Meet Steph and Rob from Posh Pickles & Preserves
Pretty good going for Posh Pickles & Preserves, isn’t it — to win not just the Prince’s Trust Award for Business Success but also the Outstanding Business Achievement Award? Steph Bath and Rob Fernyhough, the people behind Posh Pickles & Preserves, clearly know their onions. More about onions on the show.
Steph is bold culinary magpie, taking flavours from her near- and far-flung travels back to Cheshire in the UK, where Posh Pickles & Preserves is based, and incorporating them into her range of electric-tasting sweet and savoury pickles and preserves.
Rob, also a devout food nut, is obsessed with scaling up, smart production procedures and maintaining ‘just right’ stock levels.
What You’ll Hear About in this Episode
In this episode of the show you’ll hear about:
- the importance of listening to and acting on feedback from real customers (not just friends or family) when developing new products
- protecting products from breakages or other damage for mail order/online selling
- developing a strategy for which food fairs and other events you’ll attend
- the importance of investing in professional company and product branding
- why all your social channels should act like a magnet and attract people back to your digital real estate, your website
- how you can ‘influence the influencers’ by building relationships with food bloggers in order to spread the word about your products
- how to play to the strengths of the various social media platforms
- the tweaking required for scaling up product recipes
- why product development should cater for customers’ taste buds, not yours
Click on the Player Below to Listen to the Audio
Audio not Your Thing?
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #019: Posh Pickles & Preserves: Testing for Scaling up, Social Media Platforms and Blogger Outreach.
You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
Don’t Miss New Episode of the Artisan Food & Drink Business Show
If you’d like to hear each new episode of the show as it’s released you can subscribe for free on iTunes.
Links Mentioned in the Show
- The Food Channel
- The Prince’s Trust
- Carrowholly Cheese
- Guild of Fine Food
- Connecting Cheshire
- Northwest Food Research Development Centre
- Great British Food Festival
- Deli Vert
- Posh Pickels & Preserves Cheeky Chilli Relish
- Posh Pickels & Preserves Cheekier Chilli Relish
- Posh Pickels & Preserves Salsa Borracha
- Posh Pickels & Preserves Sa Va Tu’o’ng ot
- Posh Pickels & Preserves Claret, Red Onion and Balsamic Relish
- Ludlow Vineyard
- Posh Pickles & Preserves Blog
- Posh Pickles & Preserves on Facebook
Thanks for Listening
Thanks for listening to the show. If you are a food or drink producer who would like to come on the show (it’s free) to talk about your products, or if you are an industry professional who would like to talk about your services, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by using the Contact Form on this website or by tweeting me @FoodDrinkShow. To hear when each new episode of the show is released simply sign up for my newsletter.
If you have any questions or comments just use the Comments section below.
Like It? Please Share It!
Please share the show with friends or colleagues who might find it useful or interesting — just use any of the social media buttons on this page. Thank you.
Transcript of the Show
Catherine: Hello, and welcome to Episode 19 of the Artisan Food and Drink Business Show, the show where food and drink producers tell their brand story and share the secrets of their success. I’m your host, Catherine Moran.
Today we’re going to meet Steph and Rob from Posh Pickles and Preserves, an artisan food business based in Cheshire in the UK. As the name of the company suggests, Posh Pickles and Preserves makes a range of handmade sweet and savoury preserves.
On the show you’ll hear Steph talk about her journey as an award-winning food producer, despite having to deal with a long-term health issue. Steph talks about her time as a deli owner, and as a food caterer, and about her time teaching and living in Vietnam and Spain and how these experiences have influenced her product development.
Equally mad about food, Rob is an IT professional by day and he brings a focus on scaling up and production efficiency to the business.
I also do a tasting on the show of two of Posh Pickles and Preserves products: their Sa Va Tu’o’ng Ot and their Claret, Red Onion and Balsamic Relish. Let’s now listen to the story of how Steph and Rob are building Posh Pickles and Preserves.
Steph Bath and Rob Fernyhough from Posh Pickles and Preserves, welcome to the Artisan Food and Drink Business Show. Before we get into your products, could you, both of you, tell everyone listening what you did before setting up Posh Pickles and Preserves.
Rob: Well, workwise, I’ve done, well I still do, IT support for a large insurance company. Prior to that, did some traveling for 12 months and then you’re back to the university days, really. A love of food actually sprung out of a period between jobs where I found out there was such a thing as The Food Channel. And I guess that led us to where we are today.
Catherine: Yeah. And Steph, what about you? What did you do before setting up as a preserver?
