How to Run a Successful Food Business: The Patchwork Traditional Food Company Shares Insights Gained and Lessons Learned
Margaret Carter and Jenny Whitham are co-founders of The Patchwork Traditional Food Company, a bohemian Welsh artisan food business that is synonymous, in the UK, with gourmet pate. The company, which employs over twenty people, makes other products too, including marmalades and relishes.
Margaret and Jenny have been running their business for over thirty years. It’s no exaggeration to say their company is an icon of the Welsh artisan food scene. Arguably, they put Welsh artisan food on the map. In the episode of the show Margaret and Jenny share invaluable insights on running a successful food business and lessons they’ve learned along the way.
What You’ll hear About in This Episode
In this episode of the show, Margaret and Jenny go deep into the weeds and:
- Describe their encounter with the entrepreneur’s fear of product and personal rejection, and how they dealt with it
- Reflect on how they’d scale up differently if they had their time again
- Describe how they develop new products
- Question the necessity of having your own e-commerce website
- Describe the export side of their business
- Explain their decision to avoid supplying UK supermarkets
- List the facts and figures that co-packers need to know from food companies before agreeing to co-pack
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Get the Show Transcript
If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #027. The Patchwork Traditional Food Company: Lessons Learned Over 3 Decades of Running a Business.
You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
Very Sound Bites from Margaret Carter and Jenny Whitham
Check out the image below to read some direct quotes from Margaret and Jenny during the show.
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Links Mentioned in the Show
- The Patchwork Traditional Food Company website
- The Patchwork Traditional Food Company on Facebook
- The Patchwork Traditional Food Company is on Twitter
- The Patchwork Traditional Food Company on Instagram
- Chase Distillery
- Rosie’s Cider
- Halen Môn
- Castell Howell
- Abergavenny Food Festival
- The John Lewis Foodhall
- International Food Exhibition
- Anuga (“the world’s largest food fair for retail, catering and foodservice”)
- Patchwork Traditional Food’s Homepatch shop
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.
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Transcript of the Show
Catherine Moran: Hello, and welcome to episode 27 of The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show, the show where artisan producers tell their brand story and share the secrets of their success. I’m your host, Catherine Moran.
Today’s show features an icon of the Welsh artisan food scene, The Patchwork Traditional Food Company. And we’re going to hear from its co-founders, Margaret Carter and Jenny Whitham. Margaret and Jenny have been running their multi-award-winning business for over three decades, so they know a thing or two about business at this stage.
We cover a huge amount of ground on this episode, from how and why they started the business, to where they get their sales from, to how they develop new products, to scaling up, to marketing, to the necessity — or not — of having your own e-commerce site.
This episode is essentially a fascinating biography of a successful business and I think it’s the lessons they learned along their business journey that you’ll find especially interesting. Let’s hear now from Margaret and Jenny.
I’m delighted to be sitting next to Margaret Carter and Jenny Whitham, co-founders of the Patchwork Traditional Food Company Ltd. Thank you very much for coming onto the Artisan Food & Drink Business Show.
Jenny Whitham: You’re very welcome.
Margaret Carter: Thank you. Yes, yes, thank you for asking us.
Catherine Moran: It’s an absolute pleasure. What was the catalyst for setting up the Patchwork Traditional Food Company?
Margaret Carter: A need to earn money and pay the bills.
Catherine Moran: As simple as that?
Margaret Carter: Nothing more complicated than that.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah, right at the very beginning we had 11 different sources of income between the two of us. That amounted to the grand total of 70 quid a week. A lot of them were focused around a restaurant just up the hill from here. I was a waitress there and we did a newsletter, and Margaret was making these preserves, these jams and chutneys which we called Patchwork Preserves because hey had little patchwork hats on them. They were sold up at the restaurant as well. We would do anything for a little bit more income.
Margaret Carter: We asked, what happened, the preserves weren’t working as well as they needed to. They were costing money. Time wasn’t of any importance then, but the product, buying the ingredients was. I then, because they weren’t selling, I then went to the owner and said, “What can I do?” He said, “Go and ask the kitchen.” I went to the kitchen and the kitchen lady there said, “Can you make some pate?”
In true entrepreneurial style, I said, “Yes.” Hit the car park and went, “Ohh! What is pate? How do you make it?” Went home and we had a cookbook at home and Jenny looked it up and we found an old cookbook my mother had given me, chicken, liver, brandy and herb and we made the first pate with nine pounds from housekeeping, which was a lot out of 70 pounds, we could probably set ourselves up on that and we steadily made the pate for a long time. A kilo a week.
Jenny Whitham: No. It was like pounds and ounces back then so it was two pounds a week we used to make. Two containers a week wasn’t it?
Margaret Carter: That’s right. Yes, you’re right.
Jenny Whitham: That quite happily produced us x number of pounds a week more.
Margaret Carter: That’s what we needed.
