Big Interview

Food pioneers at the forefront of innovation

By Noli Dinkovski

- Last updated on GMT

David Jones (left) and Jonny Bingham (right)
David Jones (left) and Jonny Bingham (right)

Related tags: New product development, Chef

After being told their business wouldn’t work, Jonny Bingham and David Jones are at the top of the food innovation game.

When two people give up on very successful individual careers to form a company together, at the very least, you would expect them to get along. However, according to former Michelin-starred chef David Jones, that wasn’t always the case.

“Before we started working together, I knew who Jonny ​[Bingham] was – and I couldn’t stand him. He used to wear a cravat, and he looked like a right idiot,”​ he says, with a wry smile.

While early impressions can often be deceptive, there’s little doubt that the pair – who used to compete for retail shelf-space as development chefs at rival food manufacturers – have since formed a close and successful relationship in their three-and-a-half years together.

During that time, Bingham and Jones have established themselves as pioneers of new product development (NPD), working at the coalface of innovation with food and beverage companies of all sizes.

And, having just opened two new ‘innovation kitchens’ in Nottingham and Preston, they are as well-placed as any to offer views on the latest food trends, what’s likely to be big over the next few years, and why some NPD is doomed to fail.

After a long and varied career running restaurants and hotels (see box), Bingham moved into food manufacture when he joined Bakkavor in 2010. But it was during his time at Samworth Brothers when he first encountered Jones, a renowned chef who was by then working for Greencore.

“He was dealing with the same retail food developers as I was. I was winning dishes. He was winning dishes,”​ says Jones. A job vacancy in the south of England came up, and it soon became apparent they had both been shortlisted.

Start of the business (back to top)

“I was gobsmacked that I was shortlisted – as it was a very senior position. However, as it was based in the south I decided I didn’t want it,”​ Jones explains. “Jonny didn’t want the job either – and at the point, we started to talk about the possibility of doing something together.”

The pair were told by “a good few people” ​that the business would never work, as no company would trust them with the intellectual property of any product outside the factory environment.

“Some of those people still don’t want anything to do with us – but some are now our customers,”​ says Bingham.

Up until recently, they operated from the University of Nottingham, which had its pros and cons. “Being based at the university, we were often seen as an academic function,​” Bingham explains.

It meant we were getting lots of work around nutrition, which we are happy to take on. But first and foremost, we’re a culinary function – that’s what we want people to know us for.”

Moving the business into the innovation kitchens has brought another advantage, according to Jones.

“We’re great believers in the idea that you are stimulated by your environment, and these kitchens are the right environment for us to flourish,”​ he explains.

The first port of call for any project though is the manufacturing site in which the final product will eventually be made.

Every brief starts at the factory (back to top)

“Every brief starts with us going to the factory, because we can’t do anything until we know what the site capabilities are,”​ says Bingham.

Jonny Bingham

  • AGE:​ 48
  • DOMESTICS:​ Married to Rebecca, with five children between them.
  • CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:​ Jonny Bingham forged his reputation in food at the tender age of 17, when he set up his own restaurant – Bingham’s Brasserie – from a Nottingham nightclub, before going on to become chef-patron of the city’s Aquarium restaurant. In 2006, Bingham set up Flores – an upmarket world tapas restaurant in Leicester – while at the same time co-running the Saracens Head Hotel in Southwell with his father. He also for a period owned Shaw’s bar and restaurant in Nottingham. Bingham’s career in food manufacture started at Bakkavor, before he went on to become senior development chef at Samworth Brothers.
  • AWAY FROM WORK:​ Bingham sings in a jazz band called Bunch of Fives, after formerly being the lead singer of Mood Indigo. He has also starred in a number of short films.

While both hail from ready meal backgrounds, they are comfortable working across all food categories – and it has helped them develop a keen sense of the latest market trends.

 “Health is the big thing at the moment – it’s just gone bananas,”​ says Bingham. “Health, protein, free-from, gluten-free, fermented – typically, a client will want a product covering at least one of these areas, without necessarily knowing what that product should look like.”

Jones claims in-house software, which enables them to work within very closely measured nutrition parameters, means making gluten-free products hasn’t been as tough as first thought.

But that hasn’t been the case for all categories, as he explains. “The high-protein market is challenging. We’ve been asked to create a product that will have the highest protein content of any product within its category, and it’s proving far from easy.”

Another protein-related trend that has had the pair perplexed is the rise of insects as a meat alternative. Two years ago, they were so keen on the idea they touted the possibility of launching a range of insect-based ready meals.

Today, however, the duo believe insects are little more than a novelty, as the market “just isn’t there”.

Insect-based products (back to top)

“We can make great insect-based products, and we can talk about how nutritional they are – but the fact is that the science behind it is still not proven,”​ says Jones.

Another issue, he adds, is that insects from the major suppliers are “incredibly expensive”​, while alternative sources – from Thailand in particular – have issues around quality.

“Having said all that, we are funding a University of Nottingham student on the subject of the psychological barriers that are attached to humans consuming insects – so we’re open to having our minds changed,”​ Jones says.

The pair are open to input from new food innovators too, having recently taken on an extra pair of hands.

New recruit Aaron Givon trod a similar career path in working for illustrious restaurants, before moving into food manufacture with Greencore. He claims his time with Bingham and Jones has resulted in an “creative hotpot of ideas”​, compared with the limitations of working with a large manufacturer.

“When you work for a retail manufacturer, generally you are operating within a team that works on a single account. But because contracts with retailers are cyclical, and the retailer is only really concerned with churning out high volumes, as a chef it’s very easy to get stale,”​ Givon says.

“In a sector that should be massively full of innovation, it’s a very linear process that doesn’t aid creativity.”

In contrast, for Bingham and Jones, it’s that creative drive that keeps them at the top of their game. “We approach nothing with a heavy heart. In fact, we relish any challenge people throw at us,​” Bingham says.

Meanwhile, watch as Jonny Bingham and David Jones discuss how the new innovation kitchens can benefit clients in our exclusive video interview.​ 

David Jones

  • AGE:​ 45
  • DOMESTICS:​ Married to Michaela, with a son and daughter.
  • CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:​ Before moving into food manufacture, David Jones had an illustrious career as a chef at some of the UK’s leading food establishments. Listed among them is The Box Tree in Ilkley, Ynyshir Hall, Heathcotes Grill & Bar in Clitheroe, The Royal Scot in Glasgow, and The Carved Angel in Dartmouth. He was awarded three AA Rosettes at the age of 26, and one Michelin star two years later. Jones started in food manufacturing with Kerry foods, but the main part of his career was as a development chef at Greencore, working in a cross-site role.
  • AWAY FROM WORK:​ Jones claims to enjoy gardening, and has aspirations to learn more about cultivating vegetables. He also likes golf, “but is not showing any talent whatsoever”, and is planning to run a half marathon later this month.

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