Vishal Madhu is the founder and MD of Innovative Bites. His role is to oversee the running of the operation and grow the business year on year.
Innovative Bites is the UK’s largest importer and wholesaler of American grocery products and incorporates the trade only website American Wholesale, www.americanwholesale.co.uk.
Vishal, what’s the story behind Innovative Bites and americanwholesale.co.uk?
Innovative Bites is the parent company of American Wholesale.
American Wholesale was set up just over two years ago as an avenue to supply our growing number of customers who own their own stores or chains of stores. Innovative Bites manages the larger accounts such as the multiples, discounters and wholesalers.
I was in full time employment when I set up the business, which I initially set up as a side activity. The first brand I imported from the U.S. was New York Style Pitta Chips, which I sold to the famous department store Harvey Nichols. The product is still sold in the business today.
When did the business start up and how did it come into being?
The business was founded in 2008 when I was working in the food industry for a larger corporate company. As time went on, Innovative Bites started to get busier and take up more time, which led to me leaving my full time job and focusing on growing this business to where it is now.
What different types of product do you import?
We supply a mixture of core snacks, grocery items from breakfast cereals to baking products, confectionery lines and drinks. The UK market for American products is currently worth around £32 million.
Which major brands do you import?
One of the major brands we import exclusively is Twinkies. It’s one of the largest snack brands in the U.S. and we’re proud to be the exclusive importer for their entire portfolio, which also includes Snoballs and Cupcakes. We also work exclusively with MOM’s Cereals, a company which produces a popular cereal filled with coloured mini marshmallow pieces, to import their cereals to the U.K. WarHeads and Cookie Dough bites are two unique and growing brands which we have started working with over the last year. Within drinks, we have an exclusive export deal with Boylan soft drinks. They produce a range of authentic premium American soft drinks, including the famous Root Beer drink.
Which brands do you have exclusive UK distribution for?
We’re responsible for anything under the Hostess brand and currently handle Twinkies and Snoballs. Soon we’ll also be adding Cupcakes to the portfolio. In the Summer we’re launching an exclusive Ghostbusters tie-in, Key Lime flavoured Twinkie, to tie in with the new release Ghostbusters, due out this Summer, an exclusive tie in with Sony Pictures. Cookie Dough Bites and WarHeads confectionery are two growing brands exclusive to us.
Moms Cereal is another company we work with exclusively. We currently supply four of their cereal brands here. We have exclusivity to all of Boylans drinks and have recently signed a deal with Toad-Alley, who produce chocolate covered pretzels.
How do you decide what to import?
We’re aware of the top selling brands in the U.S. in each of the categories in which we trade and where possible we bring these products to our customers here.
We’re in the U.S. a lot, so we keep on top of all the latest trends and new products. We work closely with our buyers or customers and if they ask us to import a specific product we’ll do our best to do so, even if it doesn’t come under our current portfolio. In total we import 1,260 products.
Who is allowed to buy from your website?
Anyone can buy from our website: all they need to do is register beforehand. Primarily our website is designed for and used by our independent customers. Customers shopping on line can buy the product either by the case or the pallet.
What are the major trends in terms of different products proving popular?
A lot of the core brands we supply are very popular, for example Twinkies.
It’s a classic American line which a lot of people here in the UK are familiar with, having seen it in movies like Die Hard and Ghostbusters. We launched two new flavours last year, Chocolate & Banana, which are also doing well and growing in distribution. We see the sales of Twinkies growing particularly over the coming months, with the limited edition Key Lime flavoured Twinkie launching in July. One of the upcoming trends in confectionery is sour confectionery, where our range of WarHeads sweets fits the bill perfectly and is performing very well. It appeals to children and young adults and is getting a lot of coverage online, particularly on social media.
WarHeads is an innovative and leading brand in the U.S and we are starting to see the sales grow with the recent listing at WH Smiths High Street.
What seasonal products do you offer?
We offer a selection of seasonal lines across all events, including Easter, Halloween and Christmas on our core brands like Hostess Twinkies and Snoballs, Cookie Dough Bites and Warheads sour confectionery. These range from seasonal packaging for the particular event through to uniquely flavoured or shaped products depending on the brand. Examples of products we are selling include Moon Pie Bites, which come in coffin-shaped packaging for Halloween and SweetTarts Candy Canes, one of the top selling candy canes.
Do you offer any ethnic products such as African-American, Italian- American, Kosher?
We don’t specifically look to source Kosher foods, however a number of the brands have products in their range which are certified as Kosher. We sell some American brands such as Kool Aid drinks and Kraft Macaroni Cheese, which are not only popular but also well known among the African community. With some of our customers we display these brands in a separate category such as ‘Caribbean Foods.’ Should any of our customers ask us to source a specific range of foods, we’re happy to do so. A couple of years back we worked on a project with Ocado where they wanted to increase their range of ‘Free From’ foods and helped them by sourcing American Sugar Free and Gluten free foods.
Have you introduced any brands to the UK which have gone on to be nationally distributed here by the manufacturer?
A recent example of this is the drinks brand ‘Snapple.’ We’ve been supplying that brand for a few years now with retailers such as Tesco and Snapple has decided to work with a co-manufacturer to produce a range of drinks here for the UK market. The taste of the drinks and flavour profiles are different to the genuine product found in America. This is also an example of where we can still provide the authentic flavour and taste to our customers who still require it.
What are your predictions for demand for American products in the UK?
As customers’ appetite for this category grows (pardon the pun), we can only see this category growing further. The market for imported American foods was very small when it first came to the U.K. and was mainly through specialist online retailers and smaller stores. Over time the awareness of the products as well as the range has increased.
We took it upon ourselves to approach the major retailers when we felt the market conditions were right to develop ranges with them on products we knew would sell well and have mass appeal. We now supply a mixture of retailers including all the major multiples with an American foods and drinks range, with one supermarket stocking our range in over 800 stores! There are over 4,500 stores in total.