‘Traumatic’ isn’t the word you’d hope to hear a businessman use to describe his experience on Dragons’ Den. But considering Ross Mendham was under pressure to deliver his pitch while also struggling with difficult personal circumstances, you can’t really blame him. The founder of low carbohydrate noodle brand Bare Naked Foods appeared on the programme after his wife had just suffered her third miscarriage and broke down in tears when asked about her.
‘I was thinking don’t fall over because I couldn’t feel my legs I was that nervous,’ Mendham says. ‘The reality of the whole situation hit me that I was going to be in front of five hugely successful entrepreneurs who could potentially change my life. It was a complete emotional rollercoaster from start to finish.’
His pitch resulted in three Dragons offering investment and he shook on a £60,000 deal for 50% of the business with Peter Jones. His wife Kelly became pregnant a month later and gave birth to their son Oliver, who’s now two and a half. Bare Naked Noodles and Bare Naked Rice are now stocked across Waitrose, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Holland & Barrett, and the firm is set to turn over £2m in 2016.
Ross Mendham with investor Peter Jones
He doesn’t like to watch the pitch back these days (‘I’ve only seen it about five times’); although it is now part of the business’s story, Mendham says it’s disconcerting. ‘I find it really tough. It’s kind of something I don’t want to revisit because it was so traumatic, not only because of the miscarriages, but also breaking down on national TV. I’m quite a strong person, so to lay yourself bare for the whole world to see, that was a pretty traumatic experience.’
Bare Naked Foods has a less-than-conventional back-story. ‘Funnily enough, I used to be a stripper for The Dreamboys,’ is Mendham’s opening gambit. ‘I always had to be tanned, toned and ripped.’ His bosses constantly demanded he shape up and develop a six-pack. The only way Mendham could do it was by cutting out carbohydrates. ‘I found it incredibly difficult as I loved pasta and rice and I was in the gym one day and thought there must be something out there for people to have instead,’ he says. A search on his phone didn’t result in anything promising, so Mendham decided to make it himself.
He was given £4,500 from his future father-in-law to get the business started, after initially showing him a business plan to be proofread. In the early days, he went to the Chamber of Commerce in China to get a list of noodle manufacturers with the same factory accreditations as the UK. ‘Most didn’t speak English, and of those that did, some weren’t interested and some were. I went from there,’ he says. The main ingredient used in the noodles is the root of the Asian Konjac plant, which Mendham says is naturally low-carb, so ‘ideal’ for the health-conscious and those dieting.
While he got Bare Naked Foods stocked at Holland & Barrett fairly quickly, it took ‘about a year to get into another major retailer’ even with Jones on board. ‘It was a case of me picking up the phone, getting on email and getting in front of the buyers,’ Mendham explains. ‘I always say just be yourself. Even on the phone I hate when people are too professional. When I go to meet a buyer in Sainsbury’s I’m just me – this is how I am, here’s my product, this is why I’m passionate about it, you want it, there’s a gap in the market and it’ll make you loads of money.’ Morrisons signed up and the rate of sale is encouraging – 12 units per store per week. It’s now the same in Sainsbury’s and eight units per store per week in Waitrose.
Bare Naked Food sub-contracts many of its services and has six members of staff currently, though Mendham expects that to develop rapidly. ‘When the ready meals come out we’re definitely going to double our capacity so that six will turn into 12 and then 20 pretty quickly.’ He’s got an eye on international expansion too. Bare Naked Foods is currently exporting to Dubai and South Africa after Mendham was approached by interested expats who wanted to distribute it. Next he’s got an eye on Australia and America.
Although he admits to being constantly ‘hungry to do bigger and better things’, (perhaps he could do with a few more carbs...) the one thing Mendham says he’s most proud of is the birth of his son. ‘I think Kelly wasn’t stressed out once she knew where the business was going to go after Dragons’ Den,’ he says about his wife falling pregnant soon after he secured the £60,000 investment. ‘Balancing the business with family life is hard work, but at the same time rewarding. Weekends are always family time and I don’t look at work emails. I think you have to draw the line somewhere. It’s difficult when you have your own business, but it’s important to do that.’