20 July 2020
He has a Masters degree in physics, worked cabin crew for BA, ran an idustrial flooring company and a video production business. But after an evening with Pelé left him out of pocket, Alex Markham decided to follow his passion and take on the world of food-to-go. His fresh interpretations of the classic Pot Noodle have won prestigious awards and are now sold all over the country, from the Ancoats General Store to Selfridges.
Coincidentally, I recently did a photoshoot for a streetwear brand outside your unit with that great Ziggy Stardust / Princess Leia / Campbell’s soup graffiti as the backdrop.
About 18 months ago a street artist called Trafford Parsons put something on social media about wanting blank wall spaces in the city so that he could display some of his work. I had a big shutter so I checked with the council and they said go for it! He showed me his idea of Leia and Bowie with the Warhol soup can and I loved it so he came along and basically projected it and then painted it. He was a really eccentric, unusual guy and it was great. He did a few around the city centre, around the time of the Cities of Hope street art festival in 2016.
How did ‘Soop’ come to life?
My background isn’t in food at all, it’s in video. I used to run a video production company, we actually did quite a few big live tours for people like Whoopi Goldberg. We did an event with Pele where he came over and it was supposed to be ‘An Evening With…’ where there’s a presenter who interviews him but the client sadly went bust before they could pay us. It was a big, big sum of money. I managed to limp on and pay all of the people that had worked on the event but it took 12 months to do that and every month I was working just to pay off debts. By the end of it I just thought, ‘Nah, this is silly’.
One day when I was on holiday in Portugal I was looking at Facebook and you know people share those ‘Tasty’ videos, well one of them had a mason jar that someone had filled with noodles, a stock cube, garlic, ginger and a few bits of leftover chicken and veg and basically taken it to work with them and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea’. When I came back I started messing around with a few flavours with my sister and her kids one afternoon and my sister said to me, ‘You know, this is actually a really good idea’.
Obviously you have Pot Noodles, Super Noodles, Bol, there’s a few out there but there’s nobody that does something completely fresh. The product that we developed in the end has a flavour base in the bottom, fresh rice noodles, protein - so chicken, pork, beef or tofu, then fresh vegetables, spinach, spring onion with a herb garnish on top. When when you’re ready to eat it, exactly like a Pot Noodle, you just fill it with hot water, stir, leave for two minutes and you have a delicious, completely fresh, noodle soup.
So you’ve never done anything in the food industry before?
No, not at all. All of this came about because I was sick of doing video production and was literally laying beside a pool on holiday and thought, ‘That’s a really good idea, I’m going to do that!’ When I arrived home I had to do a video for a dental patient management software presentation, I was dreading it. I realized that I was just doing it to pay the bills and I don’t want to do a job to just pays the bills. I want to do a job that I love and I’ve always loved food so everything kind of aligned.
How long ago was that?
Three years ago now.
And do you love it?
Yes, I really enjoy it, although it’s a lot harder work than I thought it was going to be.
I had a feeling you might say that.
A lot, a lot harder work. But if it was easy then everyone would do it. I’ve always said that about starting your own business. You’re the bookkeeper, you’re sweeping the floors at the end of the day, you’re up at four in the morning going to suppliers, you have to do everything.
What took you by surprise in particular?
To get a bit of a buzz around the product on social media I started making them at home and people could order them through my website if they lived in the city centre, then I would personally deliver every one on my bicycle. That was hard, really difficult. I was getting up at four in the morning to get the supplies, cooking and assembling each one and then going out and delivering them all over the city by hand. I would work until two or three in the afternoon which sounds like a nice early finish but by then I’d had a solid ten or eleven hour work day and I was exhausted.
I ended up talking to the Ancoats General Store as they’d noticed what I was doing. I got in touch with the owner and he loved the products and wanted to stock them in the store. For me it felt amazing just to be actually able to make a big batch of them to then sit in a store fridge and from there it really took off. They were selling like… a lot. From there we ended up in a few other stores such as Stretford Food Hall and a store in Castlefield. It was around that time that I started talking to the Business Growth Hub, a guy called Mick Hadfield, who was originally my business mentor.
