"The food world is very male dominated" How Sadia Ahmed created Oliver's Cupboard
Why did you found Oliver's Cupboard?
As a British-Bangladeshi mum, I saw a significant gap in the baby food market when I took a shopping trip to my local supermarket to buy baby food for my son as he transitioned to food for the first time. I was shocked to discover that existing products didn’t reflect the multitudes of cultures in the UK. Instead all I found were bland ingredients that didn’t align with the kind of flavours I wanted to introduce to Oliver. The whole experience left me feeling segregated, almost as if myself or my son didn’t fit into the world. I felt that so many children were being under-represented and this was a massive turning point for me to create an inclusive baby food brand that could be enjoyed by all.
What's the product range?
Oliver’s Cupboard is a range of six baby food products for 7 months plus, that offer both organic and halal ingredients, with meat and vegetarian options to suit all needs. Recipes include Vegetable Sambar, Tom Yum, Korma, Bahia, Laksa and Vegetable Koshari and give babies the chance to try a world of flavours as they take those first steps on their eating journey.
Are your customers of Bangladeshi and Asian origin, or do you believe the meals have universal appeal?
Our products are for everyone. The range of flavours have universal appeal and give all parents the chance to introduce their children to a world of flavours at this vital stage.
How are the meals made?
They started in my kitchen, firstly by me and then helped by a group of diverse mums from all different ethnicities - Thai, Lebanese, French - that helped me create recipes with broad and diverse appeal.
What's the hardest thing about launching a food brand?
Everything really! I’m not from this industry so getting the right people to be a part of the team was a big hurdle. However, for me the most difficult thing was being taken seriously by the food industry.
I had to be very persistent and true to the brand to make sure the mission was going to be successful and retain the integrity. So many people I spoke to along the way wanted to change it and make it more business focussed, with profit being the key driver, but that was never what Oliver’s Cupboard was about. So I pushed against that advice and stayed true to the brand.
How did you win the Ocado deal?
It was hard. Covid stopped all retailers looking for anything new so getting hold of buyers was very difficult. However my persistence won out and the Ocado buyer heard the story and loved what the brand was about and that got me in the door to start the conversation.
Supermarkets are notoriously hard bargainers. What was the Ocado experience like?
Ocado is a really good starting point for a start-up brand as it gives you lots of feedback and data on what is selling and doing well. Plus, since it isn’t so big there’s room to learn and correct your mistakes along the way. Ocado has been amazing to work with, really great interaction and extremely helpful.
Your grandmother is an inspiration. What was she like?
I don’t think I ever realised what an impact the strong women in my family had on me until now. My grandmother was an incredibly strong woman who had many difficulties in life and had a lot of resilience to adapt to situations. She used to travel to different countries without friends and she battled a lot of things, including losing her son but she never lost her voice, always had confidence and held true to herself. I think I’ve learnt a lot from that - to stick up for yourself and never be shy or ashamed. When she came to the UK she needed to learn everything but never feel that she didn’t have a voice, she forged her place here.
I think she taught me to confidence and self belief.
The ratio of male to female entrepreneurs is massively skewed. What advice do you have for other women thinking of starting a company?
What I got told a lot, especially by men, is that I’m too nice for business. For example, I paid for a consultant and he gave me bad guidance and wanted to keep me out of the loop, it was very misogynistic so I got rid of him and it made me be more assertive going forward. But it also made me realise I could be nice and also run a successful business. The food world is very male dominated, but what I’ve set out to do is create something that has a lasting legacy - I’d love to see lots of brands that offer world flavours. Oliver’s Cupboard is about female empowerment, which is why I have a team of mums working with me who want to be part of a great business but still achieve that all-important work/life balance.
So my advice is ignore the haters, have conviction and believe in yourself, then find positive people who support you and rally you to succeed.
What's the five year vision for Oliver's Cupboard?
I’d like to create more recipes and more flavours. But ultimately, the end goal is to build a relationships where all communities feel like a part of the mainstream and not just a small demographic. I want to create a brand that breaks down barriers.