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Food and Drink

Chris Holmes

Chris is the founder and CEO of SMASH (Save Money And Stay Healthy), Gen-Z’s go-to app for affordable, healthier food, which he founded in lockdown after having to shut around 110 restaurants during Covid whilst MD of ASK Italian. Chris was on the Executive Board of KFC where he led the launch of their loyalty platform (The Colonel’s Club) and oversaw the opening of over 100 new sites in the UK and Ireland. Chris is ex-PwC and also held strategic planning roles for Boots and EMI Music. Chris has 20 years of experience across corporate finance, B2C and hospitality, has an MBA from London Business School and also is a trustee for Kenya-based charity Food For Education (which builds and operates high-tech central kitchens for school meals, with the bold goal of feeding 1 million kids a day).      

One business success

  • Closing our £1m seed round to get SMASH off the ground - At that point everything was moving so quickly – legals, team and supplier contracts. It was only when the money was in the bank that for the first time I thought, wow this is actually going to happen. I had recently watched an episode of The Voice (who doesn’t love Sir Tom Jones?!) where a contestant had gone out in the semi-finals to grand applause and said something on his exit interview like, “well if I didn’t give it a go – how can I look my son in the eye and tell him to follow his dreams”? I felt the same way about SMASH. At that point I knew whatever happened next, we had achieved something important. Tessa from Olio once told me that there are 3 main “0-60” experiences in your life – getting married, having kids and starting your own business! It’s not for the faint hearted but when you make something happen from nothing – that’s something to be proud of … regardless of the twists, turns, successes, failures and lessons that will inevitably follow! 

Two challenges for the sector

  • Putting health into the ESG agenda: my late grandfather was a food scientist who worked for Unilever and subsequently ran the Leatherhead Food Research facility. He would say that, for decades, the mission the food industry has been pursuing is one of how to feed a massively growing population for less. Today we not only need to do that, but we also need to do it in a way that can protect the planet and protect our health and the health of future generations. The former (sustainability objective) has gained far more traction than the latter (population level health). Take the big QSR (quick service restaurant) chains opting to remove plastic straws – it’s now demanded by consumers (that “blue planet moment” & image of a seahorse wrapped around a plastic straw certainly is a reminder of how marketing can be a powerful force for good); it makes total operational sense (the restaurant team don’t have to keep refilling straws and can focus on other customer tasks) and commercially it’s a win (no more cost of plastic straws). For health to jump up the agenda … there are challenges across these areas to overcome. Better food options need to be desired and demanded by customers, easy to make and have incremental commercial upside. It can be done … but it will take courage and leadership for marketers over the next 30 years to override their decades long mantra of “sell more core” and bravely innovate and unleash the power of marketing in the healthier food space. That’s why we started SMASH – to provide a platform to facilitate that change.   
  • Shifting sands of regulation - I know the food sector has seen a raft of consultations and policies as the Government seeks to find routes to tackle the rising tide of obesity. Calorie labelling for restaurant chains has now happened – and although it’s not for everyone, the stories of 40+ year old friends making different decisions is mounting up. This said, for young people with £3 to spend on lunch – there are also stories of some using calories as a proxy for value, looking to max their intake per £! Although I’m firmly in the camp that the more nutritional data that exists in the food system, the more it can be used to support the promotion of better choices, whatever your view on each policy – clarity is critical. Post-covid timing challenges aside, knowing calorie labelling was coming did mean chains could prepare, innovate and battle it out on a common playing field. The shift back in date for HFSS (high in fat, sugar and salt) advertising restrictions & supermarket multi-buys, which Tesco and Sainsburys are still implementing – but not others, has added confusion to an already complex environment. However perhaps the lack of consistency could also put at risk future appetite to improve the health landscape, and sow seeds of doubt into the Boards who just a few months ago may have been up for more of a radical reformulation journey. A few old school execs may welcome the extra time, but I actually think most people in the food business would have valued both the certainty and the opportunity to make a difference.   

Three forecasts for the sector

  • Changing the environment: noting that “easy” beats everything - The narrative around health is (rightly) changing. It’s moving away from individual choices (if you have only £3 and no lunch option near you except a low-priced takeaway that only sells fried food and chips – is anything else really a choice?) and moving towards total system design – i.e. how can you redesign high streets, communities and the system at large to make the healthier choice the most obvious, accessible, desirable, affordable and ultimately convenient choice. In today’s world, easy beats everything – price, quality, health … everything. At SMASH we have a youth board with eight inspiring young people from Jamie Oliver’s Bite Back 2030, a youth-led charity and food campaigning organisation. We met one (who also helped us build our website) at our media agency offices in London. I offered to take everyone out to find lunch at Borough Market, but he chose to stay in the office and order Nandos on Deliveroo. He simply said it was easier than going out. Of course, being easy to access doesn’t just apply to health – but imagine if the first ten products you saw on Deliveroo were the better options, the 3-5pm after-school promotion at the local chicken shop was on a rice box instead of a burger and chips, that the supermarket isles that hit you first are stocked with healthier swaps, that healthy cooking ran through the primary school syllabus, and that every food ad we saw could promote just slightly better options?       
  • VAT reform: I’m amazed the current VAT system has lasted as long as it has. The Government has experimented with using this as a relief mechanism for restaurant and hospitality businesses during Covid and generally, it’s been massively appreciated. I think this experiment could pave the way for future reform – perhaps in favour of lowering the cost of better options. Perhaps in place of differentiating between hot vs cold food (or indeed wheat vs potato-based crisps, cakes vs biscuits …) as with the current system – what if in the future it differentiated between healthier vs less healthy options? Today a bottle of water has the same VAT rate as a can of Coca-Cola. Surely that will one day change. If you look at the recent national food strategy debate, there are a lot of interesting ideas under discussion – salt taxes etc, which you could see driving reformulation (as well as further industry grumbles). These (taxes) are likely to be put on ice due to the cost of living crisis – however, there is nothing in there just yet that speaks to making healthier options cheaper – perhaps VAT reform could be one to look at. Making healthier items cheaper in out-of-home settings and supermarkets could both ease the cost of living and inspire better choices…  
  • Definitions and data are key (as is keeping it simple): ultimately if we want a healthy society – we need to make healthy food healthy business. As much as we need to make it easy for individuals to discover and access better options – we also need to make it easy for businesses large and small to identify and so create and promote better options.  I have sat in countless workshops on how to make the nation healthier, where no matter what idea is muted, almost always the debate turns to different interpretations as to “what is healthy?”. Whilst this question baffles the most experienced of nutritionists, what chance has a junior marketer at a burger chain got, or indeed the 17-year-old with £3 in their pocket for lunch? We know calories in isolation are not the answer, and yet the Government’s complex nutrient profile model itself has no calorie limits (and so tends to not be effective in the portion-generous out-of-home space). Also, the vast majority of the nation's restaurants are independent – none of whom are required to list out nutritional information (not least as it would cost around £15k on average for a small restaurant to lab test their menu, or indeed spend a month inputting recipe data). And yet – without this data how can Just Eat (for example) ever voluntarily promote healthier options, give them on app prominence or price promote them in neighbourhoods with high obesity rates? Complex problems like obesity require complex solutions, however perhaps creating a really simple definition (is it a better choice – yes or no?!) and then finding a scalable way to inject that data into the system could set the scene for healthier food to be firmly centre stage. As such – watch this space for nutrient profile model 2.0, coming to a screen near you soon!  

June 2022