This is my personal story of how Street Food Box, my infinitely reusable box for food to go concept, was conceived and developed from an A4 piece of paper into a prototype and then onto manufacture and launch in just over twelve months.
It starts in the city of Cambridge, which has been our home for the last 38 years since my wife and I moved from Birmingham so that I could take up a role in an advertising agency that had recently relocated to the city.
I still vividly remember our first look-see journey here, late summer on a glorious day, driving along winding country roads and being amazed by the huge open fields of ripening corn and massive skies that are so characteristic of East Anglia. And so different to the rolling, hedge and tree lined roads of Warwickshire.
We arrived in the centre of Cambridge early afternoon. It was getting warmer still and swifts were flitting everywhere through the narrow streets, making their distinct calls as they did so.
And then we stumbled across Rose Crescent – a haven just off the market square and there to our amazement was a restaurant that looked like it had been transported from a Greek Island.
As a half Greek, the weather, the swifts (also reminiscent of Greece) and the restaurant played with our senses and emotions and as we sat down to enjoy Greek food at its best (outside Greece at least) the decision was made.
Cambridge was to be our home for the next few years at least we thought – but its magic wouldn’t let us go – and now with our growing family it is very much home.
And during the time that passed, I left the world of advertising to set up a food and drink centric brand and packaging design business which I ran until 2018 – a sector that is still my passion today in my role as an independent food & drink product and brand innovator.
But of course, since 1983 Cambridge has changed beyond recognition. The university which had been so protective of outside investment welcomed it and with the academic excellence of the university, Cambridge soon became a vibrant and growing tech centre, known as Silicon Fen.
It went on to become home to Pipex (one of the early internet service providers), Cambridge Silicon Radio, Autonomy, ARM, Camcon and many other world-leading companies whose inventions powered the digital revolution then and now.
And with these businesses came growth, indeed Cambridge is the fastest growing city in the UK, a position it has held since 2016.
And with the growth came change. Previously run-down areas became rejuvenated, attracting the influx of workers from around the globe, generating a wonderful, multi-cultural society, generating a plethora of exciting restaurants and bringing previously unknown foods to this small city of around 120,000 people.
Cambridge had long been known for its bohemian Strawberry Fair on the first Saturday of June each year and this now appeared to be fueling a slow but sure growth in street food.
And by the start of December 2009, this had reached a level at which Mill Road, the epicentre of all the independent restaurants and deli’s, held its first street fair. And since then it has become an annual event enjoyed by many.
Fast forward ten years to December 2019, and as we had done every year since 2009, we were excited with the anticipation of enjoying a visit to the fair once more.
And as always, it didn’t disappoint – well, almost anyway.
It was extraordinarily busy, more so than we had seen previously. The by now significant Cambridge street food van troupe where there in numbers. Everything was in full swing – the music, the street artists, the restaurants and bars serving outside their establishments – and also the litter! Oh my goodness, the litter.
Over the course of our three hour stroll from one end of Mill Road to the other and back, I found myself mesmerised by the mounds of waste over-flowing at every litter bin.
The council did an increible job, armed with huge polythene sacks. The excess waste was bagged along with the mass of litter dumped on the road. And these were placed adjacent to the bins for eventual collection. As the number of bags increased, the mounds got bigger until I saw one bin swamped by a towering 7ft or so of bags!
I was astonished, I was incredulous – everything else disappeared from my vison and hearing.
Shortly after, we left, via a friends house nearby where we had a couple of cups of much needed tea. My mind came back to the present and the chatter – but not for long.
Once in the car on the journey home, I just couldn’t get the images of the mounds of litter out of my head. They were to stay with me.
The following week I made a long car journey and stopped at a McDonalds Extra Services for a break at around lunch time.
So what to eat I wondered and opted for noodles – presented to me in a disposable board box of course.
With my expertise in the food and drink sector, I knew this box couldn’t be recycled and was destined for incineration or more likely landfill.
I sat to eat but couldn’t. I was transfixed by watching 10’s of people every minute do the same as I was shortly going to do – finish my food and throw the carton in the bin.
To this day, I’m still not entirely clear what happened mentally, but I knew this was crazy and I decided that I had to do something about it.
And through my work, I was aware of the implications of the pending 2025 single use plastic act which will see all single use plastics, and plastic-coated board and cups used for takeaway food and drink banned. But what could be used instead?
A few weeks passed, Christmas was approaching and the images of the mountains of food waste at the street festival were still ever-present in my thoughts.
Now as someone working in a creative industry, this wasn’t the first time I’d had a ‘great idea’ but all previous ones had faded rapidly and didn’t pass my own strategic rigour so they were quickly canned.
But this was different, it wouldn’t go away, in fact the desire to come up with a solution was getting stronger by the day.
Christmas was now with us and I shared my thoughts with Cathie, my wife. The holiday break would give me time to do some research and hopefully arrive at some potential solutions.
I had some design ideas in my head but had no idea whether they were possible and practical.
But first came the criteria. It had to be:
- Compact and easy to carry otherwise men wouldn’t use it.
- Durable, dishwasher proof, microwaveable and stain proof. Also washable in cold water.
- Capable of being manufactured in the UK.
- Best environmentally possible credentials for the substrate.
- Most importantly of all, cheap enough to allow fast food outlets to subsidise their purchase just as coffee shops do with takeaway, reusable cups.
Research followed, followed by yet more research. Days and nights merged as I became lost in vast amounts of data. Materials, construction ideas, limitations, materials failure, manufacturing improbabilities and costs – the list went on and on.