Jenny Whitham: What we went up one time and the guy who owned the restaurant said, “Girls, I’m very sorry but I’m going to have to stop buying your pate.” We went, “Why? Have we done something wrong? Somebody reported that they’ve had food poisoning or something?” He’s, “No, no, no. It’s not that.” He said, “I’ve just got real financial problems at the moment and a friend of mine, he’s got a successful restaurant in Chester. He’s audited the business for me and says I should be making my own pate. I’ve got perfectly good chefs.”
Margaret Carter: Anyway, so from that, we just went, “Okay.” He said, “Go and sell it. Go and sell it somewhere else.” We did and the story just grew from there. Again, going back on the artisan fears of selling. Fine doing a product, but selling is that, two days I went down with samples to Llangollen and came back two days with the samples and put them back in the fridge and went: “I can’t get out the car, I can’t get out the car”, so I said to Jenny, please will she come with me? Would she come with me and make sure I got out of the car.
She did, I did get out the car and that’s how we started the business. I had five people that I took samples to, and I was afraid to make the phone calls in case they rejected the product and myself, and then all five said yes. Then we took off from there.
Jenny Whitham: Sometimes I wonder if the guy at the top of the mountain had been a better businessman, we’d still be making four pounds a week of pate for him.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. Exactly. His misfortune was your good luck, really, because he really pushed you on to other markets.
Jenny Whitham: Yes. Yup.
Catherine Moran: That’s fascinating hearing about the fear of rejection of the products and also fear of rejection of yourself. It’s a tough old cookie or nut to crack isn’t it? Getting over that…
Margaret Carter: Yes. Yes.
Catherine Moran: …fear of rejection.
Margaret Carter: The only driver again, is the need to earn. I mean, if I had the money, I wouldn’t have pushed myself to go off and do that.
Jenny Whitham: It was the recession in the early 80’s recession so times were hard in the same they are now.
Catherine Moran: Did you ever think that when you set up the company, and it sounds very grand now, when you set up the company, but at the time you probably barely thought of it as a company.
Margaret Carter: No. It wasn’t a company.
Catherine Moran: I suppose, did you ever think that… Did you ever imagine that you’d be employing over 20 people?
Margaret Carter: No. It wasn’t the intention. I had been in London in Surrey, rather, working with my knit work company and I never wanted to have another company. I wanted to be the archetype mother and just be at home. That was never my intention. Then, my thing which I say, through my mentoring is, if you do something to the very, very best and do all the peripheral stuff, the servicing of your business and the rest of it, you will be successful. That’s what’s happened here. We still have to apply that today. All of those principles, don’t slacken off. The problems just are there.
Catherine Moran: They continue don’t they?
Margaret Carter: They do continue.
Catherine Moran: I think running a business really is solving a set of problems that come up day after day after day after day.
Margaret Carter: Yes. People often think that once you’ve solved them, that’s it. They come back disguised as something else, but they’re still problems or issues that need to be solved.
Catherine Moran: On the one hand, it’s not really about making products, it’s more or as well as making products, it’s about solving problems isn’t it?
Margaret Carter: Definitely. Your attitude towards it, towards the people that supply you, the people that help you make it, the people you employ, your customers, it’s all about people and people buy from people. It’s all about that.
Catherine Moran: You mentioned your products and you have one just a phenomenal number of awards over the years. Before we talk about those, could you just give an overview of your product range?
Jenny Whitham: Oh! Where do we start? Chicken Liver Brandy and Herb was the first pate we ever made as Margaret said before and it still outsells everything else by some ridiculous amount. Cointreau and Orange was the next one. Mushroom and Garlic, Pork and Hazelnuts, White Wine and Pepper. They were the first five, weren’t they?
Margaret Carter: Stilton and Guinness was the first cheese one.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah, Stilton and Guinness was the first cheese one and then people used to keep thinking that our Cointreau and Orange was a duck pate, so we thought we really ought to do a duck pate. Eventually, we found some duck livers and we thought, “Well we can’t do another orange one, so we need to do something different.” We did an apricot one. Apricot Brandy was the next one.
Margaret Carter: I think I’d like to add here that Jenny is not a cook, but she has been the product developer from inception of this business. Every product that we have or 99% of the products that we’ve had over the years, she has actually developed them and her main passion is, I can’t say the word.
Jenny Whitham: [Laughing] Alliteration.
Margaret Carter: Alliteration.
Jenny Whitham: I got a bit obsessed recently on alliteration. Things like Rabbit and Rhubarb and Partridge and Pear. Pussy and Peach never made it to the menu but… [Raucous laughter]
Catherine Moran: There’s still time yet, I suppose!
Jenny Whitham: Yes. [Raucous laughter]
Catherine Moran: Don’t be shy! You’ve got different roles then. Jenny, you’re in product, new product development?
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Margaret Carter: She’s in sorts of places. Though she mends the boiler, she’s in product development. She’s in finance. She’s the only one of us that understands the numbers and how they should stack up and where they should go.
