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As part of our series profiling the finalists of the Business Champion Awards 2023 we spoke to Shiraz Master, the founder of Simply Doughnuts, who are a double finalist in this years awards.
What do you currently do at Simply Doughnuts?
As managing director, I’m naturally involved in all aspects of the business.
In any given week, I spend a lot of time on client liaison – gathering feedback from supermarkets and other retail customers and making sure that we’re responding to their needs and priorities. Over the last year, for example, there has been a big swing towards net zero agendas, so we’re doing a lot more to measure carbon impacts and to adopt the carbon auditing systems that some of the major multiples demand.
That also touches on another important aspect of my work, which is about investment in plant, premises and training: putting everything in place to increase production capacity, reduce process waste, boost efficiency and to do all that while maintaining our AA+ quality rating from the BRCGS.
In the last year, we’ve increased our output capacity by around half a million doughnuts per week, and that has coincided with significant energy efficiency improvements and a new waste management policy that has diverted 100% of our waste from landfill.
We’ve also greatly reduced food miles within the supply chain by extending our ‘buy local’ policy to include packaging and other non-food elements.
I’m also closely involved in new product development, which has been the backbone of the company since its formation. We have developed a range of doughnuts that stay fresh in ambient conditions for 34 days and this helps retailers to minimise their risks of waste-related losses; product having to be discarded because it passes its use-by date.
This has become an ever more important selling point for our products and we continue to make huge R&D efforts to extend those shelf-lives even further.
More recently, I have been spending more and more time on export sales and marketing. We’re making great progress in the Gulf States now, having agreed deals with hypermarkets in countries such as Qatar and UAE. We’ve had help from the Department for International Trade and we’ve taken part on several trade missions.
What was the inspiration behind your business?
It started when I was still working in the forecourt retail sector. I kept seeing customers coming in and looking for sweet, fresh, ‘on the go’ snacks that they could take with them in their cars, into work and so on. Doughnuts would have been great for that but, in a small retail environment, we didn’t have the freezer space to store large stocks of product. And even if we had, we didn’t usually have the time free to spend freezing and thawing it for display.
That got me thinking how popular doughnuts would be if we could only find some that could be stored at ambient temperatures, and which would last more than just two days, which is still typical of conventional doughnuts.
But such a product didn’t exist. It was either a question of buying fresh and having to face 2-day shelf-lives and expensive losses due to waste, or buying frozen and somehow finding the room and the staff time to handle all the freezing and thawing requirements. It wasn’t commercially viable to risk either, so I started to wonder what would be involved in making a long-lasting doughnut myself.
In 2011, I began looking around for food scientists and labs in Britain and Europe and began to get a sense that with the right processes and conditions, we really could create something that would last well, taste great and sell well in forecourts, supermarkets and other outlets. In 2012, I launched the business, and we’ve been growing ever since.
Whom do you admire?
I really admire my parents, who instilled values in me that are still incredibly important to the business. My father was a natural and dedicated entrepreneur. He showed me the value of determination and hard work, and of always being calm, fair and honest.
My late mother was an inspiration; an example of the importance of ‘soft’ interpersonal skills. She always made time to provide lots of support and affection.
She was very compassionate and had a real philosophy of ‘giving.’ For any employer who values his or her workforce, these are important values to remember.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
There are always small things, especially when it comes to new product development and trying out something that is genuinely completely new. We went down plenty of blind alleys in our R&D work, but that’s the nature of the work: we’re pioneering new process technologies and there’s always an element of trial and error in that. If I’d had a magic wand, then of course we’d have skipped the errors, but that’s all an inevitable part of it.
To be realistic, I don’t think there is much that I would do differently if I were doing it all again. I think we took the right approach. We identified the best possible partners for the job, we took advantage of their immense scientific expertise, and we had enough faith in their advice to invest the time and money to make things happen.
Yes, there have been products that we trialled and subsequently withdrew but, in general, the long shelf-life technology has been a huge success and a growing number of retailers are now stocking our products both in the UK and overseas.
What defines your way of doing business?
It’s very customer-led. Everything we do is the result of looking outward and trying to gauge what retailers and consumers are looking for. In the last few months, for example, we’ve been busy meeting supermarket category buyers, wholesalers and consumers in the Gulf States.
We’ve been gathering feedback on what flavours people prefer, how and when they buy, and whether there is anything else we need to understand. On the back of that, we have developed some new vanilla-based flavour variants and we’ve introduced some new pack sizes and packaging options.
But the same principle applies to everything. In the UK, for example, we’re constantly looking for new ways to reduce waste and, most recently, trying to find anything at all that we can do to insulate ourselves against rising cost pressures.
That all helps us to keep our wholesale prices down, which is obviously a real priority for supermarkets who are trying to support their shoppers.
We’ve also recently introduced a new vegan product, which responds to a growing market, and developed a long-lasting sugar glaze. The list really does go on, but it’s always about meeting underlying customer demand.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
In our case, I think that one of the things that really helped us was our decision to begin by seeking out the best advice that we could. It’s really important to set out in the right direction, and for a new entrepreneur, that direction isn’t always clear.
But there are experienced people out there who can provide technical input, market intelligence, real-world commercial feedback and so on. It might feel daunting to invest in securing that input, but as an investment, it’s well worthwhile.