Cat Gazzoli remembers the moment her organic baby-food brand Piccolo hit the shelves of Waitrose last year. ‘We launched straight into 300 stores across the country,’ she says. ‘It was madness. I was still running the business from my flat in Covent Garden; people were having to traipse up four flights of stairs to pick up boxes of baby-food pouches.’
The purees, inspired by Gazzoli’s Mediterranean upbringing and made from 100% natural ingredients, were a hit. Sales in Waitrose exceeded expectations by 400%. After six months, the brand scored a listing in more than 400 Asda stores. In June, Piccolo will be stocked in two more major supermarkets and will have 32 products in its range. Projected turnover for next year is £4m.
Piccolo’s early success is partly down to Gazzoli’s crack team of foodies. Her co-founders are nutrition expert Alice Fotheringham (who worked alongside best-selling baby food author Annabel Karmel) and Kane O’Flaherty (former brand designer for Pret and Itsu founder Julian Metcalfe). She says it took her a while to find the right people: ‘I had to kiss a few frogs before I found Kane. And then I cooked like crazy for him to lure him onto the team. Not everyone wants to join a start-up.’
Piccolo’s investors include food campaigner and new Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith; ex-Pizza Express CEO Mark Angela; ex-Duchy Originals CEO Andrew Baker; and Green & Black’s co-founder Craig Sams. The business is also backed by Jan Woods, who ran HR for PepsiCo and is now a director at Lion Capital, and AllBright founders Debbie Wosskow and Anna Jones.
Gazzoli, who has raised ‘way over £1m’ in two funding rounds, says she deliberately sought female investors. ‘London is a great place to start a business but finding female investors wasn’t easy. Around 90 per cent of Piccolo’s customers are mothers shopping in the baby-food aisle so it was absolutely essential to have female voices on our board.’
The 39-year-old grew up in Rome and started her career running food and agricultural programmes for the United Nations. The role saw her moving to New York, Guatemala City and Addis Ababa. ‘I’d grown up in the flirtacious, warm culture of southern Italy and had to learn how to dress "appropriately" for work,’ she says. ‘The UN is a formal environment and I’d be dealing with people from lots of different cultures. I’d spend all the money I made on getting suits tailored. You need to dress for the role you want.’
Gazzoli stayed with the UN for the best part of a decade and says she learned from the women around her. ‘I always had strong, female bosses; my mentor was Susan Mills - director of the UN financial management office and the highest-ranking woman in the UN at the time. They were all incredibly inspiring but with the job came a certain amount of sacrifice. There was a lot of travel. I knew it would be difficult to stay there and have a family.’
In 2008, she moved to London and became CEO of Slow Food UK. Her remit: to get people thinking about the benefits, nutrition and provenance of what they put on their plates. She left in 2014 – a year after her daughter Juliet (pictured) was born – and started working on her business plan for Piccolo. ‘I spotted an opportunity for a Mediterranean-influenced organic baby-food brand and wanted to build it into a business with a social purpose,’ she says. Juliet was her chief taster.
Gazzoli negotiated a partnership with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), the UK’s largest parenting charity. The NCT supports the brand and has its logo on Piccolo pouches. In return, Gazzoli donates 10% of profits to the charity. She’s also set up the Food Education Foundation, providing nutrition classes and workshops to help disadvantaged families in London provide their children with a healthy start to life.
Juggling a new business with a new child is challenging, admits Gazzoli. ‘My husband works for [consulting giant] McKinsey so he’s away a lot. My father provides most of the childcare. He comes over from France for weeks at a time to allow me to focus on Piccolo and visit retailers. Or I frequently take Juliet to Italy, where my in-laws live, and work from there. She’s watched me building this business and the team has become her extended family.’
‘My daughter and my business are both my babies. When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s impossible to separate the two.’