She’ll also, for instance as of now, she will go on her own on trade missions, export trade missions in Europe. She just went in Scandinavia last week and this week, next week she’s going to Germany. I think in conclusion to all of that, we turn our hands to what we can and what we’re not any good at, we get somebody else to come in and help us with.
Catherine Moran: You collaborate a lot. Talking about your products, you collaborate a lot with other artisan producers like Chase Gin, Chase Distillery, I suppose I should call them. Rosie Cider, which is a local company. Halen Môn [the Anglesea Sea Company], Tracklements. And how do you go about collaborating with these other food and drink companies? Literally, do you get an idea and pick up the phone?
Jenny Whitham: Yeah, yeah. I mean, often as not, I mean, I remember that Tracklements one — the Stilton and Fig relish — that’s, I seem to remember, they won an award for the fig relish and we just thought, “Oh, let’s do something with their award-winning fig relish.” And the Stilton seemed to be an obvious combination. Sometimes we’ll just use their stuff and sometimes people are happy about it and sometimes they’re not.
I mean, the crazy one is the Snowdonia cheese pate. We were asked by Castell Howell [a fine food wholesaler] to do a Welsh cheese, or a Welsh-oriented pate or whatever, and that was, we thought, “Oh, let’s use the Snowdonia cheese.” It’s got Welsh ale in it and we wanted to use Brains Bitter. In fact, we do use Brains Bitter, but they wouldn’t give us permission to put it on the label, so it’s not…
Margaret Carter: I’d also like to add there the fact that we, in all cases, we really enjoy the company, the people side of the companies we’re work with.
Jenny Whitham: I mean the Chase range; I think that grew out of a drunken night at the Abergavenny Food Festival. It was just how, I was chatting to James and said, “How would you like us to do a pate? A range pates with your vodkas?” That came about from that. I think it was this, I was inspired by the smoked one, I think. The smoked vodka, I just thought that would lend itself beautifully to produce a smokey-flavoured pate and in actual fact, to really get the smoke flavour in it I had to use Halen Mon smoked water, but that’s an aside… tricks of the trade [Laughter]
Catherine Moran: Yeah, yeah. Well I was going to say, you want to earn the secrets of success for developing so many award-winning products.
Jenny Whitham: I once heard a programme about Elton John and somebody said to him, “How is it that you make a … How do you write an Elton John hit record?” He said, “I have a formula.” He said, “Just give me some words and I’ll write a tune that goes with them.” Somebody gave him three lines of poetry and he just sat there and wrote an Elton John song around these poetry lines. It was, and I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s exactly how I make a Patchwork pate.” I have a formula for making the pate and I think that the ideas are the flavours and I just put those flavours to the pate formula, and it works.
And if it doesn’t work, that’s it. I’ll tweak a recipe once and if it doesn’t come together after a first tweak, then I don’t bother trying again. Because you can play around it with it. I did it once and I played around with this recipe endlessly, and I got to the point where I thought, “No. This is … I really need to bin it. I should have binned it at the first go.”
Catherine Moran: It’s a waste of your time and resources yeah.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: Knowing when to stop is important.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. If something… if you have a flavour combination idea and it doesn’t work on the first or second try, then put it in the bin.
Margaret Carter: You very rarely have failures, do you, or ones that don’t work. We don’t have a history of that.
Jenny Whitham: No. That’s true. True.
Margaret Carter: I think Elton John perhaps doesn’t have issues with failures. [Laughter]
Jenny Whitham: I’m the Elton John of the pate world!
Margaret Carter: [Whooping and laughter] Yes, I like that! I like that. It’s true.
Catherine Moran: We’ve spoken about your products. Let’s move on quickly to your sales and what sale streams do you have? So, things like farmers’ markets or farm shop sales, hotels. I know you’ve got an online store?
Jenny Whitham: Yup. Yup. We sell all in independent trade really.
Margaret Carter: Farm shops.
Jenny Whitham: Farm shops, delis, butchers, garden centres. Yes, we have our own online store as well. The only one, the closest thing to a multiple that we’ve got is Whole Foods I suppose, they’ve got a number of…
Margaret Carter: Specialty shops is where we…
Margaret Carter: And we supply British Airways first class and business class. Jenny got that about seven, eight years ago. The most incredible thing is that she personally has negotiated the changeover of three executive chef changeovers and to survive one is something, two is something, three must be Guinness Book of Records because they’re not the easiest breed, the chefs
Jenny Whitham: I still say I don’t do sales, but I still hold the record for the biggest…
Margaret Carter: Single.
Jenny Whitham: …single order that ever came into Patchwork and that was the first order that we had from BA.
Margaret Carter: She’s worked with the development chefs in there for specific products when they wanted them.
Jenny Whitham: In fact going back to that Snowdonia cheese pate, that was for BA originally wasn’t it? It was developed as a topping for a piece of haddock.
Margaret Carter: Which sounds weird, but anyway, it worked when they used it. Five thousand pounds in the air and you could have some of our pate on a piece of haddock. What can I say?
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: You don’t supply the multiples then?
Jenny Whitham: No. No we don’t.
Margaret Carter: On principle. On principle.
