In late 2019, with support from Impact on Urban Health (then Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity), we launched Medleys, an affordable, healthier takeaway in South London. Built on extensive research and a successful pilot, this offer was designed to diversify the local food environment with healthier options in response to the trend towards ‘everyday takeaway’.
Here, our venture lead Alice and Matt Towner from Impact on Urban Health recount what we’ve learnt in the past year and explain how the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything: the food landscape, local needs, and ultimately our business model.
01 The takeaway model
Our initial concept was developed from ethnographic research that showed how important convenience and (perceived) affordability were to families on low incomes when it comes to food. Parents are often pushed for time and headspace due to work and other demands of living with financial stress. So it’s not hard to see why takeaway is a popular solution to these problems and, with the boom in online ordering, it’s been a market on the rise in recent years.
But takeaway is not usually designed with health in mind – we found the average takeaway meal contains 68% of your recommended daily calorie intake. That’s why, after running a successful pilot in Birmingham in 2018, we set out to validate a hot, delivered, healthier takeaway in South London and launched Medleys in late 2019.
What we learnt
The online takeaway market is heavily reliant on aggregator platforms – like Deliveroo and Just Eat – and we learned early on that it’s incredibly difficult to keep the necessary margins as a small, emerging, independent brand. The platforms favour big and established companies who bring huge brand power, can spend heavily on advertising, and have negotiated preferable aggregator fees. Due to commission and delivery costs, margins are squeezed to the point where it’s nearly impossible to operate whilst maintaining an affordable customer price point, using fresh produce and paying staff ethical wages – three things we’re committed to.
The result? A marketplace where only those able to operate at scale (or underpay their workforce) can offer the customer a competitive price. Unsurprisingly, there is little business incentive to offer something healthier or more socially-minded. Even with some support from Just Eat along the way, this experience made us fundamentally rethink our model, especially how to keep focus on reaching customers with the tightest budgets.
02 Recipes for success?
Research with families told us there is a demand for healthier, home-style mid-week meals. We originally developed a varied menu with lots of family favourites – from lasagne to curry – which got positive responses in early proposition testing with local parents. We designed recipes that would suit children’s preferences for taste and texture, while also keeping mum and dad happy with both familiarity and flavour.
What we learnt
While our sales volumes were low, customer feedback was positive: “Like mummy’s cooking”, “Super tasty”, “Very fresh and tasty, will be ordering again!”
However, on aggregator platforms, customers are usually searching for and corralled towards specific categories like ‘chicken’ or ‘pizza’. It was difficult to categorise our mixed menu, which meant our offer wasn’t coming across very coherently to the online customer. Our varied menu was also challenging to deliver operationally with so many ingredients and processes.
I’m St Lucian and I know Jerk and this was good!
This move brought with it some success: these brands better suited the aggregator categories, community feedback was really positive for favourites like jerk chicken, and our hard-working chef Charles was able to optimise kitchen operations and recipes.
However, even with some operational efficiencies, we still saw some significant challenges with achieving visibility – especially now we had to build customer trust and demand for two brands. This was compounded by the impact of coronavirus, which meant face-to-face contact with customers was near impossible.
03 Stealthy healthy
Our ‘health by stealth’ messaging approach – where we avoid explicitly labelling the food as healthy, wholesome or ‘good for you’, using subtle messaging such as colourful, veggies-packed imagery – has been an interesting one to balance. It is based on what we have learnt from families on a budget: they often find healthy labelling patronising or alienating, associate ‘healthy’ with bland or lacking in taste, and (rightly) assume healthier options are more expensive. However, by hiding this key benefit of our food we also risk hiding what makes us different in a crowded marketplace: convenient food that is actually good for you, at an affordable price.
What we learnt
Learning from customer reviews and feedback for Medleys, when developing the brand messaging for Box Chicken, we continued to focus on taste, fun and family, but brought more emphasis to nutrition by dialling up the freshness of our food. This paid off, with customer feedback reflecting this focus on freshness: “A nutritious, affordable and tasty meal”, “Fresh produce”, “Feels good for me”.
