Chris Salzano, Tuesday 24 January 2017
For more than 25 years cookery writer Annabel Karmel has helped often desperate parents feed their offspring with fuss-free, nutritious food. I too, in the blurry-eyed days of early motherhood, turned to her food bible The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, and with two fussy eaters it was my saviour.
That book has become the second bestselling hardback book of all time in the UK. Not bad for a cookbook for babies that every publisher turned down until Annabel got a deal through a friend. The mother-of-three was certainly ahead of the curve. A pioneering mumpreneur who spotted a need and pursued her dream with gusto. When we chat, it doesn’t take long to understand why her brand is still going strong a generation later – she’s a whirlwind of energy, yet articulate and focused.
“It was very difficult to make that first step and get recognition,” she explains. “It would have been so easy to give up. It shows you that if it doesn’t happen by one route you want to try another.”
After being turned down by 15 book publishers, a friend she played tennis with put her in touch with a book packager and her meal planner was picked up by an American publishing house. Random House in the UK followed and the book sold out within three months. It remains Annabel’s bestselling book to date.
A talented and successful musician, Annabel had worked with Liberace and Boy George, and starred in panto. But it was the tragic loss of her first child, Natasha, at 13 weeks due to a viral infection that caused her to turn to cooking.
“It was so difficult to come to terms with losing a child,” she explains. “And I didn’t really play after that, music seemed to be too superficial and I wanted to work with children
in some way.
“The catalyst was really the birth of my second child, Nicholas, who was such a fussy eater and I was worried something would happen to him as had happened to Natasha... it’s so difficult and so stressful.
To encourage him to eat healthily, Annabel started using adult recipes but adapting them for babies, such as chicken apple balls and puréed dhal soup. Soon, she was sharing the tasty, nutritious recipes with the mums at playgroup and the idea for the book was born.
“I knew mums needed it and the playgroup liked my recipes and that was my focus group,” she laughs. She worked with nutritionists and based her recipes on scientific research, taking two years to develop.
Being a mum and setting up a business must have been no easy feat I say. “I had three kids (two before I published the first book) who were all fussy. I was blessed with them not being good eaters, as had they had been good eaters I wouldn’t have written the book. They are my inspiration.
“I was a mother faced with a problem. I found the solution that suited me and then gave it to other mums and saw that it wasn’t just my problem. I found a niche.
“I just wanted to help mums because of what happened to me. I never thought of it as a career to make money. It was never the reason I wrote my first book. You should never do it for money. You should do it because you have a passion for it.”
Her children, now in their 20s, are obsessed with food she says, with her daughters often bringing friends for dinner while her son regularly seeks her cooking advice. Although she has written books for older children her most recent, The Busy Mum’s Cookbook, is aimed at adults.
“I thought it was about time I wrote a book for
more grown up people,” she says. “It’s more like a Jamie Oliver cookbook. All these mums are cooking my recipes and loving them, and I thought ‘why don’t they cook them for themselves?’”
With a career spanning 25 years, what’s been the biggest obstacle? “The opposite of success isn’t failure, it’s not trying. Even in my business now we are always trying new things,” she stresses. “If you try something and that doesn’t work it leads you to the next thing that might work, so if you don’t do that, you miss that stepping stone. I think that most entrepreneurs haven’t succeeded at their first step, like James Dyson... so I am in good company.”
After trying to sell fresh baby food, Annabel launched her own chilled range for one to four-year-olds, which has proved a huge success. “I always wanted to bring out a range of food at some point. I didn’t think it would take 17 books,” she adds.
More recently, Annabel has created a frozen food range for time-starved parents, which is launching at the Iceland store in Clapham.
It was a logical step, she points out, as
many parents already cook and freeze her homemade recipes. “Frozen is good because it’s locked-in goodness, and mums freeze baby food so it’s not a huge step to buy frozen meals,” she adds.
She is still writing cookbooks, her 42nd, on weaning, comes out in May, but there is also a focus on her revamped website and apps – which are ranking high on downloads. She is also on a mission to empower women who want to become their own boss, she says, and last year released a book titled Mumpreneur, with advice from leading businesswomen.
“Many mums have the idea but don’t have the confidence to see it through. You can build the foundations when your children are young. When they are at school you can spend more time. It might take you 17 books before you eventually develop your career because you want to be there for your children,” she adds.
“I am very lucky in that I have my daughter working with me and I see her every day. Although I have made sacrifices, I have tried to be there for her, and now I am with her all the time, and I can teach her and be a mentor to her, which is a lovely thing.” ?T&L
Annabel’s frozen food range is now available in supermarkets nationwide, visit www.annabelkarmel.com for details.
• Have confidence: it takes real confidence to return to start-up a business after having children, and self-belief is absolutely vital in order to succeed. Confidence is just as important as competence – if not more so.
• Have a compelling story: a successful mumpreneur will also have a compelling story – every smart business needs one. Having a genuine, emotive story connects people with brands. That ‘why?’ behind what you are offering not only gives people a reason to connect with you, but it is what will fuel your passion to make you want to succeed.
• Find your niche: starting a business doesn’t mean inventing something new. Take a look around you in your everyday life; we are surrounded by products and services that could be made better. Focusing on a small section of a marketplace helps you to connect with and engage with a specific audience. My niche was providing nutritious and tasty recipes for babies and children – it’s from building credibility in this area that I’ve been able to expand.
• Treat failure as a stepping stone to success: if you seldom fail there is a good chance you’re playing it too safe. Failure rarely feels fun at the time but the lessons it teaches may not take long to become apparent, and are likely to lead you on to greater successes in the end.
For Annabel's recipe for Spiced Courgette, Pumkin seed and Chia seed muffins - perfect healthy lunchbox fillers! - go to www.foodandflavour.co.uk