When you think of subscription meals, often what comes to mind is bland food, most likely made in a microwave, with wasteful packaging, and to top it all, probably more money than it’s worth, cue Nonna Tonda. The husband and wife duo behind the fresh pasta subscription service are on a mission to change the ‘no thought' cooking lifestyle that so many now adhere to. Nonna Tonda creates a few dishes each week, think spinach, provolone & castelpoto sausage ravioli or fusilli with ragu alla Napoletana… And just like the Italians from which they’ve taken inspiration their mantra is easy: keep it simple. And this method is clearly working.
In just three short years, and one pandemic later, Nonna Tonda has grown from a team of two to over 60 in a permanent HQ, they deliver nationally, and have now launched multiple pop-ups across London.
Ahead of International Pasta day, we visited their NottingHill pop-up to see co-founder Rebecca (who takes care of marketing and operations whilst husband James focuses on product and branding) and talked about all things business, scaling-up, the power of good branding and, of course - pasta.
AH: In the past year alone you’ve launched three pop-ups, your most recent in the beautiful and iconic location of Notting Hill which received rave reviews. How have you found them and why did you decide that these week long locations were a good maneuver for the business?
Rebecca: We started doing pop-ups in January this year, it’s been a way for us to build face to face sales and explore different avenues, and engage with the public in a new way. It felt like the right next step for us… And it's really great to have the flexibility, going to a location for two weeks and then going somewhere else.
AH: You’ve now done a few short term spaces, rather than starting a single location and making that your HQ, it’s clear you're driven to having a consumer facing product and not just a brand behind a screen…
Rebecca: We know the formula that has worked for us online, we know we can do it well, but these spaces are about getting our brand present and in front of the public in different ways. And that kind of marketing is all about spreading the word - but in an impactful way. We feel like we've got some really playful assets to our brand and sort of quite fun elements we want to get out there even more so than we're doing at the moment.
But it's definitely a work in progress.
AH: What have been the challenges of the pop-ups so far?
Rebecca: Sometimes it is filling the spaces well. Because we're selling a subscription and it's pasta, you've got to fill it and make it look good. But at the same time, you don't want it to look like a weird Italian shop - a cliche. It’s got to be our brand.
AH: This year has clearly been a big step up with your activations, and engaging with the community. But let’s rewind to the beginning. When it was just yourself and James, many start-ups will want to know - how did Nonna Tonda happen?
Rebecca: James was working in film, event and fashion catering with a partner. But he no longer wanted to do that. He said, “I really just want to specialize in one thing and do it really well.” James is a chef and pasta was what he decided he wanted to do. So we went off to Italy. And initially we were honestly just cooking loads of food, trying loads of food, and then Instagramming it.
AH: Was there a eureka moment?
Rebecca: Through our Instagram, a bar in Marylebone recognised what we were trying to do and achieve and so asked if we wanted to come and do a pop-up, a bit like a residency, in their Italian cocktail bar - Bar Termini. And that was amazing because they paid for loads of PR. They wanted only authentic narratives for their launch and to build a community.
And so they paid for the PR around this popup and we were like, oh, this is amazing because otherwise what would we be doing? So we did that for three months. And then from that, that led to us looking at setting up a space in Market Halls in Victoria. We then got a place there did that for a year and began plotting to open a restaurant in Fitzrovia. A permamanet spot.
And then COVID hit, and we were honestly two weeks away from signing the lease, and opening our first proper restaurant, and thank God that did not happen, because that would have been a nightmare and financially we would never have survived.
AH: So in many ways, COVID meant you not only had to pivot your idea, you had to completely change your business model. That happened to many entrepreneurs, it was a tough moment but you didn't give up?
Rebecca: Exactly, James went into a kind of overdrive. He was just so excited that there was an opportunity to just change the business and do something different. So we started thinking of doing delivery - direct to consumer meal kits. It would keep the kitchen open. We asked our friend Freddie Garland of Freddie’s Flowers about our idea, and he told us to go for it. So, we just did it and it went crazy. In the first year alone we had thousands of customers, it went wild and it has been growing ever since.
AH: Everyone wanted meal kits during COVID, especially in London.
Rebecca: Yes, we obviously had to keep up with the demand and get the infrastructure in place and the kitchen to be able to produce it all… Now, we're three years in and we're definitely in a stable place and growing.
AH: What has been a major milestone of the business?
Rebecca: Turning a profit!
AH: In terms of product and presentation, Nonna Tonda is not your typical pasta branding, it’s minimal and sleek, with all your packages being recyclable and reusable - and your pasta is made fresh with high-quality ingredients, something of a key USP for you. Why was this presentation and product development so important for you and James?
Rebecca: James is weirdly obsessive about all that kind of stuff, which is great. It's so important to me, but he's obsessed with how the customer experiences our product. And our customers have to love it.
I think that's what's so lovely about a subscription is it's like, yes, okay, they're paying for it, but it's this feeling of something they don't have to think about, and it's arriving that day, and it's nice, and it's just sort of a treat, a luxury, all for yourself.
AH: Would you say you're focused on sustainability?
Rebecca: Yes, all of our packaging you can recycle, and all the deliveries we use electric bikes. We are trying to be on top of current issues. I think that you have to, and I think that in the next 10 years it's gonna become Harder and harder for companies. You're just going to have to make those decisions.
In France, they now have a tax that's come into place on food products if your carbon footprint is over a certain level. And you're gonna have to have traceability of what your carbon footprint is going forward. I think that's going to happen in the UK in the next few years as well.
AH: In many ways, you’ve kept the business model simple, only a few dish options a week - why?
Rebecca: Right. A few dishes each week. And what we're saying is we're limiting wastage. But we make them really good and delicious dishes. And we know exactly the orders we're making. So we don't waste anything. So we can spend more on really good quality ingredients and good food. It’s also about scale. Generally, keeping things simple is just the best, like, in terms of like, we wouldn't have been able to scale the business to the size it is if we'd had a complicated menu, because we're making so much time.
AH: Where do you source your ingredients from?
Rebecca: All our eggs come from Cackleberry Farm in Oxfordshire. They've got a hen house just for Nonna Tonda, and they're amazing free range eggs, all of our flour is Italian flour, our cheese is from Italy, and our biggest new thing is James's uncle actually has a farm. So now we're actually getting all of our pork and beef from Cornbury House farm in Oxfordshire.
You can easily trace where each and every ingredient is from.
AH: What would your advice be to other entrepreneurs?
Rebecca: Keep it simple. That, and to be quite determined to, if you've got a good idea, which is working, don't ever complicate it.
Also, a simple business model, not trying to cater to everyone, not trying to make everyone happy and accepting that you're not going to get everyone, some people won't like it and you just need to accept that.
There’s also the idea that you can really early on, sell out your idea… You get the first person coming along willing to invest and I think you just need to sometimes hold back and grow slowly.
You need to have confidence in yourself, you can do it. And if you have that, you’ll get there.