Ah that’s interesting. I actually spoke to them recently about joining their programme for my own business, Blossom.
100% I would recommend it. They are incredible. Mick and I literally went through the costings of everything, all the finances, he even said, ‘I know someone that does chicken cheaper than that’ and put me in touch with a new supplier! They were really, really good.
It was Mick that suggested that I went for the Great Taste Awards. I entered five products and won three awards! A one star award, a two star award and our tofu and wild mushroom pot, which is our vegan option, won a three gold star award which is the highest award you can get.
Obviously I’d heard about the Great Taste Awards and I’ve seen the little symbol on stuff but the lady from the Guild of Fine Foods called me up and said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a three gold star award!’. I was a bit like, ‘Oh yeah, well thanks very much. That’s good to hear and it’ll look nice on the packaging’. I didn’t think much more about it.
Afterwards, I learned how difficult the process you have to go through is in order to get that three gold star award. A whole room of judges have to taste your product and every single one has to agree that it’s worthy of three gold stars; if even one judge disagrees then it doesn’t get it - it’s a huge accolade. Out of almost 13,000 products entered only 120 were awarded three gold stars. So actually I should have been a bit more enthusiastic about getting it!
With no exaggeration, the awards were announced in the morning and within an hour I had Fortnum & Mason, Harrods and Selfridges all get in touch with me wanting to get my products in their stores. It was incredible.
So that was a huge turning point?
Yeah. There was a bit of a bidding war because all three wanted exclusivity. In the end I went with Selfridges because I felt like it fit with my brand a bit more, they’re a bit more modern. From there we were approached by a national chilled food distributor and it’s just grown really nicely ever since.
That’s incredible. What year was that?
So pretty quickly after you first launched. What an extraordinary journey.
Yes, literally from my own little kitchen through to a full commercial kitchen in a year. In September 2019 though, me being me, I thought, ‘I’m not working quite hard enough, I need something else to do!’. Our kitchen wasn’t being used over weekends and one day I was at home thinking, ‘I really want a Sunday roast’. I looked on Uber Eats expecting to be able to order one to be delivered but at the time there wasn’t a single place in Manchester you could order a Sunday roast. Again I thought, ‘That’s a really good idea, I’m going to start doing that’, so I set up ‘The Sunday Roast Company’. The first week we did nine, just me and my partner in this massive kitchen but it’s built and built and now there’s five of us preparing the food every week.
You’re clearly a man that doesn’t enjoy time off.
No you’re right, Saturday is my only day off, that’s the one protected day.
So where do you go from here? You’re obviously doing incredibly well.
We’ve continued to diversify through the Store Group - now we’re making fresh sandwiches too, we’ve started a brand called ‘sndwch’ which offers a really nice vegan range. All the vegan sandwiches I’d come across in the past never really appealed to me. No one did like a ‘chicken and stuffing’, do you know what I mean? Like normal sandwiches but veganised. We’re working with ‘This isn’t’, a plant-based meat brand based in London. They make ‘This isn’t chicken’, ‘This isn’t bacon’ etc. They were the closest, most authentic plant-based meat products we could find. Now we make ‘Not a chicken and stuffing sandwich’, ‘Not a chicken and bacon sandwich’, ‘Not a BLT’ and ‘Not a cheese and onion sandwich’.
They sound amazing! And they’re available in the General Store?
Yes. We don’t call them vegan because that’s a protected trademark so they’re all plant-based. Also there was a big food-to-go manufacturer that sadly went bust due to the pandemic who were the wedge sandwich supplier for the Store Group. When they went into administration I was asked if we could start supplying those too.
You’ll be growing out of this place before you know it.
I know, we’re definitely growing.
So it was a good decision to get out of video then?
Yeah, I mean this business is so, so different. When video was going well and you have a client that you really click with, who you buzz with and it really works, it’s amazing right? It was so much fun, it was joyous. But when you have a client that’s really hard work and three separate people all give you different amends on the same project, it can be horrible. Sadly those jobs were more frequent than the good ones.