Steph: It was a bit of a mishmash, really, because I do kidney dialysis at home. I’ve been dialysing since 1998. And so after that I’ve been to a few universities but I wasn’t able to get a degree. I was always poorly or would have a transplant and it’d fail and that’s… such is life. I started off in 2005, I just decided that after I’d worked a little bit for myself doing accounts for small businesses and I liked working for myself, because even if you were poorly or under the weather, obviously, you’ve only got yourself to be accountable for.
I loved food. I really loved cooking. It was just an idea. I was just thinking about what could I actually conceivably do as a small business and going to the food fairs that I already liked going to as a punter. I started just doing little markets really, farmer’s markets and a few food festivals, and then got some support from The Prince’s Trust. Then, I was able to expand, so I was going to all the food fairs. Where I live in Frodsham, which is a little village, a shop became vacant, so I decided to jump from doing the pickles and the preserves to having a deli and the whole shebang because I’d been going around all these delis and thought it was amazing and fantastic.
It was a good learning curve, but it was so hard. It was such hard work and eventually, I decided, because we were doing a lot of catering in the deli, to go and start a little catering firm. That was wonderful, and I did that for two years.
Then, I had a kidney transplant. And after about six months, I was feeling a little bit better. My brother has been teaching in Japan for the last eight years, and it’s really difficult to travel with the whole kidney thing. You can do it, but you’re not allowed really outside of Europe. So I thought ‘right, I want to travel. I really wanted to do something different and somebody else can be my boss for a while’.
I did my ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ in Manchester. Then, I got a job in Vietnam and I went there for a year. That was amazing. And again, the food situation was such that I was just blown away. The food over there is so different, stuff that I wasn’t used to. Then, after I had my year in Vietnam, I came home and went straight to Spain and did the same thing there, teaching from some three-year-olds up to adults and I loved it. I loved every minute of it and I appreciated it maybe all the more because I’d had the transplant, and what have you.
Then, the kidney failed in 2010, so I was stuck in Portugal for a few weeks, and then came home. Got back on dialysis and I started teaching Spanish as a foreign language to English people. I was going to carry on doing that, but it just wasn’t really… It’s not quite the same teaching Spanish in England as teaching English in Spain. It’s not the quite the same thrill.
Catherine: Yeah, at least you picked some very good countries in terms of their cuisine to go and teach in.
Steph: Just to start the company up again, and I stopped to teach. I went on to it full time and Rob’s carried on full-time with his day job. It’s been difficult and a bit of a compromise, but it’s working out now. It’s been over a year, and it’s going really well.
Rob: Yeah, nearly two.
Steph: Fingers crossed.
Catherine: Yeah. Is it your ambition or plan to go full-time into it? Or are you just waiting and seeing what happens?
Rob: It’s a big step. I mean, got the confidence that if we could… If I could dedicate myself full-time to it, I’m sure we could hugely increase what we manufacture. It’d just be a question of, you know, to sell it, distribute it. It would be a lot more to think about, but ultimately, I suppose, it has to be the goal.
Catherine: I suppose at the moment you’re doing… because you’ve gotten a lot of opportunity to test things before making that a really big commitment?
Rob: Yeah. It’s a pressure-free bubble, almost. I’ve still got a salary so, you know, it’s not like I’ve poured in my life’s resources into it.
Catherine: Is your experience in Vietnam… I was wondering where the quite exotic flavours in a lot of your relishes come from. Is that an influence of your time in Vietnam, Steph?
Steph: Absolutely. I previously, when I had the company, there wasn’t really anything like that, but this time around, I really wanted to … We had a new idea of doing some twists on Cheshire products, which we’re not … I’m not sure there’s any twist there, but just a Vietnamese relish which is lemongrass and lime and all the sort of Asian flavours that I experienced over there. My landlady was very into trying to get me eat cow’s innards and chicken’s feet and things like that.
There was always the same base. I got really used to those flavours and I really love the stir-fries that they did on the street, everything, the smells and everything. So that was the Sa Va Tu’o’ng Ot relish that we do and the Spanish one as well. A Salsa Borracha is like a smokey paprika and red peppers and as I say to people, it’s very citrusy. Even the taste, it’s like a holiday taste, if you like. Have it as a sauce, have it as a marinade, but cook with it. So we’ve tried to get some things together that people can cook with.
Chilli is really the thing now, which it wasn’t really previously, not like it is now and probably there’s more foodies than there were in 2005. So we found that just throw chilli products at people. If you really think about, I mean, we’ve got a Peruvian one, we’ve got the Cheeky and the Cheekier, which are more Indian influence. We’ve got the Vietnamese chipotle. We’re just trying to… we’ve got some traditional ones. We’ve got some fruity ones, but we’re really enthused in trying out flavours from all over, really.
