16 June 2018, 10:49 AM
  • Tara Sundramoorthi, co-founder of Bread & Jam and founder of Hotcakes, highlights the new brands you need to know
10 start-ups to watch

Dreams are what start-ups are made of and they can hit you anywhere. Whether you’re sat in a suit in an office, having a lie-in in student halls in Scotland, trying to persuade your wife to become the world’s only “vegan salmon smoker” or meeting your boyfriend’s Mum who is an incredible cook, it takes just a split second before you’re hooked on a vision that just has to come true.

After launching Hotcakes, a distribution platform that helps retailers source hard to find, innovative products, I set out to find the most exciting brands of the moment. Quirky, tenacious and full of oomph, here are ten brands shaking up the shopping aisles with outstanding products that are flying off the shelves.

1. Cuzena

Shadia Al Hili is the first to admit how ironic it is that she rebelled against her parent’s desire to connect the family to her Arabic roots through their food and culture. Laughing now, she says, “Growing up I loved beans on toast and I used this to show them how equally important my British roots were to me!”. Yet in later years, friends were always asking her to make some of that delicious “Arabic stuff” and after wondering why they didn’t just buy it, she realised that it was an untapped part of the dip market. Shadia’s multicultural upbringing was the key to creating Cuzena – a British brand with a Middle Eastern identity.

Putting a modern twist on a 5,000-year-old recipe may seem daunting to many, but Shadia tackled it head on. “I’m planning to introduce lots of my favourite Middle Eastern dishes, but the first in the range had to be Madamous Fava Bean dips.” As the spicy Moroccan cousin of houmous, these dips are packed full of ancient Arabic flavours, while ticking the low fat, high protein, healthy wish list of the modern-day diet. In an effort to usurp houmous from its comfy go-to dip status, madamous hides a party trick which enables it to be served hot or cold depending on the dipping occasion.

Cuzena’s future is as bright as its packaging – Shadia plans to be “the first recognised brand of Arabic products and a major contributor in changing the way Britain currently buys dips.” The classic fava bean recipe loaded with aromatic spices will suit most tastes, but for those people who love punchier flavours, fiery chilli and caramelised onion will really hit the spot. While flatbreads or slices of your favourite, freshly toasted bread are perfect to dip and scoop, you can heap it onto a jacket potato or mix into your scrambled egg for a simple meal in minutes.


2. Made For Drink

You know you’re on to something good when Heston seems to think so. Dan Featherstone launched Made for Drink with a clear goal in mind: to create exceptional, never-seen-before snack products inspired by drinking cultures around the world. With Heston Blumenthal’s pub in Bray as his first customer and Rick Stein, Fortnum & Mason and Tom Kerridge in tow, Dan’s unique snacking range has gone from strength to strength, seeming to catch the eye of every celebrity chef he passes. It’s hard to pick a favourite from his award-winning duo: chorizo thins made from Chorizo Picante using Duroc pork shoulder and belly, hot paprika de la Vera, salt and garlic, and duck fritons made from Creedy Carver free-range duck skin and natural sea salt.

Dan recalls how nervous he was about delivering his first order, stopping off at his neighbours’ house for a thumbs up taste test before heading out to Heston’s – a superstition that has continued with the subsequent launch of his products, as just two days later he received a repeat order because they had sold out.

Dan began writing down his ideas for the business in 2014 while working for PepsiCo and began working on the project in earnest in 2016, starting up production in a village hall in Waltham St Lawrence before he was joined by a business partner in 2017. Dan realises the importance of being part of a team and giving things a go, attributing the success of his brand to getting incredibly skilled people involved in sharing his vision and fulfilling it. Now a team of four with a 2,000sq ft purpose-built kitchen in Maidenhead, Made for Drink continues to innovate at speed with their latest additions: Mangalitza Salami Chips and their first seasonal SKU – Patacones, Colombian beer snacks made from plantain.

