A Cambridgeshire company behind a radical innovation in chargrill cooking is getting its scaleup plans back on track with COVID-19 support from Innovate UK and Enterprise Europe Network.
The fat atomising burner technology developed by Active Food Systems Ltd (AFS) has the potential to disrupt the catering and commercial kitchen sector world-wide.
Despite severe COVID-19 disruption to its markets, the team at AFS recently signed an exclusive licensing agreement with one of the biggest commercial kitchen equipment manufacturers in the US.
AFS had been accepted on to the Innovate UK Scaleup Programme in September 2019 and entered 2020 with a significant order book, primarily from UK hospitality chains, including Whitbread and Greene King.
Growth in sales from 2014 had averaged 50%, with exponential increases of 70% in 2018 and 80% the following year.
Sustainability, efficiency, quality
Restaurant chains with an eye on sustainability, operational efficiency and food quality are quick to see the benefits of the Synergy Grill technology. Being able to halve cooking times and save up to 59% on energy consumption has earned a Carbon Trust accreditation.
By early 2020, Synergy Grills were being championed by chefs across the world for their superior cooking capabilities and operational flexibility. Meat and fish can be cooked side-by-side with no mixing of flavours.
When the COVID-19 crisis erupted, however, the sudden closure of the UK hospitality industry resulted in cancelled orders and associated cashflow concerns.
Chairman Justin Cadbury and his directors had to turn their attention from growth issues around lean manufacturing and market expansion strategies to just keeping the business solvent.
Commercial director Richard Ebbs said: “After being selected for Scaleup, we were assigned two very capable directors. Chris Price-Jones was working with our new production manager on manufacturing processes, getting ready to gear up for the larger orders.
“Chris Ellis had become a great sounding board for our marketing thinking and had helped us develop a new positioning line, #LikeNoOther.
‘Survive, stabilise and grow’ support
“Unfortunately, a lot of the great work they were doing ground to a halt, as the COVID-19 lockdown decimated our sales and forced most of our teams to be furloughed.”
As the industry close-down began to bite, Chris Ellis and the Innovate UK Scaleup team became an important advice line, enhancing existing support to help the company to ‘survive, stabilise and grow’.
They signposted not only government funding initiatives but also private finance options to finance director Andrew Edwards.
Richard added: “The Scaleup support has adapted brilliantly and continues to assist us. Chris Ellis has worked collaboratively with the new working group created to refine our European export strategy and market engagement plans. That also involves Nick Walsh, our long-term adviser from the Department for International Trade’s East of England team.”
That agile response among the support partners extended to the major US distribution deal signed last month with the Garland brand, part of the Welbilt Group. It was reviewed and amended at the last minute as a result of IP expertise and advice from Brian More, another of the Innovate UK Scaleup Board directors.
Meanwhile, new products and leasing options are under development as the company awaits the resumption of business in the hospitality industry and a return to full production.