Catherine: Actually, you’ll have to excuse my pronunciation, but it’s the Sa Va Tu’o’ng Ot?
Catherine: That doesn’t sound too bad? I have that in front of me, and I’m just going to open a jar and do a tasting. This is just absolutely extraordinary. I wish people could see the colour. It’s very… extremely photogenic. Vivid orange with flecks of red from chilli, I presume, and I’m just spooning a little bit out here on a piece of cow’s milk cheese from where I come from in the West of Ireland; it’s called Carrohowly and it’s a little bit sweet and a little bit nutty.
I thought it would go absolutely beautifully with your Sa Va Tu’o’ng Ot relish. Oh yeah. It’s just so vibrant and fresh and fruity. You can taste all the individual ingredients… it’s very citrusy. There’s a nice little bit of chilli kick. It’s not too hot and I love the texture as well. It’s not overly processed. There’s a little bit of roughage in there, which is very pleasant. Absolutely gorgeous. Where does the colour come from? What gives it its beautiful colour?
Steph: Well, this is the chillis really, isn’t it?
Rob: There’s some red peppers in there. I suppose the more golden aspects of it are probably from the lemongrass and the ginger, which …
Steph: Yeah. It’s lemongrass.
Rob: … which just takes on a bit of colour. We fry that separately, it just goes kind of ‘goldey’ kind of hue.
Catherine: How are you managing the lemongrass in there because when I use it, invariably, it’s always a tiny little bit woody, which is unpleasant, but there’s none of that in your relish.
Steph: I’ve got a Kitchen Aid, which is, you know, a great thing and we wazz up the lemongrass separately to everything else and cook it down in oil for quite a long time before we actually add any of the other ingredients. The spring onions and the chillis go in together, but you do with … I mean, the texture in the Sa Va Tu’o’ng will be the lemongrass because that’s the only thing that doesn’t totally process down. You can mash it up, but that would take all our lives to do… the batch that you have to do. We found that just processing that as much as possible in the food processor in batches, because there is an awful lot of lemongrass in the one batch of Sa Va Tu’o’ng. Then, cooking it down for about 20 minutes. Sometimes half an hour depending on the product, but that’s how we tend in to deal with it.
Catherine: Right. I would imagine this is an extremely popular product of yours?
Steph: It is the most popular today.
Steph: Interesting, yeah. Because at Deli Vert where we’ve been, it doesn’t often … It’s a nice little deli. It’s very, very popular. It won Deli of the Year with the Guild and Guild Awards, but he wasn’t able to shift it off the shelves, I think because people maybe look at it and are unsure. When they taste it, they sold all the stock that he had left. You had to go the car and get more. It’s so popular, and I think all people need to just have a little taste. Even if it’s too spicy for them, I always say, just use it as a base for curry or a marinade, or mix it with yoghurt, or have it as a dip. For BBQ food it’s been really popular as well because people are putting it on fish and what not, but it does fly at the shows. It really goes…
Catherine: It shows, again, the importance of tasting doesn’t it?
Steph: Yes, definitely.
Catherine: So Something less exotic, I also have your Claret, Red Onion and Balsamic Relish, which … just doing a little sniff taste… sniff test here and it’s just very mouth watering. Again, it’s not overly processed. There’s a beautiful… excuse me while I stuff my mouth here.
Steph: Do it. Do it.
Catherine: Emm. Lovely and sweet, with a slight acidic edge. I presume from the wine? And lovely texture. Good with lots of different things. I could imagine it, I’m having it with the cheese, but I could imagine this with the big wodge of buttered, nice bread and some cheese and it would be absolutely gorgeous. That’s a beautiful product.
Steph: Yeah. To be quite honest, I’d say that that’s probably, along with the other chilli products, that’s probably about second.
Rob: Yeah, it’s the biggest selling one without chilli definitely, and it probably rivals the Sa Va Tu’o’ng Ot as the biggest seller. It varies from event from event to event. As an overall piece, yeah, that would be the two big sellers.
Catherine: Right. Lots of slicing of onions required for this one?
Catherine: That’s great. It was absolutely lovely to taste your relishes. Thank you very much.
Steph: I’m glad you like it. I sent you the ones that obviously are popular, but we really do like our own products, so it does help when you sell them. When you sell and you’re passionate about them…
Catherine: Definitely, yeah. I think if you have confidence in your products, it really comes across doesn’t it?
