Organic baby food firm Piccolo has bigger ambitions than just profit

A fair few years ago, I lost a bet for which the punishment required me to eat a jar of baby food. I not only lost the bet, but also my battle with that tiny jar – I couldn’t get past the first mouthful. It was inedible.

I have a feeling these days losing that bet wouldn’t be so hard. Parents care more than ever what their offspring are consuming, with high-quality baby food on trend.

At a recent Leap 100 breakfast, Piccolo’s energetic founder, Cat Gazzoli explained more about her company’s rapid growth. Piccolo has only been going for just over a year but in that time, it has positioned itself at the vanguard of organic baby food, basing its recipes on impeccably sourced Mediterranean food.

Purpose is central to the way the company is structured and run. Gazzoli spent most of her career with the United Nations (UN) and was most recently CEO of Slow Food UK. “I’m not from a commercial background and that means I’ve spent 15 years with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) focused on making a difference – for example, at the UN it was the Millennium Development Goals. To then try to distil social purpose into a fast-moving consumer brand is a really big leap. However, the common strand within Piccolo at the shareholder level is KPIs around social purpose,” she says.

Piccolo’s non-profit activities are tied up with its mission. Gazzoli has set up an independent sister charity, which delivers weaning workshops aimed at marginalised, refugee and low-income parents. Piccolo has a partnership with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), which stems from Gazzoli’s work as a food educator. She has also given 10,000 pouches of food to the Red Cross so far.

On the charitable element, Gazzoli explains: “that’s really been distilled in Piccolo from the get-go. It wasn’t an add-on. In the parent and baby space, it’s kind of natural to do something social at one point. And a lot of competitors do that, but only after they are very financially successful – normally after they’ve been sold.”

“It’s a huge commitment from the investors, because it means that I have staff out of the office delivering a weaning workshop in Hackney,” says Gazzoli. But she has picked her investors well; Prue Leith is Piccolo’s most high-profile backer, but she is also Gazzoli’s mentor. Stop-in-the-street famous since becoming a judge on Bake Off, Leith is also a successful entrepreneur, starting Leiths Cookery School. They both “have always shared vision around food education – especially in the first 1,000 days.”

Success begets new challenges. Gazzoli recommends being transparent with the investors and trusts them to look at the many approaches she has been getting from additional investors. She talks favourably about getting a board early. “Before we even started trading properly, we were doing board meetings. It means that if we scaled faster than we thought – which is what happened – I have the governance and transparency structurally in place to deal with last-minute opportunities. I highly recommend it, although it’s a lot more work as a founder.”

Principled, ambitious and with great backers, Gazzoli clearly has the ingredients for success. The integration of a charity shows that for-profit companies may be the best way for being the change you want to see in the world.