Catherine Moran: On principle? Okay. Clearly, no desire to?
Jenny Whitham: I think one of the things about the multiples is, we’ve built our trade on the independent shops and the brand is there for the independents. I think it would be just, they struggle against the supermarkets every day of their lives and I think it would just be such a slap in the face for us to sell into the multiples. Hence we don’t.
Margaret Carter: We’ve got plenty of other places to expand into. We go to vineyards, well they come to us to have products made with their wines, their products. It’s big out there so we can… and export now with Jenny doing so much on that line, but it kind of…
Jenny Whitham: I mean, if we find a supermarket in Europe that wants to take us, then we’ll go for it. It’s not that we’re against supermarkets, it’s just I feel in this country, it would be just such a slap in the face for our…
Margaret Carter: Independent trade.
Jenny Whitham: …independent trade.
Margaret Carter: We’d no longer be an artisan. You’re not an artisan product in a supermarket. No, it doesn’t work, that. At least in my view, it doesn’t work, but the independent trade need all the support they can to survive.
Jenny Whitham: Apart from that, they want champagne for lemonade prices and they can’t have it.
Catherine Moran: It’s a perennial complaint to just dealing with the supermarkets.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Moran: It goes to prove as well that, you can actually run, make, found, make and run a good business while not supplying the supermarkets. I mean, there is volume elsewhere to be had, because the volume is very important. It’s more about volume isn’t it, but it doesn’t have to be with the supermarkets?
Jenny Whitham: No. I mean, we do the food service is our volume trade, really. We put pate in a piping bag and that goes into pubs and hotels and…
Margaret Carter: Up and down the country.
Jenny Whitham: …up and down the country. They’re our supermarkets, in a sense.
Catherine Moran: Okay, yeah. Yeah. Very interesting. Do you literally mean into a piping bag?
Jenny Whitham: Yes, yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Moran: It’s really interesting. Do you literally mean into a piping bag?
Margaret Carter: Squeezy pate.
Jenny Whitham: Squeezy pate. [Laughter]
Catherine Moran: … trademark. Yeah. Very good. What is your involvement with export and how new is that to your business?
Jenny Whitham: We have, over the years, we’ve exported quite a lot. I mean we’ve done a massive amount of that. We even won Food From Britain’s Exporter of the Year once upon a time. We had co-packers in America who made our stuff. We used to sell in Japan; loads of stuff went over to Japan.
I suppose, we’ve just kept — with business — you have to keep pushing. You have to find new customers all the time and over the years, what’s happened is, from the time that when we had great export, we were just not concentrated on keeping it renewed. We’ve always had good business in Ireland and that’s been a mainstay export market for years.
Margaret Carter: 25 years.
Jenny Whitham: We’ve just realised that we needed to pull our fingers out and get back into export. We had to…
Margaret Carter: Yes, we’ve done a lot.
Jenny Whitham: We had an export order from the International Food Exhibition in London early this year in Denmark. They’re taking our Mushroom Marmalade next January. We just thought from that, “Well, if the Danes are interested in it, maybe the Swedish or the Finnish would be interested in it.” I went on a trade mission just last week with Finland and Sweden. We’ll see what happens, watch this space.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, very exciting.
Jenny Whitham: So, from that, I’m going to Anuga next week in Germany and just keep plugging away, see what happens.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve got to put yourself out there. I suppose it’s…
Margaret Carter: Grafting, grafting, grafting. It’s all it is.
Catherine Moran: It’s a lot about the network and building relationships.
Jenny Whitham: It is. It is, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Catherine Moran: You sell online as well. You’ve got a very nice online store. Would you have any advice for another artisan food or drink producers thinking about setting up an e-commerce site. You’re smiling, and guffawing here. You’ve obviously got a little bit of advice down the line.
Jenny Whitham: Yes, don’t do it. [Laughter] Don’t do it. No. Let other people do it. Let other people sell your products online. You don’t need to do it. I mean, we set up an online store years and years ago. I’ve always been a bit of a technophile and a bit geeky about things like that. We had an online store, God it must be 12, 13 years ago now. We’ve just always done it from then onwards. We’ve had about 3 or 4 new renewed websites over the years.
But if people aren’t searching, the first clue is to go to Google and look at their Ad Words and see what people are searching for. If people aren’t searching for “artisan pate” in great numbers, then don’t bother then to start just a website for it because they’re not going to find you. They’re not going to… I mean, we don’t do massive sales online at all.
I mean, one of the problems I think really for our site is that, our delivery charges are quite high. To get free delivery, you have to make quite a substantial order. It’s more pate than somebody could make. Probably buy their annual pate supply to get free delivery, yeah. What we have done now is, since we’ve had the shop at the factory, we’ve added some of the shop products onto the website so that it’s a little bit more of a grocery store than just a pate shop.
There’s a lady locally here who makes these wonderful Thai take-away meals. We’ve put those onto the website and just other bits and pieces that other good sellers out of our bricks and mortar shop at the factory. That means that you can get to that minimum order without it just being all pate.
