Interview with an Innovator

Cook’s Edward Perry: ‘Products should have an idiot test’

Tom Gatehouse talks to the co-founder of the frozen ready meal specialist about the popularity of Thai food as well as why R&D and commercial teams clash.

23 August 2019
frozenready mealssupermarketsThaivegan

Perry on paper

  • Joined his parents’ frozen cake business, The Handmade Cake Company, aged 19
  • Founded frozen ready meal business Cook in 1997 with close friend Dale Penfold
  • Cook won the Grocer Gold Award for Best Independent Retailer Chain in 2006 after rebranding and has received multiple Great Taste Awards for many different dishes over the last decade

Edward Perry has known the joys of frozen food since childhood. As a teenager he acted as a travelling salesman for his family’s frozen cake company, while at home his mother was an advocate of the freezer when feeding the family – “things like homemade chilli con carne, lasagne and ice cream tubs full of home-cooked meals that she’d made.”

“I grew up with endless examples of frozen food tasting amazing,” continues Perry. “With Cook, we wanted to create ‘what mum made’ but on a much larger scale.”

Twenty-two years on, Cook is at the forefront of the frozen category with a number of dishes winning plaudits at the most recent Great Taste Awards. Perry himself was chosen as one of 20 food industry icons at a ceremony to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Speciality & Fine Foods Fair, which takes place this year on September 1-3 at Olympia in West London.

“The frozen food sector is having a bit of a renaissance. And why not? Frozen food, if done well, is better than their chilled equivalent,” insists Perry. “If you freeze a meal instantly, it holds its form and flavour. Frozen is also much less wasteful, which is much better for the planet.”

With over 100 Cook shops across England, Scotland and Wales stocking ready meals, cakes and puddings, as well as the thriving ‘Entertaining’ arm of the business, Perry has a lot on his plate.

And his day always starts at the crack of dawn in a pool of water…

I’m up at 4.45/5am every morning as I’m a huge swimmer and I have to every day. I’m ready to go at 8.30 in Sittingbourne [in Kent] in our main kitchen, and the majority of my day-to-day is made up of meetings. That would be commercial meetings, food-focused meetings, marketing meetings – even just taking people around our kitchen.

I also run Cook day-to-day with my sister, Rosie, and at 9.30 every day we sign off on everything cooked in the kitchen. We taste everything. And I mean everything.

Thai food is on the rise. I’d say it’s about as big as Indian now. We released a new Thai steamed sea bass last week and a Thai basil chicken, and we’ve a ‘two for £14 Thai takeaway’ offer on again this August. Our meals for eight are also very popular, especially our Moroccan spiced lamb tagine.

We’re especially proud of our individual pies. We think they’re better than a lot of artisan pies out there, and our Spring Chicken & Asparagus and Chicken & Portobello Mushroom versions won medals at the British Pie Awards 2019. They’re brilliant and there is definitely still a big demand for traditional British classics with our customers.

We have a dedicated ‘Entertaining’ section to the business. Customers are able to cater to dinner parties as we have dedicated centrepieces and options such as canapes and quiches. It’s probably around a 50/50 split in the business so it’s very important.

We also have pots for one, which have been really popular, what with the heathy-eating boom.

Veganism is obviously on the rise and our ‘Meat-Free May’ is growing around 18% year-on-year. Many of our core customers are looking to have more meat-free days – even my 74-year-old dad is something like 50% meat-free in his diet!

It’s true to say that meat-free is a hard area because you always need really good ingredients. You can easily bluff your way through a chicken tikka or a burger or something, but not a vegan salad!

We’ve never been able to crack pizza. We just can’t make them efficiently – the major pizza manufacturing guys are just unbelievable.

Commercial teams have unreasonable expectations of R&D teams. Creating continuous blockbusters just isn’t realistic. It’s about keeping interest in the brand with intelligent new releases and understanding that your best sellers are best sellers for a reason.

Around 20% of our products every year are new releases but some of our 10- to 15-year-old products are still among the best sellers – things like spag bol, beef bourguignon and chicken pie.  It’s not about massive commercial pushers but about keeping it fresh.

We’ve actually just sorted out additional capacity about a mile down the road specifically for our best sellers. We take our EPD [existing product development] very seriously.

I believe products should have an idiot test. A test kitchen will always make it perfectly, but a home cook is the reality for us. Would the product stand up to being 10 minutes overcooked, say, or 10 minutes under? Would the food still taste good if the instructions aren’t followed perfectly? Would it still hold its shape? How would it look on the plate? The home cook test should definitely be a thing.

Cook customers are usually good cooks who like eating home-tasting food. And I’m a good eater! But while my wife is the cook, I certainly know what I’m doing!

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