Lucy Wright and Anna Mackenzie were best friends at 13 and became business partners in their twenties when they launched a range of muesli breakfast pots based on a family recipe. Hannah Flint talks to Newcastle graduate and young entrepreneur Lucy Wright to see what the girls’ growing food company, Cuckoo, is all about.
It is not every day that two young graduates with no experience in running a business successfully launch their own food product. It is perhaps even rarer that Selfridges agrees to be the first place to stock it.
But that’s where Newcastle University graduate Lucy Wright and her best-friend-come-business-partner Anna Mackenzie made the first sale of their Cuckoo Bircher muesli breakfast pots less than a year ago.
The duo have since released their sumptuous breakfast pots in shops across the country, such as Waitrose, including the Eldon Square branch, Whole Foods and Harvey Nichols. And the on-the-go colourful pots of Bircher muesli, which include flavour combinations like mango and coconut, apple and cinnamon spice and apricot and Madagascan vanilla, have been given the thumbs up by chef Jamie Oliver, whose own chain Recipease also stocks the product.
The pair first tried Bircher muesli while on a school trip in Switzerland and instantly loved it. Years later, Anna’s mother became hooked on the breakfast recipe, experimenting with different flavours.
The girls, who met when they were 13 on their first day at a new school, felt her creations were too tasty to be ignored and were determined to launch their own business together using her recipes - despite little business experience.
“Anna’s mum is a really good cook, and Anna had started writing a business plan for the muesli but had really wanted to do it with someone else,” says Lucy, 25, who graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Fine Art. “I said I was really interested and that it sounded like my dream job. We thought ‘Let’s just do it’”.
With little knowledge of how to turn a homemade recipe into a supermarket product, the girls set about contacting other food brands that they admired for help and advice.
“We didn’t know where to start, we’d never worked in the food industry before and we’d never set up a business,” says Lucy from Cuckoo’s London office in Green Park where she works with Anna, 26. “We were meeting up with brands every week and slowly but surely different brands gave us different advice and pointed us to different people.
“We met up with everyone and anyone we could, gave them samples of our products and asked them a thousand questions,” Lucy continues. “Slowly we started to realise that our idea did have legs and people really liked it. We realised how to go about it and what we were supposed to be doing.”
The advice they received steered their idea towards tasting sessions they put on for dozens of people before approaching Selfridges with their concept. The department store readily accepted the product after Lucy sent in samples of Cuckoo and an exclusive launch of the pots and their first sale soon followed.
“The brands we spoke to couldn’t be more helpful. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” says Lucy, who is from Essex but now lives in London. “With a lot of hard work over a year it all came together and then we launched in December last year in Selfridges where we sold the first pot.
“We always dreamed that we would launch somewhere like Selfridges, Whole Foods or Harvey Nichols because we know that they like to take on start-ups. It was so exciting. The buyer replied pretty quickly which is quite unusual.”
But despite their success in the small space of time that Cuckoo has been running, they have been careful not to let their business minds run away with them, still approaching new stockists with the same caution as they did at the beginning.
“We’ve done the odd thing wrong, but we’ve been so careful to not rush into anything,” explains Lucy. “Still now, if I get hold of a buyer’s details and I’m not sure how to go about it, rather than just bulldozing in, I’ll phone a brand who has been there and get the advice. We really go about everything really carefully.”
And Lucy freely admits that the two years they have already dedicated to Cuckoo have not been without their downfalls.
“I don’t really believe it, sometimes I have to pinch myself, it’s bizarre,” says Lucy, who had originally wanted to pursue a career in interior design. “We feel really lucky for having this company and that it’s our dream job.
“But you invest so much emotionally, if something goes on at work you just feel so low and you have to go off and see your friends and push it to the back of your mind, but you never really can. But we wouldn’t change it for the world.”
She continues that the pair has come up against the pressures of running their business, saying: “The biggest challenge is having a chilled product with a short shelf life. We are using really fresh ingredients, so it always needs to be kept in the fridge. The shelf life is only 18 days, so we have 18 days to sell the product. There’s always pressure because of that.”
Running Cuckoo is now the girls’ full-time job, with Lucy dedicating herself to the marketing and sales side of their concept, while Anna, who studied Business and Psychology at Edinburgh University, manages the finances and the running order of the business.
Through it all, Lucy is grateful to be making the journey with her best friend.
“Something doesn’t go our way each day. We do get stressed and worried and anxious but that’s when it’s really good to have the other person there,” she says. “We have each other to pull the other one out of it but it is tough.”
Next will be more oat-based, delicious and healthy products that can all be eaten on-the-go, as well as securing more stockists for the products. But although Cuckoo is marketed as a healthy snack, boasting fewer than 300 calories per serving and a low GI index, the duo will not be straying too far into the health food industry thanks to their firm belief that taste is the most important aspect of their business.
Lucy explains: “We’re not raw food or a cold pressed juice brand. We are a proper meal, with yoghurt and oats and good, high quality, delicious ingredients.
“We’re both really healthy, we don’t deprive ourselves of anything but we love healthy food and we both go to the gym. People are getting health conscious but taste does take precedence over health. Taste is always going to win over that.”
For now, the graduates are attempting to stay grounded while focusing on the future of their venture. And they still get through their days eating pots of their own muesli.
“We are astounded by it, but we want to stay grounded,” says Lucy. “People expect us and want us to say it’s going amazingly, but you never know what is going to happen. It’s a very competitive industry. We do have that fear that our products aren’t going to sell.
“We’re trying to take one day at a time and make sure everything is right.”