Catherine Moran: That’s a very nice way around that problem.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Moran: Is that, that shop is, what is the name of the shop at your…
Jenny Whitham: Homepatch Shop.
Catherine Moran: Homepatch. Lovely.
Jenny Whitham: That’s it.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. Very nice. Not quite alliterative Jenny, but…
Jenny Whitham: No, no. [Laughter] Yes, it’s like, at the beginning of this recession, Margaret and I’s response to it was to get into creative mode. We came up with a load of bath oils called Patch Relax and we also had a range of dog biscuits called Pooch Work.
Catherine Moran: Oh, right. Very good.
Jenny Whitham: Sadly, they’ve fallen by the wayside of business.
Margaret Carter: Distraction.
Jenny Whitham: Sticking with the food.
Catherine Moran: How would you describe your scaling up? Has it been gradual or have you taken some big leaps? I know you’ve told me about this earlier but would you be up to give a very quick summary of… You obviously started out at home and then, moved into the smaller unit.
Jenny Whitham: We started in the kitchen here at the house. Then we moved. Then we converted one of the rooms into a bespoke commercial kitchen. Then we moved from that room to another two rooms. Then we thought, “Hang on a moment, we’re losing a substantial amount of house here.”
Margaret Carter: It smelled a lot with onions and livers every day in the house.
Jenny Whitham: Then we thought, “Well the business must be big enough to be able to support itself outside.”
Margaret Carter: Just 1200 square feet, the first unit.
Jenny Whitham: Then we moved into the…
Margaret Carter: Second one.
Jenny Whitham: …second unit, so that’s…
Margaret Carter: Three thousand.
Jenny Whitham: Two thousand five hundred?
Margaret Carter: Two thousand five hundred. I’m not good at maths, yes.
Jenny Whitham: Then we started looking, talking with the WDA at that time about building a factory on the industrial estate.
Catherine Moran: Is that the Welsh Development Agency?
Jenny Whitham: Yes. They eventually said, “Well hang on. Look, we’ve built that group of six units over there and they’ve been sitting empty for 18 months… two years now. We’re obviously not going to find any tenants for them. Would you be interested if we converted those units into a food factory for you?” That’s where we are to this day.
Margaret Carter: 16 years ago, 17 years ago, we did that.
Jenny Whitham: That was a big jump from the two and a half, a few thousand to ten thousand square feet isn’t it?
Margaret Carter: Yes. Two thousand five hundred to ten thousand. One of the things is I would say to anybody is, the mistake… We’re asked what mistake we consciously, or we made and didn’t realise at the time, and that was not using the factory that we had, the small factory and using more shifts and working longer hours, and all that side of it. So, I always say to other people, just work till you’re bursting etc. We were tempted by the glamour of moving to bigger premises, but I don’t think it was the right thing to have done.
Jenny Whitham: I don’t think it was tempted by the glamour. I think at the time, the Welsh Development Agency were our mentors, consultants, whatever you wanted to call them. They were very much all about property. They were property developers in the sense, in disguise. They encouraged us that the next move to make was to into our own property. Nobody said, nobody pointed out the fact that we were only working a five-day a week single shift in the building that we were in. If somebody came to me now, I’d say, “Don’t do it until you’ve got two shifts there.” When you start and think about doing a night shift then…
Margaret Carter: 24/7, yes.
Jenny Whitham: …Because there’s also some problems with night shifts, then move. We didn’t need to move really to a bigger unit. But there you go. Hey-ho.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, that’s the benefit of hindsight isn’t it? Undoubtedly, it’s great advice about, you need to be almost bursting at the seams. Forget the night shift side of things or consider that very carefully, but be bursting at the seams. When you’re at that stage, then you know maybe it’s time to move up and move on.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Margaret Carter: It’s all based on money. I mean, it’s a distraction to move as well and that takes your eye off the things and you’re thinking about the new premises and da-da-da-da-da-da.
Jenny Whitham: Nobody advised us to look at the overheads of that new premises other than whether we could afford to pay the rent. Nobody considered what the electricity bill or the gas bill or the [business] rates were going to be in that new property. It was just, “Could we afford to pay the rent? Yeah, we could afford to pay the rent.” So off we went. I think of the 15, 16 years we’ve been there, we’ve struggled to make ends meet in terms of covering those overheads of that bigger-sized factory. It’s always been a problem. That’s all very good in hindsight. [Raucous laughter]
Catherine Moran: Would you describe yourselves… how would you describe your attitude to risk? Both of you.
Margaret Carter: I don’t think we are risk-takers are we?
Jenny Whitham: No, not really no. I think we’re very mediocre risk-takers. I mean, we will take a risk, but we’re very mediocre when we take risks.
Margaret Carter: Yes, we’re not big players in the risk game.
Catherine Moran: Calculated risks?