Ideas of nutrition, seasoning and taste are also deeply entwined with how food is seen and valued in different cultures. This has been an important learning in terms of how we develop menus that are not only healthy and tasty, but also the kinds of foods local families actually want to eat, that suit their tastes.
04 In the dark
When we first set up in South London, we did so in a ‘dark kitchen’ – a kitchen space that isn’t attached to a restaurant or customer-facing space. Dark kitchens are the backbone of many takeaway-only businesses, allowing for multiple brands and operations to share space, keeping costs lower by avoiding the costly rents of high foot-fall locations, and relying on online ordering to reach customers.
What we learnt
In London’s oversaturated, competitive market, there were some fundamental limitations of operating from a dark kitchen in terms of building visibility and trust with our customers – especially as a new family of brands.
When COVID-19 hit, the marketplace changed immeasurably as a huge number of restaurants and chains jumped online to compete for families’ attention and money. Deliveroo alone had 20,000 new restaurant partners in 2020. With existing, known and trusted brands appearing on the online aggregator platforms for the first time, we pushed hard with locally-targeted marketing to try and cut through.
At the same time, we could see how the pandemic was exacerbating existing food inequalities and making it even harder for families with low or no incomes to access healthy, affordable food. The huge growth in delivery options wasn’t reaching this group and, with limited customer data through the online apps coupled with Covid-safe contactless delivery, we were finding it hard to learn enough about our own customers.
Pivoting for the pandemic
As coronavirus took hold across the UK, it became clear that as a food provider we were in a position to help. Whilst learning and iterating the takeaway model and testing new brands, we began to forge partnerships with local distributors, funders and community groups who were coordinating food provision for the crisis. Making use of our existing menus, team know-how and kitchen space, we delivered thousands of meals via partners to families who were struggling due to the pandemic.
We did this under the banner of a new brand, Mama Leys – developed in conjunction with local students from the London College of Communications – which stands for warm, friendly, home-style good food, made locally and with love. We built on everything we had learnt so far to optimise kitchen operations, creating culturally relevant menus to suit local tastes, which would be easy to distribute through local food providers.
This rapid pivot and network building saw us reach our target customer at a scale we hadn’t previously achieved through the takeaway model: by the end of 2020, we had served 3,750 meals this way, compared to just under 3,000 through online orders over a longer period of time.
So what’s next?
Based on all our learning, we are now iterating key elements of the business and have begun to pilot a new, community-based model. Our focus has moved away from online aggregators towards distributing meals through local partners and leveraging subsidies to more effectively reach our target audience.
We’re keeping four key insights front and centre as we develop this model:
- Culturally appropriate, convenient and affordable food that is also nutritious is still not accessible to many – especially through low cost/free community food provision
- Health and nutrition is important to community organisations and leaders providing food (although less of a priority to foodbanks, who offer crisis intervention not long-term support)
- Food that is tasty, affordable and convenient is the priority for families, but delivered takeaway isn’t the only way of meeting this need
- Food provision organisations have very little choice in what they offer, and often have to rely on what is donated or surplus
This model will focus on bulk orders produced centrally, helping to reduce costs, and means we won’t be competing for custom online. Establishing a viable and sustainable income stream for this model will be a challenge as there are few long-term funding solutions supporting family food provision. But this is a wider challenge that we and others like Southwark Council are exploring, while individual and corporate sponsorship may also have a role to play.
We kicked off our first trials of the new offline model in early 2021, having received co-funding from STOP Consortium, with community distribution partners including Oasis Healthspace and Time and Talents.
COVID-19 has made it impossible to ignore the ever-growing health inequality affecting families across the country. Though this inequality has always existed, and people struggled to access nutritious, affordable food long before the pandemic, current events have highlighted the need for subsidised provision of healthy meals.