When young mum, Kirsty Henshaw, won backing from Dragon’s Den to start her free-from food business, it was the start of a whole new journey. Here’s how it started...
Who is Kirsty?
I am what is known as a ‘gap mum’, that is a mum to a teenager, Jacob aged 13, and a baby, Sophie, who has just had her first birthday. My second job is managing Kirsty’s, which allows me to create healthy and accessible food which was an interest I developed while helping in my parent’s health food shops as a teenager.
How did Kirsty’s come about?
I discovered my son Jacob was allergic to nuts and intolerant to gluten and dairy when he was a baby. Back then there really weren’t many free-from food options that were safe for him to eat, so I started experimenting in the kitchen.
One of the foods I made him was a healthy dairy-free ice cream, which was so good it won Dragons’ Den investment back in 2010 (you may remember my pitch, I was the one who cried happy tears!).
I then went on to launch Kirsty’s ready meals in 2012, with the backing of Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne, which six years and a lot of hard work later is now a £5m brand.
Were you one of the first on the market to offer free-from ready meals?
Yes, back in 2012 there were very few free-from options available, especially if you wanted something convenient.
What is your most popular meal?
Our absolute best-seller is our Cottage Pie, nearly six years after launch it is still hugely popular because it’s tasty, healthy and free-from.
We also have a few rising stars like Malaysian Butternut Squash curry, which as well as being free-from is also vegan, giving people a tasty meal when they are perhaps honing their vegan cooking skills.
You launched a children’s range in 2015 – why enter that market?
Starting my business was prompted by finding out about my son’s food allergies, so I understand how hard it is to feed kids with allergies nutritious food when you don’t have time to cook from scratch every day (not currently available in our stores).
Where do you source your ingredients?
Our ingredients are mainly sourced from the UK and Ireland. We work with trusted suppliers to get the highest quality, which is really important to me as it’s my name on the product.
How do you replace/avoid the gluten/dairy?
Every product is a meal that I have wanted to make a free-from version of at home. Sometimes it takes me years to work out how to make a free-from version which tastes as good, for example I am still trying to perfect a healthy dairy free fish pie – maybe 2019 will be the year!
It is difficult because sometimes free-from ingredients can be nutritionally bad which means I won’t work with them – you’ll never find a red GDA on my meals because I wouldn’t eat them at home.
What has been the response to your free-from meals?
We have some really loyal customers who greet us like family at food exhibitions, and we get really detailed feedback on social media, mainly all nice but sometimes asking that we make changes to our products, like making our Lasagne recipe soya free, which we always try to do.
How many awards have you won? What is your most recent?
I had to check, our website says 17, but I think it’s closer to 20, the most recent was a Gold ‘Loved by Children’ award for Best Toddler Food Range.
What’s next for Kirsty’s?
Although there are more gluten and dairy-free options available than when I started 10 years ago, there are still lots of opportunities for new products, some of which customers ask us directly for – unfortunately I can’t tell you much detail at the moment, just ask you to ‘watch this space’!
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