This is brilliant. It’s hard work but it’s manufacturing. You come in, get all the products, get in the kitchen, make it, you get them out the door, deliver them, get an invoice in and that’s it. It’s over, it’s done, it’s easy. There’s a kind of creative side when you’re developing recipes so I’m not missing that side of things. I’ve never been this kind of, ‘I’m the boss and you’re the workers’, my colleagues are great, everyone gets on, we have the radio on, have a laugh and I love it. I really, really enjoy it.
What advice would you give to people thinking about starting their own business, in the food sector or otherwise?
Ask for help. Always ask for help. 100%. I’ve tried to do too much on my own, it’s really tempting to try and save money by doing things by yourself. That’s where Business Growth Hub absolutely came into its own. I hate selling, I’m not particularly good at marketing or branding but there’s so much free or funded advice out there for businesses and I just didn’t take advantage of it enough.
I definitely need to get in touch with them, I think maybe I was sceptical about how helpful it would be for me.
I did a Masters degree in Physics and then weirdly ended up working for BA as cabin crew so nothing at all to do with my degree. After that though, I started running an industrial flooring company which I did for nine years. That business unfortunately went bust in the 2007 recession which was horrible. The point is I have a lot of business experience but even so the Growth Hub really helped me. I was on their food programme called Recipe4Success which was a course of about 14 different seminars and projects where you could cherry pick the ones you wanted to study.
Is this all self funded or did you get investors to help you get started?
Initially it was self funded but around about 12 months ago I sold a chunk of shares to a business angel and that really helped to build this kitchen.
It really feels like the sky is the limit for you guys.
I’ve always felt like that was the case. The thing is… I like to be kept interested and engaged with stuff. I wouldn’t say I get bored quickly, that makes me sound sort of flighty and I’m not. There’s always a new product to develop, particularly with food-to-go and working with the Store Group. We’ve gone from soup to bag sandwiches, vegan options, wedges, we’re talking about even more stuff. We’re doing cheeses, talking about doing deli boards. That’s the thing with the food industry, it’s so diverse.
I think you have to have that sort of personality to be an entrepreneur, that you don’t just settle.
You have to always be thinking about what’s next. The number of times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a really good idea even if nine times out of 10 nothing happens to it.
What was your best day at work?
In my whole career? Probably Whoopi Goldberg and doing that first night with her at the London Palladium. It was incredible, such a legend that she is. We’d done everything for that - all the staging, lighting, sound, the whole production. Hearing the crowd’s reaction to her coming on, going back stage and being involved in everything, that was just incredible.
Can I ask what was the worst day?
The last day of the flooring company, sitting everyone down, I was in tears, telling people, ‘That’s it, we can’t afford to employ you anymore’. My business parter and I had taken out loans, we’d paid staff on our personal credit cards, we’d literally got to the point where we just can’t get any more money and that was that. It was just horrible, horrible. I’ll never forget that feeling. What made it worse, what really got to me, was that everybody was so lovely, people were so understanding about it. They knew we did our best to keep it going.
Would it be fair to say that being based in Ancoats has played a small part in the success of Soop?
Totally, 100%. I moved to Manchester 10 years ago in May. I lived on Tariff Street which is not really Northern Quarter, not really Ancoats, it’s sort of Piccadilly Basin area. I just fell in love with that particular area although at the time there wasn’t much going on around there and particularly not around here (Soop are based on Naval Street) there really was nothing. This is before I had a relationship with them, but when Ancoats General Store first opened up in Ancoats I thought they were crazy! Since then I’ve watched it go from literally wastleand to develop into what it is now and it’s amazing, it’s bonkers.
There’s such a good community spirit. A few Sundays ago when the weather was really nice, the square was full of people not necessarily from around here and it got out of hand and there was litter everywhere. Then the next morning I saw on social media how everybody came together to clean it all up. That was amazing, this is an amazing place.
Alex has a range of delicious products currently stocked in the Ancoats General Store including Soop pots and plant based sandwiches. Find out more here www.soop.co.uk