Steph: Definitely. If there’s anything that I wasn’t sure of, I don’t know that I’d actually be able to sell it. But from the feedback that we’ve had and from the delis that sell it and what have you, and from food bloggers and people like yourself who’ve tried it and given us feedback, we can be pretty confident that it’s not just you being biased that what we’re doing is nice.
Catherine: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. You were talking a few minutes ago about delis. And obviously that’s one of your sale streams. You supply independent fine food stores like delis. I knew you’ve got an online shop. Basically, you do web sales as well?
Rob: Definitely yeah.
Steph: I love it. I mean, it’s good. It’s just I’ve had to, well, become a bit more proficient in packing because we had a few smashed things arriving at people’s houses and at other delis to start with. But I’ve got it bang on now.
Catherine: Are all your products in glass?
Catherine: That’s quite a challenge isn’t it? I was talking to Mike from Ludlow Vineyard a while ago on the show and he had the same experience. He was saying that I think it was, you need to be able to drop your product from three feet in the air if you’ve got…
Steph: That’s what the couriers do!
Catherine: And If it survives that, you’re sound.
Steph: We pack it with everything we can, but generally speaking, I double wrap each jar in bubble wrap and just stuff with paper in there too as so that they can’t hit each other or hit the sides. Like you say, if you can’t drop the box then you’re in trouble because I don’t think they’re treated with kid gloves.
Catherine: Yeah, that’s a very polite way of saying it. As regards to other income streams, then, what would you say is your most important?
Steph: At the moment the food fairs. Yeah.
Rob: Food fairs. Far and away, the food fairs.
Catherine: Do you travel far or do you stay … Actually, we should say that, is it true to say that the biggest centre near you, would that be Liverpool?
Rob: Yes, it’s the biggest retail centre near us, but for our business, it would be the Chester area.
Steph: Yeah, we’ve sold well in Chester and we’ve tried to stay with shows that are good and people we know, and never travel more than say, an hour’s drive away. We made exceptions where we’ve stayed overnight. We did The Great British Food Festival in Shugborough… Sorry…
Steph: Stonyhurst College. Which is a really, really awesome festival and you know that you’re going to make your money back even if you stay over, but sometimes, we’ve got to consider whether we’d actually make any profit going to a show miles and miles away, stay there for three nights, and paying for the stall as well. So we try and stay local-ish and that’s worked pretty well up to now. Because we can do well at small events.
Some of the events that we’ve paid just 10 pounds and it’s just maybe a Women’s Institute or a small village fair. Sometimes it can be better, you’ve got no competition and people are like locusts.
Rob: Return on investment, the sheer volume of money, you’ve got to think about those things.
Catherine: Yeah. Sure. I mean, if you’re paying… there’s a festival here where I’m currently living near Ludlow and if it’s 300 odd pounds for the … If I remember correctly, for the whole gig, and that’s a lot of money you need to earn back just to stand still. So, picking and choosing the events you go to is really, really important. And sometimes, you just have to do them to see how good they are, or else, you know, talk to your friends and try and get the inside track on how good they are.
Steph: Definitely. I mean, that has been a bit of a problem. We’ve gone to shows and we’ve realised that they’re no good, so we don’t go to them in the following year, but we often run into the same people don’t we? We talk to the same stallholders.
Rob: Yeah, word of mouth is pretty good. We’re a fairly honest, helpful bunch to each other.
Catherine: Yeah, because often, festival organisers, they have their own vested interest don’t they? They want people to come along and take, basically hire stands and stalls and stuff, but it doesn’t mean that there’s any business guaranteed. Which is definitely a problem doing events.
Rob: Yeah. Especially events with entrance fees. They’re the death knell, or they can be, if you turn up with a family of 4 at the peak, like at lunchtime. Before you know it, you’re 40, 50 pounds down before you’ve even done any shopping, if you like. It’s not an environment conducive for us to make, start making some money.
Catherine: Yeah. It can be very tricky. Should we just maybe talk a little bit about marketing and about your approach to marketing your products? How would you describe that?
Steph: We’re lucky in that the chap that does our branding is a friend and we’re able to really talk things through with him and decide. He decided for us that he wanted the logo to be a bit more modern than it had been originally. It was all sort of hearts and flowers when I did it originally, but we decided to go urban and have Posh Pickles and Preserves, you know, as the logo as well.
He helped us with branding, the labels are really bright and colourful. And that helps at the food festivals. We had strong branding. We made sure that we had all the things that go with showing yourself publicly. Branded t-shirts and pull-up stands with the Posh Pickles logo on it, and things like that. We started off using leaflets and then realised, to be honest, that they aren’t really the way forward.
