Robert Jakobi: How I convinced Pret and Itsu founder Julian Metcalfe to join my popcorn startup

First of all, how did your business journey begin?

My career journey began while I was in my Senior Year at the University of Pennsylvania. I realised there was a gap to be exploited by selling healthy snacks to the cinemas.

There were a number of really great Japanese restaurants in Philadelphia including Pod and edamame was always very popular. This inspired me to launch dry roasted edamame coated in chocolate and yoghurt as a mainstream snack.

After graduating from Penn, I joined Barclays Capital in New York as an Analyst on the Global Markets Graduate Program. I continued my snacks business on the side while working full time on the Commodities and FX trading desks and I then returned to London in 2008 and continued my career at Barclays Capital as an Associate.

In March 2009 I decided to launch the chocolate and yoghurt edamame range under the brand name Pod bites. I had taken inspiration for the brand name from the Pod restaurant in Philadelphia. I secured listings in Harvey Nichols and Selfridges and Harrods quickly followed suit.

How did you team up with Julian Mecalfe?

Keen to have my Pod bites range stocked in itsu and Pret I approached the founder Julian Metcalfe directly. I finally managed to get a meeting after months of persistence. Julian asked me to come and run Metcalfe’s Food Company in our first meeting and the rest is history!

You were recognised in the illustrious Forbes 30 under 30 for your achievements in the food industry, how does this feel?

I was truly humbled (and very excited) to appear in the 30U30. It was a great honour even more so because both Randall Lane (Forbes editor-in-chief) and the award-winning restaurateur Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group) judged the category.

You were the only British individual in the Food and Drinks category, must be amazing to fly the flag?

Yes it is amazing to be the only British individual in the Food and Drinks category. I actually didn’t even realise this was the case until someone told me afterwards!

There is a vast amount of talent from the UK in food and drink so I suspect there might be more than one British company in next year’s list!

What’s been your business/personal highlight at Metcalfe’s?

Appearing in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 was a professional highlight. We were ranked at number 4, which makes us the fastest growing privately owned food and drink company in the UK.

This was also the first time in history that a food and drink company has made it into the top 5.

I would count speaking at One Young World in Dublin in October 2014 as a special delegate on a panel to celebrate the most successful young entrepreneurs in the world as my personal career highlight.

Why do you think there’s been such a boom in the health market?

For several reasons I believe:

  • There has been an increase in the number of ‘fitness gurus’ – celebrities who have made their name in the fitness industry.
  • Health is now very much positioned as something aspirational – vegetable juices and quinoa etc. - are now things that people want to be seen eating.
  • British consumers nowadays care more than ever about what they put in their bodies. As such there is increasing demand for ‘natural’ products.
  • There is a fashion towards diets & trends eg gluten free.

Any advice for startups in the food industry?

Building a business is definitely not easy. The most important thing is to learn from your mistakes. From my own personal experience there are several pieces of advice that I would offer to early stage startups looking to grow:

Persistence

I know first-hand how disheartening it can be to face rejection but at the same time how rewarding persistence can be when it pays off. When I started my snacks business Pod bites, a range of chocolate and yoghurt covered edamame, I was intent on having them stocked in itsu as I knew it was the perfect outlet.

I contacted Julian’s office weekly for several months and didn’t hear anything back. Eventually, he finally gave in and agreed to meet with me and the rest is history! The retail market these days is undeniably tough and competition is fierce but if you truly believe in your product you just need to persist until you find a way to make it happen. Believe in your product and believe in yourself.

Listen and learn

But remember that doesn't mean you don't have an opinion. You just need to pick your moment. Always listen to what your customers have to say as fundamentally it is their business that will drive yours. With any retail business, you are often dealing with people that you are reliant on for your business to succeed.

Build a strong team

One of the main ways that we have been able to maintain such growth is by building a very dynamic, entrepreneurial and spirited team underneath us. It is so important to work with people that share each other’s passion and are all dedicated to making the business as successful as it can be. Our team are the envy of the food industry!

 

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