Piccolo: Slow food expert speeds ahead with baby food startup giving free pouches to food banks

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Considering Cat Gazzoli spent a large chunk of her professional career at a charity called Slow Food, she has risen to prominence with her brand of baby food in a flash.

Piccolo has become the fastest growing baby food brand in the UK since it was founded in 2016, after Gazzoli had a hunch that there would be a market for organic food pouches inspired by her own Mediterranean diet.

The company has since raised over £1m in two rounds of funding and expanded into 30 flavours of baby food stocked in Morrisons, Waitrose, Asda and Boots. The pouches are already shipping to Ireland and China and Gazzoli has her eye on other territories before the year is out.

That success comes in part thanks to advice from a roster of high profile investors, including Mark Angela, the former chief executive of Pizza Express, Prue Leith, a food campaigner, Craig Sams, the Green & Black’s founder, and Jan Woods, formerly of PepsiCo and now Lion Capital. “Each one has a role, and each one has over 20 years of expertise,” Gazzoli says proudly.

Gazzoli says her investors should start seeing returns by the end of the year. But she admits there were a few raised eyebrows when she told them about a partnership with UK food bank co-ordinator, the Trussell Trust. 

For five weeks from October, Piccolo will donate a pouch to a food bank user for every one sold in the UK.

“I knew food banks were on the rise, but what made me want to do it is because the issue has not been brought to light whatsoever about how many single mums of babies and toddlers are using food banks,” Gazzoli said. 

According to the Trussell Trust, lone parents and their children constitute the largest number of people receiving help from food banks, though single men are the most common household type. One survey by the Young Women’s Trust found that nearly half of mothers under the age of 25 regularly skip meals in order to feed their children. 

Since Gazzoli started sending Piccolo pouches to the Trussell Trust, she has had emails from mums getting them through food banks. “It’s been really emotional for me,” she says. “To hear from another mum that it’s making a difference. It’s quite astounding.”

Giving away food pouches might not be the most direct route to turning a profit. But Gazzoli is not a typical entrepreneur. She was born to a French mother and an Italian father in Geneva, where her father worked for the United Nation’s World Food Programme.

After attending the United Nations school in New York and picking up a convincing New York accent, Gazzoli followed in the family business, working for the Food and Agriculture Organisation at the UN. 

A move to London followed some years later to lead Slow Food UK, a not-for-profit championing local and sustainable food. This position established Gazzoli as a leading figure in the UK food industry. 

Many of the mentors that would go on to inform Piccolo came from Gazzoli’s time engaging chefs, producers and consumers in sustainability and social justice issues during her time at Slow Food UK. “I met a lot of founders of food brands,” she says. “I was learning a lot through this ecosystem.”

She developed a conviction that consumers could be responsible for social justice issues surrounding food by making informed choices about the products in their shopping basket.

“I’m into things with a social purpose, whether that is food waste, or giving back, or something else other than buying a product through a commercial transaction,” Gazzoli says. “We should be past that. At this point some of the issues facing us nationally and globally need to be solved not just by Governments but by citizens making a difference in their daily lives.”

Gazzoli knew from her time at the UN that many people start making more informed decisions about their diet when they approach parenthood. “You’re basically becoming a consumer again,” she says. “Your values can really change. You start thinking about pesticides, food labelling, GM. I saw transformations quite a lot.”

Piccolo pouches are certified organic and fair trade. They are also advertised for children from six months, rather than the four months recommended on competitors’ products, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines about breastfeeding – even though the products are safe for children from four months. 

“I made that choice based on ethics and my educational background that it would be wrong to contradict the UK guidelines,” Gazolli says. The WHO, like the NHS, promote breastfeeding for infants up to six months, when they are said to be ready for solids. 

Piccolo donates 10 per cent of profits to the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). It has also partnered with Water Babies, swimming instructors for babies, to offer a month’s supply of baby food to one competition winner. 

Piccolo was stocked in Waitrose as soon as it went into production in April 2016, thanks in part to Gazzoli’s excellent connections. “Waitrose had seen my work with Slow Food,” Gazzoli says. “Around the time I was looking to leave Slow Food they did a whole series on the projects I had set up around the UK, so they knew what I stood for as a person.”

The pouches, in flavours including apple and kale with yoghurt; and sweet potato, beetroot, apple and pear; retail at 73p a pop.

Mark Angela, who transformed the retail business at Pizza Express by turning consumers of their chilled supermarket pizzas into restaurant customers and vice versa, says Piccolo has succeeded in part because the design of the packaging. Its natural green, pink and orange hues stand out in a sea of primary colours in the baby food aisle, he says.

The brand, like Pizza Express, also offers supermarkets the chance to grow their customer base. 

“When you look at the amount of work that Cat is doing with partners, there is a phenomenal amount of effort that is going on with Water Babies and NCT to bring customers into supermarkets,” Angela says. “Because what supermarkets are really interested in is what you are going to do for them in terms of growing their customer base and their franchise.” 

But Gazzoli insists her baby food is about more than the bottom line. She says the Government should be doing more around early years education and to help young mothers with few resources, pointing to the Scottish Government’s Baby Boxes as a good example of an initiative that has huge potential. “For any government that’s in charge, it should be a priority,” she says, “because that’s our next generation.”