The best thing to do is to highlight in negotiations what you do, the experience you...read more
Nimisha Raja is rushed off her feet. After years of building her fruit crisp business, including setting up and running her own factory, her crisps are now being sold by major supermarkets. This year they have gone into 1,400 Tesco stores, they were listed at Wimbledon and a major coffee chain has placed a huge order for orange crisps for its Christmas drinks.
That has meant fast growth. In February she had three people working in processing and two and a half in the office. She now has 11 in processing with three more starting soon and six in the office. Nimisha herself has been working almost flat out over the last month.
It has taken some years to get to this point, however. Nimisha has long had a nose for business. After walking out of school at 15, Nimisha became an entrepreneur at the age of 23 when she started a dry cleaning business. Before her daughter was born 18 years ago she ran a wine bar and had a dry cleaning business. The wine bar involved working nights and Nimisha realised she needed something that would work better around her daughter.
She set up a coffee shop in Battersea which meant she could have evenings and weekends off and be around for her daughter. It was opposite a school, the school her daughter later attended. Indeed her daughter would come in after school. Most of the coffee shop customers were parents and children.
Nimisha, who is a single parent, listened to the daily struggles between parents trying to get their kids to eat healthily and kids who wanted crisps. She realised there was not much available at the time which satisfied both. “I saw this battle between crisps and fruit and I thought if I could marry the two that would be amazing,” she says. It was not, however, until she came across some freeze dried apple pieces in Sainsbury’s that she realised it was possible to make fruit that was both crispy and crunchy. The freeze drying process seemed artificial to her so she decided to experiment with air drying, one of the oldest natural methods of preserving fruit. Nimisha spent the next one and a half years in her garage perfecting the process and trying out her crisps on her customers and on people taking part in an annual summer fair she organised in Battersea Square.
Once she was convinced it was commercially viable, she started taking it around local shops in South London, asking them to stock it and only to pay her for it if the crisps sold. She would work at night after getting her daughter to bed and would get up at 4am to get to the fruit market to get the ingredients for the crisps. They sold out regularly.
A friend told her she needed to stop the trial process and “go the whole hog”. “He said you’re killing yourself, working all hours of the day. It pushed me to go for for it and think about scaling up,” she says. Another factor behind scaling up was her desire to keep the price of the crisps down through buying fruit in bulk.
Setting up a factory
Nimisha paid £15K to a designer to get the packaging and branding right. They came up with the name, Nim’s Fruit Crisps. She needed advice about manufacturing. She spoke to someone in the business, but they wanted her to give up on air drying the crisps. Nimisha felt it was vital for the taste so she decided to look for a factory where she could manufacture her crisps in the way she wanted them.
That search took her to fruit drying factories in Eastern Europe. She found a factory in Hungary run by a 76-year-old man who loved the idea of the crisps. However, she felt she could not control the quality of the crisps from so far away and she lost a lot of money on stock she couldn’t use. But supermarkets were starting to show an interest.
Nimisha felt she couldn’t start talking to supermarkets until she had a product she totally believed in. She decided she would have to set up her own factory. A lawyer friend invested money. The same day she spoke to him she had a call from Dragon’s Den, but she felt she wasn’t ready yet.
Nimisha stopped trading for a while while she set up a factory and started all over again. She sold her coffee shop and dry cleaner’s and was renting a house with her daughter. “I believed in the product so much and I never had any doubts that it would sell,” she says.
She decided Kent was the right location for the factory – the county council was supportive of food businesses and had lots of grants, it was commutable from London and Kent is the garden of England – it fit well with the concept of fruit crisps. Nimisha got an interest-free loan to set up the factory and warehouse which she is still paying off and she set about learning everything she needed to know about running a factory. A crucial factor was hiring the right people.
It took nine months to set up the factory and another six to practise with the equipment to ensure she had the best product possible made in the most efficient way possible.
Nimisha then made a conscious decision to set her sights on supermarkets and has had success with the Co-op, Ocado and now Tesco.
She has taken on a marketing manager, someone to do social media and sales people and she is now trying to find a factory manager so she can delegate some of the responsibility and take a more strategic role and she is hoping for further investment in the next few months. Nimisha hasn’t had a holiday for around five years and has ploughed any money she has made back into the business, expanding the range of products she offers into fruit and vegetable teas and infusions, for instance. She has had very little time to strategise of late, but she realises delegating is not something that comes easily to her and that it is something she has to learn.
In the last year since things have taken off she has been working round the clock. She feels guilty that this has coincided with her daughter’s A Levels, but says things are going too fast for her to stop now. “I can’t stop this train now or it will derail,” she says. “ I know this is just a phase and it will get easier. This is what I have been working nearly 10 years for.”