3. Dona Rita

What do you do when you find out your Brazilian boyfriend’s mum has spent 15 years mastering the art of hand-rolling cheesy puffs of perfection? Team up with her to launch a food business, of course.

Dona Rita launched last year after Clara Tudela persuaded her boyfriend, Pedro, and his mother, Rita, to produce the most sought-after Brazilian snack in London. After sell-out success (in the form of 22,000 cheese balls) at market stalls, their newly-launched frozen bake-at-home packs for retail are storming through the capital.

From a digital design background, founder Tudela is a firm advocate of applying the tech start-up approach to running a successful food business – by not doing any planning at all. “You should work on your product for a very short period of time and launch it quickly, get customer feedback, iterate, and make it better. That way you move fast and make real progress rather than locking yourself up doing research for months. The idea is that if you are not slightly embarrassed of the product you’re launching, you’ve already spent too much time working on it!”

Dona Rita’s hand-rolled, traditional Brazilian cheese puffs are certainly nothing to be embarrassed about, and Tudela’s experience in design shines through Dona Rita’s stand-out, clean packaging. Light and fluffy, crunchy on the outside and cloud-like on the inside, they are gluten-free, vegetarian and deliciously moreish. Each bag contains 15 balls that are baked from frozen. Made from cassava flour and fresh cheese, these authentic Pão de Queijo are a staple Brazilian snack or side that are baked instead of fried, and their travelling tropical Cheese Ball Bar is proving to be a hit for in-store tastings. Move over, garlic bread.

4. J’Maker

A grand debut at Selfridges in February this year, vibrant tropical packaging and an incredible knack for puns makes this Caribbean fusion brand hard to forget. After realising that there was a huge gap in the market for quality over-the-counter products with a Caribbean influence, aunt and niece team Melanie and Aunt Sonia decided to make their own. Winning Gold in The Food Talk Awards spurred the duo on and today J’Maker can be found in select independents and restaurants in London.

Authenticity plays an important role in product development at J’Maker, with months spent on perfecting recipes to give a “true taste of the Caribbean”. Hand-painted designs on their packaging ensured everything was in line with their motto “Life’s too short for ordinary food” and anecdotes about the islands on the inside sleeve help take their customers on an adventure, “fusing together Caribbean and European flavours in a way that everyone can enjoy”. Their range of pâtés include flavours like Jerk Chicken and SaltFish are as nutritious as they are tasty, and Melanie notes how important it is to keep the brand “different and cutting edge to meet the ever-changing demands of the public”. Soups soon followed the pâtés and J’Maker have launched a range of three – a warming Chicken & Vegetable, a creamy Three Bean and a spicy Pepper Pot.

5. Lil’Pop

It all started in a student bedroom in Edinburgh. “This haggis eatin’, whisky sippin’, beer drinkin’ culture needs a wonder grain to change their lives” mused Sydney Chasin of Lil’ Pop, in her final year at university. Diagnosed with coeliac disease at seven and growing up in a US farming town of 150 people, Chasin felt determined to do something where she could “truly love a Monday morning”. After entering a student startup competition, Chasin went on to be selected from a pool of 400 would-be entrepreneurs to win funding and mentoring from Scottish Institute for Enterprise, and in 2018 her healthy snack food brand Lil’ Pop was born.

Lil’ Pop is the first product in Europe to be shaking up the snack aisle with popped sorghum: a gluten-free, 8,000 year old ancient grain snack with a low water footprint. Sorghum is drought-resilient and grows where other crops can’t, needing only sunshine and nature’s own sprinkler system – rainwater – to flourish. As global water resources diminish, Chasin comments “it is important to innovate with ingredients that work with rather than against nature.” After smoking out her kitchen with the first test batch, Chasin spent months sourcing the ideal grain variety for the “perfect popping percentage” and creating a bulletproof supply chain before launching this year.