Rob: They’re just an expensive way to give people a recipe, or something.
Steph: In the end, I think the marketing strategy we… we did go to a few courses with Connect Cheshire for online marketing and what have you… social media. It takes up your whole life. I’ve been Pinteresting and Twittering and blogging and Instagramming and LinkedIning and it never ends. But I think if you really do put your back into it, with a business like ours, we are going to start making more of a push with delis. We sell to a lot of delis locally and then a couple of random ones. One in Newcastle and things like that, but we haven’t really approached delis. It’s always the situation when they approach us at fairs and things. I think yeah, I think as we expand, it will be important to approach delis and you can do that via social media or directly, as we like to do, either go and see them or speak to them on the phone.
The social media has been really good. It’s given us, like yourself on Twitter, and all the blogging that leads to reviews that has then led to people buying online. I’ve been trying really hard, so I’m no aficionado on the computer as it is, so it was hard. But the chap that told us also said how important it is really to have Facebook and link it back to your site and everything you do, try and link it back to your site.
So I’m getting the hang of it. Tricks of the trade, learning from other crafty online marketers. I think, whereas it wasn’t the case before, now, social media is really important for us as a marketing strategy.
Rob: And it’s free.
Catherine: Yeah. Very important.
Rob: There’s always an element of ‘do it yourself’ about it.
Steph: Sure. I mean in the shows, people get to know us and they genuinely do. At the delis as well, they come back and they buy the same product, or, as we found, people will go into the delis and now ask for products that maybe they don’t stock. Then we can run them down or whatever, but it’s good to be seen in delis, I think. I’d like to get into a few more once we’ve gradually expanded. The whole social media thing and selling online has definitely been a plus in getting us out there.
Catherine: You wrote a fantastic account of a digital marketing master class that you did. Was it in this May? This May that’s just gone?
Catherine: It sounds like you were maybe a tiny bit sceptical, or you were holding, reserving judgment before the day, but it sounds like you got a huge amount out of it?
Steph: I had no intention of going, but Rob made me go. I thought like, ‘God, what kind of class starts at 8:00 in the morning or whatever time, and goes on all day? What can it possibly… good can it do me?’ Because I was tweeting a little bit. I wasn’t particularly prolific. We met people there, other small business owners that were at different stages of starting their businesses. How further they were. They didn’t even have a website and they were just marketing through Facebook or people who were thinking of starting.
The chap, I mean, he went through stuff I still don’t really understand, obviously important to do with our SEO, and we’re going to go through that with our web boy, but the main thing that he concentrated on was, the social media and how to really make it work for you and going on at certain times. Cultivating relationships with people. How to actually make it relevant to your business rather than just chatting. It was good wasn’t it?
Rob: Definitely yeah. It’s horses for courses. You cultivate LinkedIn for one thing, you might cultivate your Twitter followers for another and extremely useful it was.
Catherine: Yeah. Which actually, leads into a question I wanted to ask you about different social media platforms. Do you have a favourite one? If you do, why? Why is it your favourite?
Steph: At the moment to me, because I deal with… obviously Rob can post whenever he likes, but I deal mainly with the social media because Rob’s at work, and Twitter. Facebook is good, but I don’t think that Facebook is as engaging, and I’m not too sure that it’s got as much business back as Twitter. People tend to go from Twitter onto the Facebook rather than the other way around. I kind of gather people from Twitter and then they can have a look at the Facebook, and that pushes them maybe towards the site.
I like Instagram and that’s been good as well, and a lot of bloggers go on there, so that can be interesting but, as well, maybe because we started to do wedding favours — little jars of chutney and jam — and tart them up with their own personalised labels and material lids. They look grand, they’re really nice. And I got into Pinterest, which Rob thought was absolute nonsense. It’s when we went to social media class and the guy said ‘no’, because depending on the business, of course. Especially when you do a foodie business like I do and we can pin our own recipes, and what have you.
With the wedding favours, I can do which I’ve just done this week… If a bride, she wants to personalise the labels, change the colour of the font. She wants a particular ribbon, et cetera, I can do a little private Pinterest board. So, I can basically pin everything and say, ‘What do you want? Is this okay? Is that okay?’ That has been really helpful and I had never thought of that. I mean, I didn’t really know how to use Pinterest as a tool for business, but he helped to channel that. That’s been fun as well for me. I don’t know. You do bits and bobs, don’t you Rob?
Rob: I do bits and bobs, probably slightly silly ones. I don’t know if I contribute to our brand image or not in a positive manner.
Catherine: I’m sure it does. It shows your personality and it’s an opportunity isn’t it, to show a bit of personality to customers?