Jenny Whitham: I think yeah, very, very calculated risks. I think that, sometimes I think that’s… Big risks have big gains, but they also have big losses and I think we are quite fearful of the big losses. We won’t take the risk for the big gains. I think sometimes if… I think Patchwork had been run by a man, who tend to be, I think, bigger risk-takers and go for the bigger glories, I think it would perhaps be a lot bigger than it is now. We’d probably be supplying the multiples. [Laughter]
Catherine Moran: That’s right. Something that you don’t want to do. What’s that phrase? “No guts, no glory”, but then too many guts well…
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Spattered all over the place!
Catherine Moran: …Too gory! [Laughter] Let’s move on to marketing now. We’ve looked at sales. What would you say is your approach to marketing your products?
Jenny Whitham: Emm…what’s been out approach to marketing out products?
Catherine Moran: Maybe social media or…
Jenny Whitham: A lovely little story that I read just this week about marketing was, if you had a burger van and I had a burger van, what competitive advantage would you like over my burger van?
Catherine Moran: Right.
Jenny Whitham: So, do you want it to be brighter and more colourful, a more flashy burger van or are you going to serve better beef than me, or better bread? How are you going to make your burger van better than my burger van? I know that I’ve got the absolute, unbeatable marketing angle for my burger van, and that’s going to be, I want a starving crowd. Because if you go and park your burger van in the… you know, it might be the best burger van, the most beautiful burger van serving the most perfect beef, the most perfect relishes on the most perfect bun, but you go and park at the vegetarian festival that weekend, you’re not going to sell many burgers.
Catherine Moran: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jenny Whitham: Whereas my starving crowd are not going to care a tuppenny toss as to what I’m serving in my tatty old van, as long as they can eat it. I think, what you’ve got to try and do in marketing is, work out what it is that you’ve got that is going to appeal to your starving crowd, and who that starving crowd is.
Catherine Moran: To put it in marketing speak, to align your offering, your company offering with the consumer’s desires or consumer’s needs?
Jenny Whitham: That’s it.
Catherine Moran: That’s a much more earthy and understandable way of putting it: find the starving crowd.
Jenny Whitham: Find the starving crowd. Yeah, yeah.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. Wonderful.
Margaret Carter: The other thing I say about it is, to be the best. The best you can be. Somebody else may be better than you, but that’s the best you can be. So be the best.
Jenny Whitham: I think one of the things at Patchwork that we’ve never been fearful of is, asking the price that we think we’re worth. We’ve often been criticized for being too expensive, but if you’re going to produce a good product, it don’t come cheaply.
As a amateur woodworker and DIY-er, I know if you buy cheap tools from China, you’re going to have to go and buy another cheap tool from China in a couple of weeks. Whereas if you buy a well-made whatever, even if it be a hammer, then the handle is going to stay on. It’s going to keep hammering long after the Chinese one has fallen apart. You get what you pay for and it’s the same with food. You just can’t compromise.
Margaret Carter: No. We ‘ve had some wonderful compliments. We get plagiarised, obviously, but people always say, “We know yours. We know the quality of yours,” and that, I think, is the biggest compliment you can have when you’re in business with a product, and especially a food product. We had one today from that lady from Clare, and she said, “I just love it.” She was an owner of a large business on Anglesey and she said, “I travel a lot in the world, but nothing beats your pate. Eating pate in other countries, you’d think.” She said, “But nothing beats yours.” For that, she got a great big hug from me, because that is gold dust.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. It’s also a sign really that you’ve created a brand, and not just a product. It’s a brand that is recognizable and people know the attributes and want those attributes. Yes, seek them out and appreciate them.
Jenny Whitham: It’s funny actually, you say about the brand and how important a brand is. We often get asked to produce a cheaper pate. I’ve often said, “Well we could re-brand the same stuff and we could package it up differently.” I bet and if you did a taste test and it’s exactly the same Brandy and Herb pate in the two, and one is Patchwork Traditional Foods and the other is Joe’s Pate, and you could do a taste test and they’d go, “Hmm. The Joe’s is all right, but I still prefer Patchwork.” [Laughter]
Catherine Moran: Absolutely, yes! I imagine that. Yes. Talking about branding, copy of course is a very important element in the whole brand experience and labelling and lots of other things on your website. Some of the copy on your Pate in a Jar range is quite interesting. It’s quite, what would I say? It’s not kow-towing to the powers that be or the regulators. It’s quite on the edge?
Jenny Whitham: Is it?
Margaret Carter: Jenny is the one.
Jenny Whitham: I wonder what we’ve said!
Catherine Moran: Who’s responsible for the copy, in other words?
Margaret Carter: Jenny. Always, she’s the writer.
Jenny Whitham: Actually, we’ve just had a bit of fun with the copy. We’ve just changed from a 230 gram size to a two by 120 gram pack. It’s the 120, the little black plastic 120 container.
Catherine Moran: We’ve got one here. The Chili and Lemongrass Chicken Liver pate.
Jenny Whitham: We now, we put the two of them into one box, which has given us a bit more space to play around with on the pack. There’s a little story. The story of the product is on the back of the pack and I did have a bit of fun on that one. The story about the Welsh dragon is quite fun. We’ve also had some little, some little did-you-know facts, which are quite fun as well.