Chasin describes the snack as a “teeny-tiny, sustainably sourced alternative to popcorn that doesn’t get stuck in your teeth”. Way more than “tiny cuteness and health stats”, sorghum caters for the free-from aisle, is superbly crunchy and good for the planet, too. Her first variant – Pink Himalayan Salt – will soon be joined by a range of flavours which will be launched later this year.

6. Cantina

“There’s so much more to Latin American food than a fajita kit.” Meet Cantina Eats – an Argentinian-inspired brand from London that has spent six years perfecting their chimichurri: a herby, zesty sauce and marinade with a kick that brings food to life. The brainchild of Koosha and Miles, chimichurri is traditionally eaten with beef in Argentina, where the meaning of barbecue takes on a whole new level.

After meeting in South America in 2010, Koosha and Miles decided to recreate the sauce that brought them together as friends and, in true British style, began throwing it on all manner of dishes from fish and salads to pizza and sandwiches. Standing ovations across the board from “friends, family and friends of friends” inspired them to take the plunge into the industry and Cantina Eats chimichurri sauce was born.

With plenty of passion and no experience of commercial food manufacturing, Koosha and Miles put their heads together to create a food brand that set them apart. Koosha remembers the moment when they realised that a product is so much more than taste – “having received the seal of approval on the taste, hours of interrogation ensued about water activity and PH levels. Lab coats on, litmus paper out and suddenly we felt like real food manufacturers!” Bottled in a classic craft beer bottle, the brand’s bright colours are reminiscent of the founders’ time travelling through South America and their name – Cantina Eats – is inspired by local slang. Zingy, herbaceous and garlicky, their chimichurri is designed to lift existing flavours instead of drowning them out and, according to the founders, is a way of making even the simplest of meals feel like an occasion.

7. Nutkin

Naturopath Kate Bronte-Stewart began her journey as a food entrepreneur by running a vegan café in Peckham Rye, where she experimented with fermentation methods and developing her range of artisan nut-based vegan cheeses. Inspired by her work as a naturopath and patients who couldn’t tolerate cheese, Kate wanted to find an alternative that was both delicious and aligned with the principles of naturopathic nutrition, without using synthetic ingredients. After discovering the number of people moving towards a plant-based diet, Kate was convinced that sacrificing flavour or nutritional value just wasn’t an option. “Very few people will choose a healthy product if it doesn’t taste good, so that’s the magic formula for me,” she says.

On the cusp of launching the Nutkin range of cultured macadamia and cashew nut cheese for retail – both spreadable and air dried – Kate tells us what it was like finding the courage to take the plunge. “When I first started this business a lot of people thought I was crazy: my dad actually sent me an email urging me to be careful, saying something like ‘I really don’t think anyone will want to eat ‘cheese’ made from nuts’. We shall see about that…” Kate’s range has already caught the eye of local pizzarias and her air-dried Parmesan alternative, Almondsan, made from organic activated almonds, is proving to be a hit on pasta. With flavours like activated charcoal, rose harissa and reishi mushroom, Nutkin is a fast-moving vegan cheese brand that’s definitely one to watch.

8. Hunter & Gather

A mix of one coeliac girl, one experimenter boy, hard-earned savings and a passion for products made with real food ingredients saw Amy Moring and Jeff Webster bring the Hunter & Gather brand to life. Being diagnosed as coeliac at the tender age of 18 months old meant that once Amy and Jeff became a couple, they always cooked from scratch. With a wry smile, Jeff said, “I’d jokingly blame Amy that we could never just pick up something easy to eat like I used to, but the joke was on me as the more I ate this kind of food, the more I saw improvements in my health and well-being.”

This sparked his creative side and he wanted them to produce products that made people feel as good as he did. Or as he puts it, “I wanted to help them drop the hangry feeling I used to carry around when I was eating lots of ready-made foods.”