Steph: Yeah. I think if it’s just all business, business, people aren’t that interested anyway, because there’s so many businesses out there, aren’t there, so, yeah, and it can be a bit of fun and trying to make it more personal.
Rob: You don’t just badger people into buying stuff.
Catherine: Even though you’re running your business, it’s ultimately… it’s food, and that’s all about, really, enjoyment and fun isn’t it?
Steph: I think so. It’s a hustle and people know when you are doing it, but if you can do it in a good-natured way and in a reciprocal way, then I think it’s …
Rob: No one minds that.
Steph: … nobody’s bothered
Catherine: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
Steph: … people like food.
Catherine: Yeah. Steph, you are a quite, I would say for a food producer, you’re quite a prolific blogger, which I find really striking and interesting and fantastic. You’re a natural writer. You’ve got a very clear, strong, tone of voice and a very nice tone of voice. It’s very nice to read. Did anyone sit you down and say, ‘Right. Here’s a bit of a business advice. You need to start blogging, and you need to start talking about events you’ve been at, on your website, or did you just say yourself, ‘I’m going to write a few blogs about what we’ve been up to.’?
Steph: Well, when we set the website up, we said, ‘Yeah. We’ll have a blog and we’ll write about this and that.’ Then, the lad — he’s wonderful actually, John, who does our website — said that we could also have a recipe blog that works the same way, because I was basically writing recipes, sending them to him. He was putting them on the website and he was so bored. So He set up a recipe one as well, but I like writing, if I could do… I really, really love writing. I really enjoy it. I always have and I like emails and Facebook and what have you.
It’s an opportunity for me to do something else I enjoy, really. I’ve been really lucky. If I could sit there and just blog all day, I would, but unfortunately, there’s other facets, other areas of the business to deal with. I really enjoy it, so I do think it’s a talent, to be honest. I just write and then maybe edit a little bit and post it. Otherwise, it’d never get done if I went over and over it. I enjoy doing it.
Catherine: That comes across very loud and clear from your blog posts. They’re absolutely wonderful and I think it’s another great way of just engaging — a very overused word — but engaging with customers. It builds up trust with customers, and likability. I think if people trust you and like you, well, they’re hopefully going to be more likely to consider your products and then eventually buy them. I think you’re doing a terrific job.
Steph: [Laughs] Thank you. It makes me want to cry. A little bit of praise.
Catherine: Rob, have you got any tissues handy?
Steph: Loads. I’ve got hay fever at the moment.
Catherine: Oh no, Yeah, I have that earlier actually. We’ve spoke about that digital marketing master class that you did in May. Did that take place in the Northwest Food Research Development Centre?
Rob: It did. Yeah.
Catherine: Ah, right. Because I was wondering, would you describe the help you’ve had from that organisation? I should say that’s a new centre isn’t it? It’s part of the University of Chester and it’s essentially a centre of excellence for food science and technology for food… small, I suppose, and maybe mid-sized food businesses. Small and big, bigger food businesses, in your neck of the woods, the Northwest of England, and they give things like technical support and they have test kitchens, and they do sensory testing and they’ll also give business advice. You’ve partaken of their services?
Rob: That’s right. Yeah. I’ve been three times now to actually produce food, but yeah, they first approached us, it would have been Easter of 2014 at the Chester Food and Drink Festival and we went and had a look. It was all very shiny and new at the time. Everything was still shrink-wrapped and Tobias, the Chief Technologist there was yet to fully equip everything. But yes, they get EU funding which is actually ceasing in September. That’s EU funding in order to help SMEs like us to help with up scaling production and having things tested. Just improving your methods and your precision and things like that.
I’ve done two test days there where you just cook your normal recipe and then they’ll round off the figures, not by much, but just enough so that you can upscale it with confidence. We’ve done five, maybe five or six test recipes. Just slightly tweaking production like seeing it does it make a difference if we fried ingredients X, Y and Z first and then add the rest of the stuff. Or if we just throw it all in together, does it make a difference? Then, my last visit, we did the first big batch, so I did — granted there were three of us doing it — but in the same time, I would normally make of this particular product 16 jars. We did about 125.
Catherine: Wow. In the same time?
Rob: Yeah. I mean, that was with three people chopping, processing and most importantly, filling the jars at the end and sticking the lids on and stuff. Then, also, on that last visit, I spoke to a former trading standards person who’s a bit of an expert on food labelling, especially in light of all the changes that are coming in for labelling laws, both this year and next year.
Catherine: Which are quite a thing aren’t they? A bit of a nightmare getting all of that right? All the labelling stuff.
