In just four years, My Food Bag has become a household name. Co-founders Cecilia Robinson and Nadia Lim talk to Rebecca Barry Hill.

If there was ever an example of a business that likes to move quickly, it's My Food Bag.

"Cecilia and James [Robinson] are the fastest executors I've ever met and I think anyone who has ever worked with them totally agrees," says co-founder Nadia Lim.

Four years ago, the Robinsons, with Lim and her husband, Carlos Bagrie, and former Telecom chief executive Theresa Gattung, launched the food delivery service to a few hundred people in Auckland. Since then My Food Bag has grown from a team of five to a company of 120, pumping out nutritious recipes and delivering ingredients weekly from Invercargill to Whangarei.

Not even company mastermind Cecilia Robinson could foresee just how much - and how quickly - the brand would grow. Last October they secured investment from private equity firm Waterman Capital, part of a long-term strategy to prepare for an IPO within three years.


MFB's forecast revenue for the 2017 financial year is expected to exceed $135m. On a more intimate level, it has quickly become the busy person's best friend, a brand its users engage with, in their own homes, several times a week.

"When I wrote the business plan I had some big, aspirational, hairy goals," says Robinson, "but did we think we'd be here? Probably not."

"Well not this fast," laughs Lim.

Nadia Lim co-founder of My Food Bag says her goal is to encourage more people to prepare their own healthy meals. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Nadia Lim co-founder of My Food Bag says her goal is to encourage more people to prepare their own healthy meals. Photo / Ted Baghurst

We're in the boardroom at MFB's HQ at the top of Parnell Rd, and something that smells like spaghetti bolognaise is wafting from the test kitchen next door. Working here is certainly advantageous when it comes to a free lunch, but it can also be hell. When Robinson was pregnant, there were days she'd get a whiff of meat sizzling in the pan and make a nauseous dash for the bathroom.

These days, it's a convenient central point from where she can whip home during the day to care for her son Thomas, 4, and baby daughter Leila. Soon she'll be nipping home from MFB's custom-built headquarters further down the road, yet another indication of the company's fast rise to success.

Rather than sitting on their laurels, Robinson and Lim say they're as fired up as ever, always looking to the next phase of growth. That means continuing the transition phase with Waterman, and expanding on their new product lines, which this year saw them introduce vegetarian and gluten-free options and a bag for single-person households, alongside their food bags for families and couples.

They also launched My Express Bag, targeting the time-poor with pre-chopped ingredients and quicker-to-prepare meals. Express is an apt label for it - it was a matter of mere weeks from idea to execution, a typically fast turnaround that Lim puts down to her colleague, aka "the Swedish blonde blur" as a journalist once described Robinson.

But MFB's biggest product launch in the past year was My Bargain Box. Targeting families on a budget, Bargain Box offers meals from about $5.30 a plate, and now accounts for nearly half the business.

"Cecilia has her head so close to the customer and instinctively knows what they want," says Lim. "As soon as she clicks on to that, she'll be telling everyone what we're going todo. Straight away she's in action. I've never met anyone who divesinto it that fast."

That guns-blazing approach spearheaded the business four years ago. Inspired by a similar product in Sweden, the Robinsons were keen to make use of the exposure Lim's recent MasterChef win and cooking show had given her, by bringing her on board as the face of the brand.

For Lim, a dietician whose no-fuss, natural "Nude Food Philosophy" underpins all the recipes, the success is especially satisfying. Her goal has always been to encourage more people to prepare their own healthy meals, without the stress that can come from information overload. There's nothing wrong with outsourcing the bulk of your grocery shopping and decision-making on meals, she argues, if it means eating well.

"People want to go back to basics a lot more and lead a simpler life rather than wondering, 'Is this actually a healthy meal that I'm feeding my family? I'm not sure because this diet expert is saying I should be eating this way, and this diet expert says I should be eating this way.'"

These days she oversees rather than writes the recipes, while remaining the brand ambassador and food expert. (There are now 19 chefs and testers in the development team, plus the photography kitchen, who capture the step-by-step images.) It's a multi-faceted role that means Lim is involved in everything from promotions to running the website.

The latest addition to "brand Nadia" is the bimonthly lifestyle magazine Nadia, a glossy compilation of recipe ideas, wellbeing features and insights into Lim's life with husband Carlos and 8-month-old son Bodhi (who even gets his own column). Similar in concept to magazines put out by food writers such as Annabel Langbein and Australian Donna Hay, Nadia was the brainchild of publishers Bauer, whose market research revealed that Kiwi women ranked Lim, with her wholesome, accessible appeal and 244,000 Facebook followers, as one of the most influential New Zealanders.

Running the business hasn't been all plain sailing, of course. Cecilia recalls the fraught night when the two couples stayed up until 3am trying to get the website live. And launching My Gluten-Free Food Bag last year was an operational nightmare - not only getting the tick from Coeliac New Zealand, but making sure all the ingredients are kept completely separate from the other products.

When I wrote the business plan I had some big, aspirational, hairy goals but did we think we'd be here? Probably not.


It helps that when the going gets tough, they can call on some of the sharpest business minds on their board. Alongside chief executive Gattung is ex-Saatchi head Kevin Roberts, who joined the board two years ago as chair. He brings an "unbiased view" of international trends, says Robinson; it was Roberts who alerted them to the increasing number of single-person households overseas, leading to the development of a food bag for one. They are joined on the board by Waterman Capital's Chris Marshall, Lance Jenkins and Phil Maud. With their sights now on listing, the team made the decision to pull out of Australia in order to focus solely on New Zealand.

While that may sound like a step back, it fits with their ambitions as well as their lifestyle, says Robinson, in that both couples have young children, making travel difficult. Not that they see it as having to make sacrifices - family life is a big part of their success. Despite not knowing one another when they first started, both couples - and their kids - have become close, cementing their loyalty both in and out of the boardroom. As for working with their spouses, they wouldn't have it any other way.

"It probably does take a certain type of couple," says Robinson. "A lot of people would say we're crazy, right? But it is really awesome."

Cecilia and James had already worked together for several years running the early childhood education provider Au Pair Link when they launched My Food Bag. These days they divide the roles, James managing marketing, IT and finance while Cecilia manages the development team and operations and purchasing, (although their responsibilities frequently cross over).

Likewise, Lim says she couldn't imagine not working with Bagrie, My Food Bag's "brand guardian and creative go-to guy".