Margaret Carter: That’s all you.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Well, I mean Kieran helped quite a lot most, but…
Margaret Carter: Yes, but he picked up from where you have been doing. I mean, it’s in the same vein as you.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. There is definite Patchwork tone of voice that… I mean, sometimes I get asked by guys within the team, “Can you write some blurb for this, Jenny?” Often as not, if I haven’t got time, I’ll turn it back to them and say, “You write it. Present it back to me and I’ll Patchworkify it.” It’s interesting how some of them get it and some of them don’t. Sometimes I’ll get something sent back to me that I don’t even have to touch at all, that they know the Patchwork language and it comes out perfectly.
Catherine Moran: The tone of voice.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Yeah.
Catherine Moran: So, you do it all in-house then? You don’t have an ad agency or anything like that?
Jenny Whitham: Nope, nope.
Catherine Moran: Right.
Margaret Carter: That, Jenny developed.
Jenny Whitham: No, it was quite an interesting… We had some work. We worked with a guy last year who has a brand management company, and he said, “You need a copywriter to sort out your copy.” We still had to write it. This still made us do what I make the guys at work do. We still had to write it all. Then they’d come back and tweak it. I looked at what they’d done on a couple of things and I thought, “Why bother? They hadn’t really changed anything at all about it.” I thought, “What was the point of that? I still had to write it myself.”
Margaret Carter: It’s the same as PR.
Jenny Whitham: It just didn’t…
Margaret Carter: Isn’t it? Because PR, you still have to write and present everything.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Yeah.
Margaret Carter: By the time you’ve done that, you might as well have done it anyway.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Margaret Carter: But with a fee.
Catherine Moran: Yeah, of course, yes.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah, there we go.
Catherine Moran: When the two of you started out, if you knew then what you know now about being artisan food producers, what would you do differently?
Margaret Carter: The lottery more often.
Jenny Whitham: [Laughter] Oh dear, I think, it’s interesting, so many brands these days and they’re just a brand. The product is made under contract by somebody else and we do co-packing for other people ourselves and sometimes I look enviously on companies that have massive turnover run by two blokes in a six by six square office somewhere in Manchester, sort of thing. You think, “Oh, that would be easy wouldn’t it?” Then you think to yourself, “No, bet it’s not.” Then you turn it on, we know people who’ve had products co-packed and have suddenly found their co-packers have decided they can’t make it anymore and they’re suddenly without a co-packer and it’s all chaos while they try and find somebody else to make it.
I mean, the same thing happened to us because our product in America was co-packed for us over there and we were just about to take the country by storm and suddenly the co-packers are gone. It never got back on its feet. I don’t know. I don’t know. What would we have done differently? Anything?
Margaret Carter: No, because we did the best we could at all times every day, and we still are. It’s just that sometimes it seems like such hard work and it’s relentless. It’s like a hamster wheel.
Jenny Whitham: I sometimes think, a vast amount of our pate is Brandy and Herb. I sometimes think that Mags and I could close the factory and we could just make brandy and herb in the kitchen here and we’d probably make for ourselves, just as much money without having the headache of the other…
Margaret Carter: Ohh, I hadn’t heard of that one.
Jenny Whitham: …the other 23 people.
Catherine Moran: I think you can have far too many products in the range. I’m not saying that you have, but it’s very easy. It’s very hard to be disciplined about drawing the line and saying, “That’s enough.” Just because I can make more doesn’t mean I should.
Jenny Whitham: I mean, there was a time back when I was developing pates by the hour sort of thing. There was a time when Rufus [Margaret’s son and Patchwork MD] said, “Right. That’s enough Jenny. No more pates.” I said, “What about?” “No. No more pates.” I said, “But I’ve got a great idea for …” “No. No.” I was actually banned from doing more pates for a while. Then eventually, we came up with the idea of the limited edition range. Suddenly I was let loose again and it was great because I could do the Partridge and Pear and I could do the …
Margaret Carter: Rabbit and rhubarb.
Jenny Whitham: … Rabbit and Rhubarb, and the Grouse and Bilberry and all those quirky, Quail and Quince and Wood Pigeon and Wild Garlic, and my alliteration gone on wild now. All the ones that were sort of lurking in the back of my head that I knew would never be main sellers because the products, the ingredients were too niche and we’d never get… and because lots of them were seasonal and we wouldn’t be able to get enough of the product, the raw materials. It was great for me to be able to exercise my culinary alliteration on the world. [Laughter] Yes, sometimes you can get carried away with too many products.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. Yeah. You need to be disciplined don’t you?
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Catherine Moran: What advice would you have for people considering taking the plunge and setting up an artisan food, or even drink business?
Jenny Whitham: I don’t know. What would you say?
