Five game-changing women in food and drink
The stats are arresting: in the UK food and grocery retail industry, only around a third of board leaders, and just under a quarter of executive leaders, are women (according to a 100Projects report released last summer). And yet, as the report points out, this is an industry that serves almost all of the UK’s 27.8 million households – so it would be a reasonable expectation for the industry’s leadership to reflect the nation a little more equitably.
So as Women’s History Month comes to a close, Jenny McIvor, food director on the Tesco account here at Cedar, shines the spotlight on some of the women who have tenaciously carved out a successful space for themselves within the food and drink scene. Each of them is addressing some of the most pressing issues that the field is facing – from tech and cultural shifts to ethical and environmental concerns – and leading with both entrepreneurial spirit and huge innovation.
LYNETTE KUCSMA: NATURAL MACHINES
- ‘Can I print that?’ That’s the question Lynette Kucsma often finds herself asking herself when checking out food products in a supermarket aisle or dishes on a restaurant menu. The answer, very frequently, is ‘yes’.
- She’s the co-founder and CMO of Natural Machines, a company that’s leading the way in fusing internet-of-things tech with AI to create fully customised, 3D printed food.
- Their core product is Foodini, a 3D food-printing kitchen appliance, not much bigger than a microwave, that can create on-demand bespoke products and dishes – from sweet to savoury, and from snack to full meal.
- It's already proving its worth in commercial food production, and the company projects that within 10 to 15 years 3D printers will become common pieces of kit in even domestic kitchens.
- Key to Foodini is the vast personalisation that it offers – users can work with whatever fresh, unprocessed ingredients they fancy, making it easy to create dishes around different tastes, dietary needs, health preferences or food intolerances.
- It will also help home cooks swerve the barriers – whether that’s a time or a skills deficit – that often get in the way of cooking healthily and with more variety.
- Reducing food waste is another benefit – users print only what they need, and can use ingredients that would otherwise go to waste (as Michelin-starred zero waste Barcelona restaurant Cocina Hermanos Torres does in its kitchens).
- And the tech can be applied to readymade goods, too – Greek supermarket Metro is using it to allow customers to personalise a range of standard chocolate lines. That’s the kind of instore theatre and customisation that will be key in encouraging a return to bricks and mortar stores once the pandemic is sufficiently under control.
- In fact, you’ve possibly already eaten a Foodini creation without realising; the tech is now being used across a huge array of sectors, including restaurants, food service providers, food manufacturers, education institutes, as well as nutrition and health companies.
- And this is only the start. ‘We see Dyson, and the way it has diversified its tech across varied products, as our model,’ says Lynette. ‘Foodini is just the first step on the way.’
ASMA KHAN: DARJEELING EXPRESS
- If there were a ‘high achiever’ blueprint, Asma Khan might well be it: chef/proprietor of Darjeeling Express, one of the hottest tickets on the British dining scene; charity founder; number one on Business Insider’s global list of the 100 coolest people in food and drink; oh, and she’s also got a PhD in British Constitutional Law from King’s College London in the bag.
- But food wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the mix. Asma didn’t learn to cook growing up and it was only when suffering from homesickness, having moved to the UK from Calcutta, that she found herself longing for the home-style food of her childhood, and realised she’d have to learn how to make it herself. On her next trip back home, she started.
- In time, a supper club followed, then a pop-up in a Soho pub before, in 2017, Darjeeling Express opened, with huge success, at its own site off Carnaby Street. During the pandemic, the restaurant moved to Covent Garden, whereupon its signature biryani promptly became one of lockdown three’s most lusted-after home deliveries.
- From the start, Darjeeling Express has been about celebrating female cooking talent – the kitchen brigade is entirely made up of women and, intentionally, none is professionally trained. ‘We cook intuitively,’ says Asma, and that’s reflected in the home-style dishes, with influences from Darjeeling and Mumbai to Nepal that channel the varied heritage of the women in her kitchen.
- But while Darjeeling Express’s food might be rooted in the home, it’s also hugely layered and complex, which is what seduced the team behind Netflix’s influential, Emmy-winning Chef’s Table – in 2019 Asma became the first UK-based chef to be featured.
- Asma’s commitment to supporting women was also behind her launch of the Second Daughters Fund, a charity dedicated to fighting the belief in traditional India that daughters are not as precious as sons; a proportion of the profits from Darjeeling Express is directed to the fund every year.
- The diary for the next 12 months looks typically intense, with plans to use the restaurant as a space for mentoring new female leaders from minority backgrounds in the industry. And, after the success of her award-winning first cookbook, Asma’s now working on her follow-up, due out in 2022. Ammu: Food to nourish your soul, from a life of cooking, is a tribute to another notable woman: Asma’s mum, ‘who taught me how to cook and how to use food to nourish the soul.’
LAURA WILLOUGHBY: CLUB SODA
- ‘I’m a dickhead with booze’ – that’s Laura Willoughby’s disarmingly frank assessment of her relationship with alcohol.
- And it was the experiences she had when she decided to stop drinking – from the difficulty of making such a lifestyle change solo, to the poor choice of soft drinks available – that prompted her to set up Club Soda in 2015.
