't have our hearts set on any one specific dragon. We found that each dragon had something relevant to bring to the table, whether it was a background in the food industry, a background in retail, or in Nick Jenkins' case a talent for branding and brand strategy.
What did the dragons think of your soups and risottos?
The soups and risottos went down really well, and Touker Suleyman especially loved our wild mushroom, lemon and thyme risotto – he said it was the best food he'd ever tasted in the den. Sarah Willingham responded and asked him "does that include the food businesses you invested in last year?", to which he dodged the question.
What concerns did the dragons have about your products, and were any interested in investing?
First, both Sarah Willingham and Peter Jones voiced concerns about our soup's shelf life – they thought it needed a higher shelf life (months as opposed to weeks or days), but their view didn't match with our philosophy of using only fresh ingredients. Touker Suleyman loved our products but didn't feel he could bring any additional value to the business. Deborah Meaden also loved the product but had a question about the branding.
Then there was just Nick Jenkins left. Nick had been the most interrogating with his questions, so I didn't have high hopes at all. I thought I would be going home empty handed, but to my surprise, Nick said "I'm going to make you an offer". His reasons were that the products tasted great, he loves that the business is local to him and his home, he also loved our back story and passion.
I'm really pleased with having Nick on board, as he'll be helping us a lot with our branding and marketing strategy.
How has life changed since your visit to Dragons' Den?
This actually all happened last summer, so I've been sat on this for a while! I signed a confidentiallity agreement so I've had to keep it all a secret for quite a while, and nothing has happened yet. But it hasn't slowed things down at all. In fact, ASDA has been a great backer of our business, and has been stocking our products since 2012. They've supported us right from the start with putting six of our products on their shelves, and our long-standing relationship has really helped our business thrive and grow over the past year.
What are you most proud of?
We are very proud to have the country's first Red Tractor approved soup! Our products are all sourced regionally, and our Perfect Pea and Fresh Mint Soup is the first soup to have ever been awarded a Red Tractor status, as all the ingredients come from UK farms.
Do you have any advice for anyone heading into the Dragon's Den?
Don't do it! Just kidding. Keep your passion in your product and in the presentation, as that will shine through.
Like the sound of Watmuff and Beckett products? Find out if they are stocked in your local Asda Store