Rob: Yeah. And too in having the confidence that you’ve got it right with your nutrition, especially.
Catherine: You’re going to have to make nutrition declarations on your labels now?
Rob: Exactly yeah. What’s called Class 2 Nutrition. A little bit over and above the minimum required, but it shouldn’t be too onerous. We might have a couple of creative issues trying to fit it all on the label, but we’ll get there.
Catherine: Yeah, just because of the space available to you?
Rob: Yeah. We’re actually in the smaller class of labels so we can get away with some smaller fonts and stuff like that. That will help.
Steph: We’re going to have to put very clearly allergens obviously, and what not, and we don’t have nutrition tables at the moment. And that’s going to be a law and we’ve got to have the name of the product to a certain size, and this that and the other. So this is stuff that we don’t know and that they’re helping with. If they weren’t, we’d have to pay for the advice, so it’s very much appreciated.
Catherine: Yeah. Are they doing that for free?
Rob: To us it’s free. We get 12 hours of kitchen time and 12 hours of business support time. That’s all the EU-funded bit, but we’ve got until September to get those hours in.
Catherine: God, that’s terrific, yeah.
Steph: It’s wonderful, but we’re going to actually … Well, we’ve already decided, haven’t we? Depending on funds, we’re going to rent one of their kitchens.
Rob: Just rent some kitchen time, like on a day rate.
Steph: It’s a good rate that they give at this centre. It’s fantastic.
Rob: Yeah. It’s a great facility. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anybody even if it’s not free to you anymore. Which it wouldn’t be.
Catherine: Yeah. Are you saying that you would do a little bit of production there then?
Rob: I have done some. Ultimately, even though we’ve done a couple of test days, and I suppose even the last day was a test day in terms of us testing how we make a big batch, it’s still all sellable product at the end of it.
Steph: We are hoping to expand and when we do expand, a big part of it is going to be having… being able to go to the unit and cook there. Just to produce more.
Catherine: Absolutely, and you’ll have the confidence as well of having a state of the art and undoubtedly, highly approved kitchen that…
Rob: Exactly. Yeah.
Steph: We’re good. We’ve got five stars from the hygiene inspection, which had me practically on the floor with a coronary, because it was so stressful.
Catherine: Yeah, just lovely being in a ‘made for it’ space to do that food production.
Steph: I think it’ll be less stressful than always cooking at home, and always being at home with the mess and the noise and the storing your stuff safely the way that you have to. I think it’ll be nice. I’ll still cook from here, but we’ll still be cooking in the Northwest in somewhere that is scrupulously, clean and all it means is that we’ve got a bit more space and a big fridge.
Catherine: Yeah. Yeah.
Rob: We could make half a ton of it in the day.
Catherine: Fantastic. It’s all about scaling up really, well, I suppose some people wouldn’t agree. Some people don’t want to move away from the kitchen table and that’s fine, but clearly you do want to scale up. I think you’re doing it in a nice, rational, non-scary way.
Steph: Yeah. We don’t want to move away from the idea of small batch, homemade, because it still will be. It’s just that, in the likes of the Northwest Food Centre, you’ve got eight hobs or whatever, you can put on, and they’re big. Obviously you can put on eight jam pans whereas here, you’d be lucky to, squeeze two jam pans at once on the hob because it’s just a domestic cooker and that’s about as good as it gets. We’re still doing the same ethos as in cooking everything in a little pan, but we’re just able to chop everything up a million times quicker. And we’ve got space, so-
Catherine: Yeah. It’s always better to work smarter isn’t it really?
Steph: Right. Economy of scale.
Catherine: Yeah. I was wondering what keeps you awake at night about your business? In other words, what is the one thing you would change if you could?
Rob: Stock, stock, stock, stock, stock. I’d tend to start thinking ahead to the next show and then multiply the number of weeks by three and think how many nights I’ve got to cook and suddenly and start thinking, ‘Oh God, what are we taking to that next show? We’re going to look like idiots.’ We never do, but yeah, shows in close proximity to each other, and that’s what worries me the most.
Steph: The sleepless nights.
Catherine: That puts a lot of pressure on your stock levels?
Steph: As long as you it work out properly. Sometimes, like when we have big shows like Chester, you can’t predict it and you basically take as much stock as you possibly can and it all goes. Also, what often happens, we’ve got about 8 or 9 delis and they seem to have gotten a cycle with each other where they all order within like a week and they wait until there’s a big show and then they place their orders.