- The vision Laura had was a kind of Weight Watchers for booze: creating a community not only for those who wanted to stop drinking, but for anyone who would like to take control of their drinking in the way that suits them – whether it’s to cut down, stop for a while, or quit full stop.
- A mindful approach to drinking is increasingly mainstream now, resonating most powerfully with more health-conscious millennial and Gen Z consumers. But at the time of Club Soda’s launch it was genuinely pioneering – and the organisation has been part of moving it towards the mainstream.
- As well as helping people find the places and products that will help them change their drinking (its directories of good no/low pubs and restaurants, as well as no/low products, are exhaustive), Club Soda also holds the industry (both on and off trade) to account, lobbying for non-drinkers to be treated more equitably. That might mean relocating no/low options to more visible places behind the bar; training staff on providing a better service to non-drinkers; and equalising retail offers by balancing money-off deals on booze with the equivalent on a low/no product.
- In 2017 Club Soda brought its vision to life in a new way, with the launch of its Mindful Drinking Festival. ‘It was a bit like throwing a party and not being sure if anyone would turn up,’ remembers Laura. But turn up they did, and the festival became annual. In 2020 it went virtual and, in the process, global, with attendees from across Europe, the US and Australia.
- Laura’s intention for Club Soda was always to change the narrative around drinking. Now that purpose has moved on to its next stage: advising organisations on positively shifting the drinking culture of their workplaces or professions. ‘Club Soda is a social impact business – we want to help create a world where nobody feels out of place if they’re not drinking alcohol.’ Cheers to that.
RUBY RADWAN: WILLOWBROOK FARM
- ‘Farming textbooks make everything look so straightforward’, Ruby Radwan laughs. ‘But when you don’t come from that world, no matter how much research you’ve done, at the start you’ll get it wrong. We made so many mistakes.’
- 19 years ago, she and her husband, Lutfi, quit their jobs (hers as a teacher and alternative therapist, his as an academic), sold their house and, in search of a closer relationship with nature for themselves and their five children, they bought 45 acres of land – two large fields, one hedgerow – outside Oxford.
- It was a steep learning curve. For the first year they lived in a condemned mobile home on the plot while they built a new, eco-friendly house themselves, and began the painstaking work of reinstating hedgerows and planting fruit and deciduous trees (over 5,000 and counting) to create Willowbrook, the UK’s first halal and tayyib (meaning pure or wholesome in Arabic) farm.
- These principles mean responsible stewardship of the land, with a holistic approach focused on sustainability and biodiversity, and very high welfare standards for their livestock (the farm is now home to hens and sheep).
- At first they were farming just for themselves but, little by little, they started to diversify. Now Willowbrook, while remaining a working farm at its core, also has a campsite, an annual arts and music festival and a small shop and café, as well as running courses and a volunteer programme. Alongside that, Ruby has also co-founded two local farmers’ markets, Wolvercote and East Oxford.
- Showing people without a farming background that a life in farming is possible is a large part of the motivation for the regular weekly tours Willowbrook Farm also offers (pandemic allowing). ‘It’s important to us that we’re transparent about what we do here, and the tours help us do that,’ says Ruby. ‘We want to show people who may not have considered farming or thought it was an option for them – including those from ethnic minorities – what’s involved and what’s possible.’
- This year there are more plans in store, closing the gap even further on the farm’s energy self-sufficiency with the introduction of more solar panels, and developing a sensory garden to help autistic children connect with nature. ‘There’s still so much we want to do. “What’s next?” is something we discuss on a weekly basis.’
METTE LYKKE: TOO GOOD TO GO
- Danish entrepreneur Mette Lykke has form as a tech pioneer – in 2015 she and her two business partners sold their fitness tracking app Endomondo to Under Armour for a cool $85 million.
- But it was a chance bus journey the following year that proved pivotal in directing the next stage of her career; a fellow passenger she was chatting to showed her a new food waste app, Too Good To Go, aimed at selling leftover restaurant and shop food to consumers at a discounted price.
- It was a Damascene moment. Realising the app’s potential, and starting to grasp the scale of the problem it was trying to tackle, Mette invested in the business and, soon after, joined as CEO, bringing with her the start-up and scale-up expertise she’d gained at Endomondo.
- For 2021 Mette has big ambitions, setting a goal of almost tripling the number of UK meals TGTG saves from being binned from 3.2 million to 8.7 million.
- The value for money TGTG offers has been key to its success – each of its ‘Magic Bags’ contains food worth three times the price charged. And the unpredictability of the contents means there’s a fun element, too – one that’s perfectly aligned with the emerging trend of leftovers cooking as an enjoyably creative challenge not just a pragmatic necessity.
- For partner businesses the benefits are many – 2019 research showed that 80% of Magic Bag customers made special trips to stores to buy them, on top of their usual visits. And it’s also proved a powerful way to highlight both value and environmental relevance to those stores’ customers, against competing retailers.
- As price sensitivity and food waste become behaviour drivers for more and more consumers, the type of customers TGTG is attracting is becoming increasingly diverse – from budget-savvy young shoppers, to environmentally aware young families and, significantly, over-50s women.
- TGTG currently has 18 million users and gains a further 45,000 every day – but Mette’s not done yet: ‘This is just the beginning… Within the next five years, we want to have saved a billion meals.'