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business models, strategies and technologies

Baked beans made in heaven

Startup Mason Beans re-invented baked beans with a radical rethink of a mundane staple food – and the business model behind it.

One thing I never thought I’d write a blog post about is food – and food doesn’t really get much more mundane and low-life than the humble tin of baked beans. But a remarkable recent UK business initiative has shaken up previous perceptions of baked beans, with disruptive business rethinks just as much in focus as any hipster food porn and nutritional numbers.

Anachronism walking

3 million Brits eat a tin of baked beans every day. Here in Denmark you can get a tin from Lidl for much less than €1  – add a couple of slices of good toasted bread and you’ve got a great-tasting, additive-free filling meal in about two minutes. It’s a warm, fuzzy relic of childhood and my class background, at the same time as an intensely practical meal solution in a busy lifestyle. What’s not to like?

Coincidentally, I recently watched a BBC programme about how Heinz baked beans are made (Inside the Factory) and was actually flabbergasted. I never knew baked beans were cooked in the sealed can!  It’s a quirky foodstuff that was deemed “essential food” during Second World War rationing, and has remained virtually unchanged (except for wartime removal of the meat content) over the past 60-odd years. What other familiar food item is still locked in a time warp, yet so consistently successful? Is it in fact a food item – or a comfort blanket?

Masons Beans

Then in  2014 former London advertising exec Ben Mason popped up and rethought the whole thing. Masons Beans (formerly Proper Beans) are a healthy, tasty and filling one-pot meal set up as the UK’s first-ever fresh-baked bean brand. Rather than being pressure-cooked inside a can, the fava or haricot beans are soaked overnight and simmered gently with onion, garlic, chunks of tomato and bacon and all sorts of other sassy ingredients. They’re sold as fresh, tasty baked beans that are a meal in themselves (rather than just a side dish), sold from the supermarket chiller cabinet and that you keep in the fridge.

The company started with three varieties of these gourmet bean products: British fava beans & smoked pork collar, ham hock, potato & thyme baked beans, and sundried tomato & English mustard baked beans.

Success stymied

Masons Beans had a remarkable impact, on so many levels, and seem to tick all the boxes for both media attention and commercial success. The personable founder had a great “story” paralleling the success of the original Heinz baked beans., and the company’s products comply well with all the “a”s of hipster food culture – artisanal, authentic and artistic. In January 2016, company founder Ben Mason delivered an assured pitch to the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, and after the most intensely competitive bidding war in the programme’s history walked away with a GBP 50,000 investment for 20% of the equity.

It seemed like he’s successfully rethought a product everyone thought they knew, with a new approach and a new business model at a different price point, different market positioning and different logistics setup. Masons Beans transformed humble baked beans into a delicacy.

But the story didn’t have a happy ending. Masons Beans stopped trading in May 2016, explaining “Despite incredible hype and strong customer demand, we weren’t able to secure the mainstream supermarket listings which are imperative for a fresh product.” Unfortunately, simple Googling doesn’t reveal what happened. It seems they were able to achieve gourmetisation of a traditional food staple, but not to deal with the nitty-gritty of supermarket shelving wars. But it seems too good an idea to just get kiboshed with no chance of a phoenix event.