They launched in September 2017 with a bang by winning the Innovative ‘Better for You’ Product of the Year award at Food Matters Live with their classic avocado oil mayonnaise, pitched to Holland & Barrett at the Enterprise Nation Wellness Exchange and are finalists in The Food Talk Awards in the Clean Eating category. Amy and Jeff’s ambitions are high and they are the first to say that they’re “on a mission to expand the Hunter & Gather range as soon as possible.” Eight months in and with two new flavours just added to the range – Chilli & Lime and Garlic avocado oil mayonnaise – these creamy jars of goodness are guaranteed to tickle the tastebuds of our avocado obsessed generation.

Tapping into the ‘dieting out/healthy living in’ culture, they bring to market the UK and Europe’s first 100% avocado oil mayonnaise and the finest cold-pressed extra virgin avocado oil. Early adopters like the paleo and keto crowd are loving it, but their eye is on the prize of sharing it with anyone who loves to drizzle or dip as they eat.

9. Bottlebrush Ferments

Founded by two Australians on a mission to improve people’s gut health, Bottlebrush Ferments produce a range of super nutritious fermented foods packed with beneficial bacteria. More than a year of product development, experimentation and planning went into the launch of the brand that certainly doesn’t have anything to do with brushes or bottles – a common misconception heard from early customers at their Brixton Farmers’ Market stall. Launched by personal trainer Ben Payne and chef Hesh Daud, the name actually pays homage to the founders’ Aussie heritage and is a bright, flowering plant native to Australia, where it grew wildly in the front gardens of their childhood homes even though they were at opposite ends of the country, more than 4,000 miles apart.

After finding success at London markets, Bottlebrush Ferments launched their retail range of three fermented veggies – The Yellow One, bright and zingy with a white cabbage base, ginger and pineapple, The Purple One made with red cabbage, beetroot and caraway and The Red One – their own take on kimchi made with Chinese cabbage and mooli. Naturally vibrant and full of flavour, Bottlebrush Ferments’ vision is “to bring humble and misunderstood fermented foods to the masses. It’s not just something your hippy vegan uncle can eat, it is really good for you and bloody tasty.” They describe their range as possibly one of the “healthiest foods on the planet”.

Founders Ben and Hesh initially stalled at the pre-launch phase, keen to make sure everything was perfect, from the flavour to the branding and packaging. Ben says “to get started and have people a) taste it, b) like it and c) buy it was a massive relief and a great sense of achievement. At the end of the day, we had to have a celebratory drink!” and describes starting a food business as a “welcome and stimulating change” from his career as a personal trainer.

10. The Pished Fish

As a keen amateur cook, James started his entrepreneurial journey with a dream of opening a café, but after unexpectedly mastering the art of smoking salmon at home and giving kilos of smoked salmon away to some very lucky family and friends, he decided that there might be another way to do something he was passionate about. He says “A wise man once told me to try and do something with your true passions in life, hence smoked salmon and booze”! The Pished Fish cure fillets of salmon
with premium alcohol and botanicals, smoking them in small batches over wood and describe their products as “a mischievous, charming dinner guest who livens up any social occasion”.

“Daydreaming for many years, trialling ideas for many months, brainstorming logos and images for many days and planning the market stall set-up for several minutes” was all James needed for sell out success at Peckham Farmers’ Market, where he realised that he may have created a business that was going places. After leaving – as he describes it – his “grown-up’s job”, James found his smoking peers to be “all quite serious and everyone claimed to make the finest smoked salmon.” He says “I decided to make ours a little more playful, having fun with flavours and taking ourselves a little less seriously.”

With flavours like Dark & Stormy (rum, ginger, lime zest and agave nectar), Erik the Red (aquavit, juniper, star anise and beetroot) and the amusingly named Designated Driver – boozeless, just cherry and smoke, James endeavours to “get on the shelves of the prettiest of stores” and has already caught the eye of Selfridges, Whitstable Oyster Company and Burfords as well as many more independents in London. When asked what the future holds for James and The Pished Fish, he wryly replies “to carry on smoking salmon, come up with new ideas for flavours and have a full feature length animated film made of The Pished Fish on his boozy adventures.”