Case study: COOK

Selling frozen food to thaw perceptions of ex-offenders

Introducing COOK

Since 1997, COOK has sold frozen meals with a difference. Its founding mission statement reads: “To cook using the same ingredients and techniques a good cook would use at home, so everything looks and tastes homemade.” In so doing, COOK also employs ex-offenders and previously homeless people. There are now over 90 COOK shops across the UK, plus a thriving delivery business and a concessions network. COOK became a B Corps in 2013.

How does COOK work?

COOK’s stated “driving purpose” is to nourish four types of human relationship:

  • Between people and their work
  • With food and where it comes from
  • Between COOK, its customers and their communities
  • Between business and society

These four aims are interconnected through a range of initiatives through which COOK emphasises relationships over hierarchy and treats staff as rounded people instead of automatons. 

We want to move beyond the 20th century idea of people as resources, to be used by the company in the pursuit of profit
Rosie Brown

Managing Director, COOK

Ready and Working (RAW)

The flagship initiative is COOK’s Ready And Working (RAW) Talent Programme, which supports people who have spent time in prison (except anybody on the sex register) or without housing into work. Each RAW Talent is allocated a buddy and given additional support to help adjust to working life. RAW Talents come primarily from two partners: HMP Standford Hill, the local prison; and Caring Hands, which supports people out of homelessness and addiction.

The Selfie

This is an optional self-reflective tool, relying on feedback from colleagues, that staff can use instead of appraisals.

The COOK Dream Academy

Led by “Dream Manager” Alastair Hill, this gives staff and others the chance to have a series of one-to-one coaching sessions on pursuing a personal “dream”, or ambition. COOK argues it is important staff have a strong sense of why they work where they do.

Financial support

Interest-free loans for staff in financial difficulties and Care Cards – 30% discount cards that are distributed to staff, who can gift them to people they feel are in need in some capacity.

What impact is COOK having?

Social impact

RAW Talents employed since 2014, representing 2% of the current workforce

Care Cards distributed to staff in 2018, resulting in £30,149 in discounts for people in need

loaned to staff in the fast 5 years with zero defaults

Economic impact

best company to work for in 2019 according to Times 100 Best Companies to work for, making it the highest places manufacturer

B Corp score in 2019 - COOK's third straight increase in score


increase in profits in 2019, alongside a 16% increase in sales and 81 new concession partners

What can we learn from COOK?

A few things that stand out to us about the way that COOK operates:

Creating an enabling environment helps to support the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships
COOK has clearly put thought and energy into creating a cultural environment that encourages meaningful relationships. Its initiatives, values, branding and communications align to show COOK realises effective relationship-centred design must be holistic, transcending isolated tweaks. This consistent messaging suggests an organisation thoughtfully and thoroughly engaged with its stated relationship-driven approach, providing fertile ground for effective relationships to take root.
Openness, empathy – and sometimes forgiveness – are necessary conditions from which relationships can grow
This can be particularly true with potentially contentious relationships – an unfortunate risk given potential resistance to employing ex-offenders. This is poignantly captured in this case by the story of Red, a RAW Talent recruit who, it transpired, had physically assaulted Craig, now a COOK colleague, years before. The two are now friends and effective colleagues.
Third parties are often vital in helping frame and initiate relationships

COOK relies on HMP Standford Hill and Caring Hands to suggest candidates suitable to working at COOK. COOK’s strong relationship with its staff therefore relies on its relationship with other organisations and their expertise.

Training can provide a trellis on which mutual relationships grow, especially when the trainee faces barriers to training elsewhere

In COOK’s context RAW Talents’ training helps ground a mutual employer-employee relationship built on trust. RAW Talents develop skills, secure employment and feel a renewed sense of purpose – all of which may be difficult to find elsewhere. COOK, in return, benefits from a valuable team member and contributes to its high B Corp score and staff-satisfaction rating. Training offers the framework for this exchange to take place.

Relationships often work best when they align with participants’ existing values

We’ve written this time and time again across our case studies, but it is interesting and important to observe how relationship-centred design is particularly effective when relationships are designed in alignment with participants’ existing values. In this case, COOK values the idea that business should be about more than profit, and RAW Talents broadly value the sense of freedom and redemption, among other benefits, that regular employment helps provide.

Want to know more?

What’s next for COOK?

COOK has a transparent ‘2020 To-Do List’ on its website, outlining the company’s aims by 2020 in a bid to become a “more responsible and sustainable business.

Further reading

  • COOK’s website has a wealth of information on its initiatives and values. Its Nourishing Relationships page is the best jumping-off point.
  • The website also features its impact reports, including its 2018 report.