So, I don’t like to make people wait more than a week to 10 days, especially not if they’re local, but sometimes we just have to say obviously, ‘Sorry, but we, our tiny hands can’t manage this.’ That’s why we want to expand because there is demand, but we don’t want to alter the quality. That’s what would bother me. I worry and worry, and worry that one day, someone’s going to say, ‘Oh, it just tastes like supermarket stuff.’ That keeps me awake and Rob worries about stock levels.
Catherine: Right. You’re both worrying about very different things. What do you think the worst business mistake you’ve made? If indeed you’ve made any big mistakes.
Steph: I made a lot of mistakes originally when I first started the business on my own trying to do too many products. Just pointless products that were never going to sell and keeping on with them and not trying to tweak and just because I liked them even though they weren’t selling.
Also paying, like I say, through the nose for shows that weren’t good, and that probably weren’t ever going to be good. Also, learning which ones were. It was difficult, five years on, we’ve really had to go through the whole process again. I think I know now, not to jump… when we first started, I booked every single show. Everybody who came to me as, ‘Yes, please, please, can I come to your show,” and now …
Catherine: This is a woman who likes to say yes!
Steph: I was just so pleased that anybody should ask me. I felt really privileged and special, and now I know, I realise the sad truth is that I’m not. Yeah. We worked it out, but we’re still working on that.
Catherine: And Rob, is there anything you would throw into that mix in terms of…
Rob: If you want the specific, I’d say the idea I had for the kids’ range of jams: that was pretty bad.
Catherine: Why was that bad?
Steph: It’s a good idea, and actually it’s a good concept and people asked about them, but what we did was rocky road with all marshmallow and cinder toffee and things in, and we did a zesty one with popping candy. Just all ridiculously expensive ingredients in small jars. Nothing that was going to last.
Catherine: Yeah, probably for every 10 ideas you get, nine of them are not quite so good, and then you get the blinder, and it’s all worth it for the blinder, perhaps?
Steph: We do have to think very hard, and it’s maybe something that I was guilty of. Have to really think about costing and we’ve learned to keep looking, keep looking, to try and get the best products, but at the best price. We buy stuff locally, but we embrace this wonderful business wholesaler and we try and go to farms and things like that. We’ve got systems, but the problem… we maybe get a really great product that everybody loved, but the ingredients were, it was working out if we sold it wholesale, maybe we’d make 20p on a jar. The profit margin, brutal though it sounds, and we’ve have to knock a few products on the head, haven’t we?
Catherine: I mean, there is such a thing as products that are uneconomic to bring to the market.
Catherine: Yeah. It’s quite a skill getting something that tastes sensational and clearly has very good ingredients in it, but at the same time, doesn’t cost the earth for the consumer, that it’s just too much money for enough consumers to buy. That’s quite a skill working that out and it takes time, I think.
Steph: Yeah. I think we’re still working it out really, aren’t we?
Rob: Course we are. Always are.
Steph: We’re still costing, constantly costing and just searching for the holy grail of something that costs 10p to make. It must be out there somewhere.
Catherine: Yeah. Sure, yeah. So what advice would you have for people considering taking the plunge and setting up a business as an artisan food or preserve maker?
Rob: I think now, I think to make one jar of something, if I’m going to trial a new product, rather than just making the stuff.
Catherine: Absolutely, yeah.
Steph: Personally, I’d say, do your research properly. Decide yourself what you want to do, what your demographic is. Decide what you’re capable of doing and I’d also, yeah, just advise people to really research it but also, to seriously, to do it, because I suppose it depends what your situation is financially, what your responsibilities are, but it is a good thing to work for yourself. It’s not scary.
If you’re under the age of 30, I definitely advise people to look into The Prince’s Trust because they are… that’s what they’re there for, to support small businesses, especially enthusiastic in the food industry. They give you a mentor. They introduce you to whatever you need, so I guess I needed label makers, somebody to help me with my accounts. Things like that.
Catherine: I would just now like to thank both of you, Steph and Rob, for coming on the show, for telling your story and for sharing your insights. I appreciate it very much. Thank you.
Steph: Thank you so much.
Rob: Thank you.
Thanks once again to Steph and Rob for coming on the show. If you’d like to get a free transcript of this episode, just go to www.myartisanbusiness.com. You’ll also find the show notes for this episode there as well as links to the organisations mentioned in the show.
To get in touch with me you can use the contact form on www.myartisanbusiness.com. If you’d like to hear when I publish new episodes of the show simply sign up at www.myartisanbusiness.com. You can also find me on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow.
I’m Catherine Moran from the Artisan Food and Drink Business Show. Until next time, happy cooking, happy fermenting, happy brewing, and thanks for listening.