THE BIG INTERVIEW: Crussh’s head of food James Kidman on the slick kitchen model fuelling its healthy eating ethos

James Kidman, head of food

With an extensive menu ranging from wheatgrass shots and turmeric lattes to egg protein pots and super salad boxes, Crussh is the destination for anyone with an interest in healthy living. But in a grab-and-go market where every mainstream competitor is trying to spread some form of ‘healthy eating’ message, how do you create a menu offer and kitchen model that allows true differentiation? Andrew Seymour went to meet the 40-strong chain’s food development chief, James Kidman, to find out.

Tell us about your role — what does a typical day or week involve?

It is a very varied and broad role — the development department is just me but I interact with the whole business, including our central kitchen out in Barking, where we make all the products, our store teams, and our head office as well.

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And that’s doing everything from initial ideas, so coming up with the recipe and sourcing raw materials, right through to working with marketing on how we present and market that product in terms of the packaging, the claims we want to make on that product and the training videos for it. I am also involved in category management so I do a lot of category analysis to work out where the NPD should be focused on.

You’ve been with Crussh three years. How has it changed?

When I joined the company it was just the Crussh estate. Over those three years the franchise element has come on, meaning we are developing bespoke ranges and formats for the different environments we have moved into. We have got a kids’ menu in Birmingham Children’s Hospital, for example, which is bespoke to that.

There are also specific ranges for specific store formats as well. Our partnership with Sainsbury’s has come on, too. We are currently in 60 Sainsbury’s stores. And we have got a range of eight products that sit within their food-to-go, which are manufactured for us.

What do you most enjoy about the role, and what is the most challenging aspect of it?

I enjoy when the NPD we launch is successful because a lot of work and time and effort goes in behind the scenes from numerous different departments to get something to market. If it’s a real success then it is nice for the whole team. The hardest part is trying to find a gap in the market.

It is so crowded and everyone is kind of doing health these days, so it’s about how can you stand out from the crowd and create something which is nutritious, a bit different but also commercially viable, easy to produce consistently and tastes good as well.

In terms of a typical store, how much is supplied from your central kitchen in Barking and how much is produced on site?

Everything you see in a fridge, so all of our cold food, is made in our central kitchen. We are talking wraps, salads, health pots, energy balls, flapjacks. In-store we make all of our juices and smoothies to order and our hot food is prepared in store as well.

Has that always been the case?

Yes, we have never been like a Pret model where sandwiches and salads are made on site. We just haven’t got the space in a lot of our stores — with the juice and smoothie element as well that takes up quite a bit of space and equipment, so we have never had the room to do that kind of thing. I actually think that making our products ourselves in a big kitchen allows us to be a bit more adventurous in terms of the type of products we can offer.

I wouldn’t have thought you would ever see Pret making any energy balls or making their own sauces on site, whereas in our central kitchen we have got the ability to do that. We can roast all our own veg, we can make all of our own dressings and sauces, so I do think it really gives us a point of difference. At the moment the central kitchen is a six-day-a-week operation, starting at about 5.30am and running through to 8pm.

Making our products ourselves in a central kitchen allows us to be a bit more adventurous in terms of the type of products we can offer”

Your recent autumn menu launch heralded some major changes. It included a revamped breakfast offer and 70% of the dishes are vegetarian. Is there usually that much transformation?

Autumn is always a big one for us, particularly on hot food. I would say from a vegetarian split ratio, it is probably about normal. We have always had a really strong emphasis on vegetarian and vegan food — 45% of our range is vegan. And that has kind of just happened because we naturally use a lot of fruit and vegetables in development. It is then quite easy for the dish to naturally work as a vegetarian or vegan option anyway.

What’s your approach to menu development — do you try and tweak dishes from one season to the next, or is it all about finding brand new category winners?

We don’t tend to touch our top sellers. I think that if it isn’t broken, you shouldn’t try to fix it. There are products that are part of what we call our ‘Crussh classics’ and they have been around for years, such as our chicken chili stew, which sells really well. We wouldn’t mess with that or take it off the menu. We have a ‘one in, one out’ rule and we try to stick to that, otherwise we will end up with too many products to fit in the fridge.

We tend to look at what is bottom of the category based on sales and do some seasonal replacement or we will look at a category which is under-performing or down on its like-for-likes and try and work out why that was. If it needs a bit of a push in terms of marketing or NPD, we will then focus on that.

Do you normally find it is more of a marketing issue when a product hasn’t performed as well as you would expect?

It is often a bit of both. Sometimes you haven’t got the balance of products within that category quite right, so it might be too meat-heavy skewed, or it might be too skewed towards veg. Other times you see a halo effect — we promoted salads in the summer and as a consequence salad sales went up but health pots went down slightly, so we had almost up-traded some of the people who were buying health pots to a salad.

Whatever we market tends to have a halo effect on the overall category but there is a fixed number of customers out there so it is not unusual to see a certain decline in other categories to compensate for the growth in others.

Menu development is an ongoing task. Do you take inspiration from a variety of sources?

Yes, a really wide variety. I think Instagram is a really good source of inspiration these days. You get a great insight into what consumers are actually eating and talking about. Obviously we need to look at our competition and be aware of what they are doing, not that we want to be a ‘me-too’ but it allows us to understand if are there any opportunities for us or whether somebody is hot on our heels with a certain product.

I think it is about achieving a balance between sticking to our core areas but also delivering the right innovation and delivering products that are cool and a bit quirky. We were the first people to launch CBD coffee onto the high street and that has been really successful. We have also just launched a black lemonade cold press juice made with coconut charcoal. We always knew that it wasn’t going to fly off the shelf but it gives us a point of difference. It is very on-trend and it is innovative.

