Annabel Karmel: How I turned my food into a global brand

Annabel Karmel saw a gap in the baby food market when she noticed that only boring long-life meals were available. Now a recognised author of child-nutrition books and host of "Annabel's Kitchen" on CITV, she has partnered with Disney to sell internationally.

When Annabel Karmel's son, two-year-old Nicholas, stopped eating properly, she realised "there is so much emphasis on what babies can't eat that what is left is not very tasty". A trained cook, Karmel began experimenting with new recipes.

Realising that Nicholas's nursery playmates were having similar problems, she began handing out her recipes to other mums. "The response was amazing. They all loved them and kept telling me that I should write a book." But it would be two years (spent studying food nutrition) before she would write The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner in 1991. It remains a bestseller and over the years she has penned 26 child-nutrition books.

"Delighted" with the popularity of the books, she soon hit on another business idea. "Working mums often said that they didn't have time to prepare nice meals for their toddlers and bought something from the supermarkets instead." Yet "supermarkets do not have freezers in the baby-food section so a lot of the food is long-life". These are often cooked at high temperatures that destroy some of the nutrients. So in 2005 Karmel worked as a consultant to leading retailers to help them develop healthier baby-food ranges. After a few years she "realised that I could do it myself", and decided to establish her own food range. Without the retailers to support her, Karmel needed to partner a food manufacturer. She wanted responsiblility for developing a recipe and marketing the food while someone else would make it. This model meant she only needed £200,000 to get the business going.

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She signed a deal with a food producer in 2007, but developing the food took longer than expected. "What works in the family kitchen doesn't always work in a food factory." Unsure about the taste of the new food, Karmel arranged for several different recipes to be used in a large chain of nurseries. "The kids acted as a massive focus group and we soon found out which ones were their favourites." With the products finally ready she arranged meetings with the supermarkets. Sainsbury's immediately agreed to stock the products, but others proved more reluctant. "Persuading supermarkets is difficult because there are not always clear reasons [for their hesitancy]." Even so, by 2009 sales for the Annabel Karmel Holding Company hit £3m.

Buoyed by the success of the baby meal range, Karmel decided to concentrate on different types of toddler food. "When you are out and about with kids, you often need to give them a snack so I decided to make healthy finger foods. She approached Disney and "they loved the idea". Working with a bigger partner had its advantages. "The Disney name makes it easier to sell products internationally. Hong Kong is now our fastest selling country."

Working with Disney has also helped Karmel raise her media profile. She now hosts a TV show, Annabel's Kitchen, on CITV. The combination of her media work, consultancy and food production brought in £20m in 2010, but she is not stopping there. She wants supermarkets to introduce freezers in the baby-food sections with "healthier alternatives for long-life food".

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.