Marion Grasby has a fresh challenge with expansion to the US
Former Masterchef contestant Marion Grasby has snagged a supplier deal with major US supermarket Kroger to take a further bite out of the American market with her home meal kits.
Having launched her products in the US at the start of the year, the partnership is the crowning jewel in the entrepreneur’s US expansion, which will see Marion’s Kitchen products stocked in more than 5000 stores across the country by the end of the year.
The US retail giant – which generated $US108.5 billion ($140.2b) revenue last year – began stocking the Marion’s Kitchen range at the start of June, but speaking to SmartCompany from her base in Bangkok, Grasby says the road to the US has been a long one.
“It certainly does add a huge amount of workload – I can tell you there have been many late nights and early mornings,” Grasby says.
“We spent about two years researching the market and researching the route we’d have to take to get there. It’s a very complicated and complex market to be in. Each state has its own set of brokers, sale people, different distribution channels and each retailer even has a different set of lingo.”
But despite the complexity of the market, Grasby says she could not ignore the opportunity the US offered in terms of a burgeoning interest in south-east Asian cuisine.
“We had a look at quite a few different markets, including the UK and different parts of Europe,” she says.
“What drew us to the US in particular is that Asian food is just starting to become something a lot bigger over there. In Australia, Thai food and south-east Asian food is a part of how we cook and eat.”
“But in the US it’s more Mexican and Chinese dishes that are really well known.
For us, it’s about being the first people in there really with something innovative around the cuisine, which is just starting to emerge in a mainstream sort of way.
“That and also we just like a good challenge,” she laughs.
Grasby shares with SmartCompany how she made the move and her five tips for successfully expanding your business across international waters.
1. Do your research
Grasby says the most important lesson she could share with other businesses on expanding globally is to remember that knowledge is key.
“For us, part of the research process was us literally calling people and calling sales teams [in the US],” she says.
“Not just trying to find people to work with, but talking to them and trying to find out, how does it work there? What’s the best way to do it?”
“I think getting out there and actually talking to other businesses that have done that kind of thing and doing your own research is really the most important thing.”
2. Find a partner
Grasby and her husband and business partner Tim Althaus paired up with two private equity partners to finance the Marion’s Kitchen expansion.
“The US business structure is actually a completely separate one to the Australian business,” she says.
“By involving the two partners we were able to fund the US expansion internally, so there’s now four of us involved in the US side of the business.”
She says deciding to merge with partners from a private equity and finance background meant she could focus on the parts of the business she was best at, such as product development.
“They’ve given us a lot backend support. That’s getting down to the nitty gritty – promotional strategies, crunching the numbers, sorting out the logistics, doing all the financial structures and compliance. It’s been a big help and a great investment.”
3. Don’t take your eye off Australia
Marion’s Kitchen sells over 150,000 meal kits per month in Australia, and the Australian arm of the business is estimated to bring in sales of up to $10 million a year. But in terms of store count, Grasby’s US operations are set to surpass her home market by the end of the year.
Grasby says Australia is still the key market for the business, but she admits it has been difficult to pay equal attention to both countries.
“It’s been a real challenge and one of the reasons why Tim and I decided to make the move to Bangkok,” she says.
“We were able to set up a structure here where staff members can help us with both operations and we can easily get over to the US or fly back home.”
It’s particularly important for Marion’s Kitchen to watch the local market because since launching her brand five years ago, other brands have flooded the meal kit space in Australia.
“Since having the success we’ve had, we have had a lot of people coming in with similar offerings, which is fine – it’s a nice form of flattery,” she laughs.
But Grasby says her attention to quality and refusal to sell products she wouldn’t serve up in her kitchen has given the business an advantage.
“I think where we’ve been able to have a slight edge and where being a smaller player, or at least starting out as a smaller player, has helped us is because I care so much about the product.”
4. Don’t change what you do well
Asked about possible modifications to the US offering, Grasby concedes making changes was an issue she was particularly concerned about.
“It was something I thought about a lot, because flavours and tastes and the recipe are all firmly in my court,” she says.
“I felt like what we’re offering in Australia are the very best products we can make. The green curry is the way my mum makes it. I felt like if I was going to change it, I might be dumbing it down.”
While the packaging and wording on some of the products was changed—“it had to be cilantro not coriander”—Grasby says she tried hard not to second-guess US tastes.
“I think that sort of attitude almost underestimates the customer a little bit. So we’ve stuck with the same formulation, but we’ve short-listed the flavours we think will work better—the more popular flavours.”
Instead of taking their full 15 product-strong range to the states, Marion’s Kitchen will instead start out with its four most popular products: green and red curries, laksa, pad Thai and Indian butter chicken.
5. Leverage your local success
Having gained a profile in Australia thanks to her stint on reality television, Grasby is well versed at leveraging a small amount of success into bigger opportunities.
“I think the key is to really have a good business to start with,” she says.
“Having that profile, it got one big toe in the door, but we almost had to prove ourselves because of that. A big national retailer doesn’t care if you’ve been on TV for 15 minutes, they care about financial capacity.”
But Grasby says she’s still incredibly grateful for the opportunities Masterchef has afforded her.
“I don’t mind wearing it. I love the fact my job is to create, find and research an awesome product I love. I don’t mind being a TV personality, as long as I get to be doing that … Now I’ve been in the game this long, it really feel like I have proved myself,” she adds.