But then a material that had come to market some years earlier came to mind and my research switched to packaging technology and materials research. I now had a possible substrate that met all the criteria and also an understanding of potential manufacturing methods.
So now was the time to take my idea out of my head and to make a sample to see if it would work.
With an A4 sheet in front of me and a calculator to hand, I sketched the design before cutting it to shape with scissors and gluing it with a Pritt Stick.
And somewhat to my amazement it worked!
I’d taken the largest box used by McDonalds and created a fold flat version that was small enough to go into a jeans pocket.
But ultimate convenience would need cutlery too – fork, knife, spoon and chopsticks. How could I incorporate a compartment or these? More thought needed given the limitations of the manufacturing process that I’d identified as the solution.
A few days later, with a new sheet of A4 paper in front of me, the first prototype with a cutlery compartment was created.
I shared my idea with my family. At that point of time they gave me reassuring looks and kind words but the flimsy, paper mock-up was so rudimentary that I think they were to humour me more than anything!
It was now the post-Christmas period and I was desperate for New Year to pass so that I could visit an arts material shop in Cambridge in the hope they had the material I needed to make my first, practical prototype.
After what seemed an age, the day arrived and off I went to the store – but no, they didn’t have what I wanted, so they said but pointed me in the direction of some board material. That would have to do for now I thought, better than paper.
But on the top shelf of the board rack was exactly the material I was after! Polypropylene. How many sheets would I need? Best to get a few spare in case I messed up. My research had told me a certain glue would work but they didn’t stock it. So off to a hardware store where I found and purchased the glue and then back off home to the cutting board.
It didn’t go well. I wrongly cut a number of sheets and the glue needed an age to set. There was no way this could work in manufacturing I figured. So back to research and then eureka! Ultrasonic welding! Whatever that was – I was going to learn more!
A high-powered soldering iron with certain tools could emulate the process I thought so back to the hardware store.
I now had two blanks which I’d tried to glue which had come apart so time to try the soldering iron.
At the first attempt I burnt straight through the material and ruined the blank. No spare sheets left! I needed to get it right with the next one to avoid another trip to the art store – and I did. Not quite NASA but oh my goodness the sense of achievement was unbelievable!
I then showed it to my family who could now see the tangible idea and how it might manifest and suddenly their reaction was very different with visible excitement and a host of ideas around how and where it could be used:
Camping, caravans, narrow boats, even as storage containers at home. No more hunting for matching lids! And of course, my original usage ideas as a replacement for throw-away, single-use food boxes.
During my research I’d also undertaken a global patent search and somewhat to my surprise I couldn’t find anything.
So next step was to file a crude patent application to get a priority date which took place in early January.
But like all start-ups I needed funding, and I knew I would need financial resources beyond my personal funds.
But with my Brand Clock hat on I was working with a drinks start-up and they were also looking for funding and during early January 2020 I was ramping up my search.
And here, serendipity came into play. I connected with my now co-founder, Steve Thornhill and when we met, I mentioned Street Food Box to him and his immediate reaction was ‘I’m in’.
Further phone calls with potential manufacturers took place but I kept on drawing blanks.
But then I identified Tri-Pack in Grimsby as a potential partner and a flurry of emails and phone calls took place whilst I shared my idea with them.
Their reaction was amazingly positive and can-do. No they hadn’t made anything like it before and yes it had challenges but they had worked with polypropylene and could ultrasonically weld.
I sent them my sample and my sketch drawings and a few weeks later the first sample arrived.
Incredible, it worked, the price point also worked!
With additional funds available, a formal UK patent was filed and we started the search for our design partners in March 2020, just as COVID hit.
Being client side was an odd experience for me, knowing what’s it like being the agency trying to win over a client.
Our long list became a short list through a course of phone calls, emails and Zoom chats until we had our shortlist of three.
Proposals were prepared and presented to us and White Bear Studios exceeded our expectations in every way. They just got it in a way that the other candidate design agencies hadn’t. Their initial ideas were endless and their enthusiasm and energy boundless. We knew we were in good hands.
And by the end of August 2020, Street Food Box had a brand identity and a striking look.
The next steps were our trademark applications alongside development of social media and website build – all timed to coincide, hopefully, with our trademark registration at the end of December.
But we hadn’t considered Brexit and it was January 6th until we received confirmation of successful registrations. A nervous week!
Time now to return our focus to our patent with the need to make our International PCT application before the end of January which was duly completed.
So now we were ready to reveal Street Food Box to the world and our pre-launch website and social media went live on 15th January 2021 – just over 12 months on from when I was driven to solve the single use food to go packaging issue.
Made from PRIPLAK®, a patented polypropylene, it is available in a myriad of colours and can be printed with any design (for custom orders).
The material has obtained the triple certification for the environment (ISO 14001), quality (ISO 9001) and health and safety (OHSAS 18001):
- Halogen free, no substances that can damage the ozone layer.
- Inert waste, non toxic and 100% recyclable. Decomposition products by fire: carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapour (H20).
And by using this material, I’ve ensured that at the end of its very long life, each box can be recycled and the cutlery is environmentally friendly and made from wheat straw.
Reaction so far has way exceeded our expectations and we’re readying manufacturing to start full scale production in a few weeks time.
If you’ve read the whole article, thank you for taking the time to do so, and I hope it inspires many of the entrepreneurs that I speak with frequently about the journey ahead of them.
Reuse not Recycle.
Eat, Rinse, Sleep, Repeat.
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