Steve Challouma isn’t just the UK boss of Birds Eye, he’s a self-confessed frozen food fanatic who won’t rest until each and every one of us is eating our 5-a-day. By Eamonn Duff
When Steve Challouma joined the Birds Eye frozen food business as a graduate trainee in the late nineties, he never imagined he’d carve out a life-long career in the category.
Today, however, not only is he an industry veteran and the brand’s chief custodian, he’s leading a company-wide crusade to improve the nutritional health of the nation.
“I never had a dream to work in frozen food. I don’t think anyone starts out with that intention,” he told FMCG CEO.
“Was it my plan to be here for 25 years? No. But I love waking up every day thinking how do we sell more veg? Because, actually, our children don’t eat enough veg, people don’t eat enough veg and we have great products like peas and steam fresh vegetables that make it easy. Making an impact not only in terms of nutrition but sustainability and the fight against food waste. That’s just a brilliant commercial mission to have.”
While Challouma has always worked under the Birds Eye banner, he has essentially served under three different businesses. Having secured a place on Unilever’s management development scheme in 1996 (when the business was Birds Eye Walls), he spent the next decade with the Anglo Dutch giant who then sold the brand to private equity firm Permira in 2006. As Challouma explained: “We went from being a very small percentage of a global business to a small business with very different expectations, and a real melting pot of people coming in from Pepsi, from P&G. It was a really interesting place to be.”
In 2015, Captain Birds Eye was pulling up anchor once more after Nomad Foods completed the purchase of the brand’s owner Iglo, as part of a £1.87bn deal.
Since then, Nomad have advanced the business through organic growth and the purchase of numerous other key players like Goodfella’s, Aunt Bessie’s and Fortenova’s frozen food arm.
With Challouma having spent many years working across Central Marketing and Brand teams within the business, Nomad recognised the significant impact he was having by offering him the chance to step up and implement Birds Eye’s new marketing strategy. He duly obliged with a series of distinctive brand campaigns which included a hugely successful relaunch of the iconic Captain Birds Eye character.
“It’s been a bit of a process of falling in love with both the brand and the category to be honest,” said Challouma of his journey to date. “It’s fair to say I’ve built a very strong, emotional connection as I’ve grown with the business. Never get stuck in a pub talking fish fingers with me!”
Since stepping into the role of UK General Manager at the start of 2020, Challouma’s attention has been firmly focussed on exploiting the extraordinary transformation of the frozen food category and harnessing that popularity to provide the nation with healthier, more sustainable food options.
If recent stats are any indication, there will never be a better time to grasp that opportunity.
Research from Birds Eye reveals 40 percent of British families are more likely to buy frozen today than they were prior to the pandemic. And, according to a Hearts & Science and YouGov survey last year, 62 percent of shoppers are now influenced in their food and drink purchases by sustainability issues.
“When I first joined in the nineties, frozen was a category very low in confidence,” said Challouma. “The focus from retailers was on chilled food. Category growth was sluggish which in turn fed a negative perception. It was a bit of an apologetic, back up, meal time choice with consumers.”
Fast forward to now, however, and the stars have truly aligned for the segment.
“Increasingly, sustainability is becoming the driver of food choices and on the other hand, the players in the market – and we as brand leader – are really raising our game. There’s huge focus on modernisation, innovation and improving quality. It’s become a very dynamic category. Consumers are also realising that in terms of nutritional value, it’s on par with fresh food.”
In its recently published Better Health Impact report, Birds Eye highlights a decade of general improvements to the nation’s diet, the hurdles ahead and the ongoing steps it is taking to improve the environmental and nutritional health benefits of its products. A prime example of those initiatives was the decision to market Pollock Fish Fingers as Omega 3 Fish Fingers instead.
Birds Eye had collected consumer insights which suggested many consumers faced barriers to consuming oily fish though Challouma explains: “The launch of Omega-3 and pollock was actually born out of a sustainability imperative originally because we’re cod lovers in this country and up until around 2008, we had a real problem. Cod was being overused and we were part of the issue. Its price was also skyrocketing so there was additional pressure commercially. Fish fingers are by far our biggest product so we had to face into that.”
He continued: “We knew there was an alternative in pollock…but people are very conservative with their food tastes – especially when it comes to fish. We eat cod, salmon, haddock, tuna. If you’re adventurous you might have sea bass…but pollock? If people are not familiar with that, it sounds scary.”
Aside from being a sustainable fish species, pollock is nutritionally on par with both cod and tuna: Every 100 grams of its fleshy white fillets contain 1.2 grams of fat, 600 mg of which are Omega-3 fatty acids that are cardioprotective and support healthy vision and brain function.
“So instead of selling it as pollock, we presented it as Omega-3,” said Challouma, adding: “In blind tastes, consumers couldn’t tell a significant difference between the two.”
Within a year of this particular signposting scheme, 78 percent of consumers had switched to the new product, reducing the company’s annual cod catch by 1.5m fish. Today, Birds Eye sells two and a half times more pollock than cod.
Challouma said: “It was one of those perfect examples where you’ve got a supply chain challenge, a consumer challenge and a commercial challenge. But we found a solution that’s great for the environment, for sustainability and nutritionally, it brings a new consumer benefit. I love finding jackpots like that. Yes, it’s good for the business but you’re doing the right thing as well.”
By his own admission, Challouma still finds cause to pinch himself occasionally when he stops to consider the “circle of life” brand he’s now leading.
“I’ve got three children and its incredible. They have Birds Eye several times a week. Friends come round to our house and they’ll have our food. But the stat which always humbles me is that in this country, there are over four million meals a day featuring one of our products. I know this sounds a bit sentimental but I visualise all those children coming back from school and having their fish fingers, waffles and peas. I visualise the group of people sitting down to watch Champions League and sharing a pepperoni pizza. All those Sunday dinners featuring an Aunt Bessie’s. It’s the food that sits at the heart of family life and meal times across the nation…and it makes me personally feel very proud.”
With that pride, he adds, comes a weight of responsibility that is never too far from his thoughts. “Even though I’ve been here so long, I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m only a temporary guardian of the brand. It was there before. It had a rich history, as it will when I’ve eventually moved on. So that’s a huge responsibility, to nurture it and keep it vibrant…to find new pockets of penetration through quality and innovation. There’s still a massive job to be done.”