Part of our food development is semi-dictated by the freezer sizes we have in store”

Is there any menu item you’ve developed that has really surprised you in terms of how well it has been embraced?

We launched a new category this time last year called hot salads and the inspiration behind that was that we trade really well in the summer with salads, but obviously during the winter those sales drop. All of our hot food products at that point in time were kind of a wet serve so we wanted to create something with a drier eat but with more of a salad consistency.

We launched a chicken shawarma hot super grain salad and it has consistently been the second best seller in that category ever since. It literally came in as a new product and went straight to number two and it has just stayed there, even during the summer. That really surprised us because we thought it would drop off during the summer.

When you’re designing a dish, how much consideration do you give to how it will be implemented in-store? Presumably you need to think about the speed of assembling and the effect on service?

Yes, speed of service is key in this environment. With hot food we do top it at the counter because we feel it offers that element of freshness and also choice and personalisation. But there are only two toppings per dish, so it is not like we have got 20 toppings for a customer to choose from. We are not a Tossed where it is a ‘build your own from scratch’ model. In terms of smoothies, I guess part of my development is semi-dictated by the freezer sizes we have in store. There are only so many items of frozen fruit that we can fit in a freezer, so if I wanted to bring in a new smoothie with five new fruits, something is going to have to give to fit those fruits in.

You also have to consider the layout of our stores as well. Quite often our coffee section is separate to our juice and smoothie section, so in the past I have wanted to do a coffee-based smoothie or something with coffee in, but operationally it would be a nightmare because the two zones in store aren’t next to each other and they don’t flow. You’d literally have to pass an espresso from one section to the other and we are all about speed of service and making things as simple as we can operationally. I have had to park ideas where they just wouldn’t work operationally.

How involved do you get in the back-of-house side and equipment specification?

More so when we open new stores. I will work with our head of facilities [David Enriquez Garcia] on the design of the store, which then dictates the menu. Depending on the space available, we would then be able to offer freshly pressed juice, or if we haven’t got enough counter space then we might not, for example. David might tell me we have only got room for a tiny freezer, in which case I would have to condense our smoothie range down and just pick three flavours of smoothie, for instance.

We might just have a microwave and no room for any kettles, so I would have to come up with a cooking programme where we could make porridge in a microwave rather than a traditional method. Some stores have got basements where they will prepare the hot food and bring it up whereas others just have a small space to prep it all in. It is about trying to develop a menu where one size does fit all.

It sounds like you have to be adaptable in terms of the equipment then?

Yes, there are multiple ways of doing things really. In some of our stores we have got a TurboChef to cook our toasties and bagels, which obviously are quite big and bulky. In other stores we have got an Autogrill, which is probably a quarter of the size, very neat and compact, and still does the same job but takes up a fifth of the space. So, yes, we can be very adaptive with what equipment we use depending on the space.

What is the biggest equipment hurdle you face when planning a new store?

Sometimes it is power — so how much power we can put through it. But usually it comes down to space and the number of countertops we have got. In an ideal world, I’m always after more counter space, more storage space and a decent-sized area back-of-house so staff are not all on top of each other. Our busiest store could have five or six staff at any one point in time, but we can run a unit with just one person as well, which we do at East Dulwich where it is a kiosk format.

Have you grown to really appreciate any particular piece of equipment to the point that you’ll always endeavour to plan it into any new store that opens?

We have kind of moved more away from TurboChefs into Autogrills over the last few years and any new store now tends to open with an Autogrill, mainly because it takes up so much less space. But generally, our juices and blenders haven’t changed in the three years I have been here. We try and make a smoothie within 90 seconds.

Equipment manufacturers often make the point that operators only use a fraction of the functionality their kit can offer. I’m guessing that’s probably the case for you…

Yes, it is similar. I have used TurboChef at my previous company as well and it is a very diverse piece of kit. We just literally use it for doing toasted sandwiches and bagels, but I know you can cook things like macaroni cheese in it and it browns the top and all those kind of things. I guess we have used it for only smaller elements of our business at the minute. You also have to consider the fact that we have not got them in all the stores. If we wanted to do mac and cheese, an Autogrill can’t do a mac and cheese.

Franchise format opens up new path to growth for juice bar operator

Crussh Fit Food & Juice bars was founded in the City of London in 1998 and now boasts 38 outlets. The company is firmly anchored in the capital, but it does have sites in St Albans, Birmingham and Bristol.

Franchise agreements with travel operator SSP and contract caterer Sodexo have allowed the chain to expand its presence in the market and secure unique sites, including Paddington station. It is lining up a large branch at Liverpool Street station in early 2020 which is set to feature the full Crussh offer, while the Sodexo arrangement is likely to see the company venture into more universities and hospitals.

James Kidman, head of food at Crussh, says that franchising offers a “more sustainable” pathway to growth in the current difficult high street environment and believes the company’s kitchen model and route-to-market model support expansion outside of London.

“As a business we are very adaptable. The set-up in Paddington is almost like a kiosk format. It has got a reduced menu but it still offers all the main components of what Crussh is, so it has got ‘fit food’, it has got coffee and it has got raw juice. At our site in City University, we took over an old shop so we weren’t able to offer freshly-made juices and smoothies there but it still has a full fridge and hot food offer. We are adapting the model as we go to fit the environment that we are given by Sodexo and SSP.”

Tags : CrusshHead of foodHealthy EatingJames Kidman
Andrew Seymour

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