Margaret Carter: Start off slow if you can afford to. If you’ve got a job, then keep the job that pays the mortgage and your cars and everything else. Start off testing the market to see whether you’ve got the costings right, the size right, the flavour right or if anybody even wants the product. Then, build up from there. Work long hours, work weekends, work, work, work. Get children from school to help with washing up and stuff until you’ve got it off the ground. Just get help from friends and family.
Jenny Whitham: I think the costing is the most important thing.
Margaret Carter: Very important.
Jenny Whitham: It’s amazing how many companies have come to us over the last few years, looking for a co-packer. Wanting to move the company on from the kitchen table to the next level, and rather than building a factory, sort of said, “Right. Let’s find a co-packer.” We go away, we look at the recipe and we cost it and we give them a cost and they go, and they look at us, and they go, “But that’s what I was selling it to the public at the farmers’ market for.” We go, “Yeah. That’s how much it’s going to cost for you to buy it from us if we make it.” We just go, “Well, we can’t help that you’ve costed it wrong.” We say, “Go away again and sell it. Go and make it now and make proper money and sell it at your farmers’ market at the right price and then come back to us again if you feel that there’s still a market for your product at the correct price.”
Margaret Carter: The other part we’d also is, I think that you have to have the passion to ride the storms. You have to have the passion to put in the hours. If you get pee’d off by the amount of effort that it takes, it’s not for you. Because to start any company, you have to have, at least I think in my experience, you have to have… It’s the word tenacity… the grafting side of it, it’s just graft it, graft it. You can only graft something in any relationship whether it’s a product or anything, if you’ve got the passion there. If you’ve got the passion there, the whole thing will reward you. It shouldn’t be work. It should be your passion. Then I think, in my opinion one is successful, it’s how I built every one of my businesses, is through the passion to be the best.
Catherine Moran: I think the passion makes the grafting a little bit easier isn’t it?
Margaret Carter: Yeah. It does. It does. Yes. As soon as you label something “work”, then you’re in all sorts of trouble because work has different connotations.
Catherine Moran: Yeah. Yeah. Not always positive. Passion is a different thing.
Jenny Whitham: I think that the food industry over the 33 years that we’ve been in business has changed massively. I mean, back when we first started, a deli counter was a lump of boiled ham, a bit of old cheddar and our pate, if we were lucky. Somebody recently said to me, “What about the coleslaw?” I said, “No, no. That came later.” Then, whereas now, you look at a deli counter and you’re hard pushed to find a corner to put the pate in and, there’s a brand, just 50 brands for every variety of product you can think of. It’s just…
Margaret Carter: It’s hard for the shopkeepers, I think, to make choices and hard for the customers to work out. Then, when they’ve found you, your product, they’re loyal to it. Most people, the Brits in particular, they do stay loyal. I mean, when we introduce new products, the shopkeeper goes, “Oh that’s exciting.” Then the customer goes, “Where’s my …” Because they want what they’ve always come in for.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah. Yeah. Obviously, back onto the different varieties of pate, I mean, when we first started expanding the range, we’d get feedback from the deli saying, “Yes. They loved the Chili and Lemongrass. We gave them all a taste of it. They then said, ‘But please can I have my quarter of brandy and herb?'”
Margaret Carter: This drives everybody nuts. The shopkeeper and us.
Jenny Whitham: The deli owners want to be able to present variety. Their customers want to see variety, but they still want to choose their favourite, which is Brandy and Herb.
Catherine Moran: Obviously, they know what they like and that’s what they want.
Jenny Whitham: Yeah.
Margaret Carter: I want to say something to you. Thank you hugely for this and I tell you the reason why. It’s because, as an exercise that you’ve put us through, reminds us of all sorts of the journey and the values of why we do what we do, but in one continuous flow as opposed to looking at it intermittently over the years as it were, but just to tell it to you like this has been really, I think, very helpful.
Catherine Moran: Fantastic.
Margaret Carter: Thank you very much.
Catherine Moran: It was a great privilege being able to have so much of your time and for you to sit down and willingly and be very happy to talk to me about your business and a lot of other things too. It’s absolutely wonderful and I thank you both very much.
Jenny Whitham: You’re very welcome.
Margaret Carter: You’re welcome, thank you.
Jenny Whitham: This is where Catherine comes in with her perfect Eamonn Andrews and says, “Margaret Carter, this is your life.” [Raucous laughter]
Catherine Moran: Later, that might happen later. Thank you both again.
Margaret Carter: Thank you.
Jenny Whitham: Thank you.
Catherine Moran: I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Margaret and Jenny. I thought it was full of useful insights about running an artisan food business — I hope you got some useful takeaways from it.
I don’t think we actually mentioned on the show The Patchwork Traditional Food Company’s online ‘addresses’. Its website address is www.patchwork-pate.co.uk. On Twitter the company is @patchworkfoods and its Facebook address is www.facebook.com/patchworkfoods. Finally, on Instagram the company is available at www.instagram.com/patchworkfoods/.
All links mentioned in the show are available at the show’s website which is myartisanbusiness.com. You can also download a free transcript of the show there. To get updates on when I publish new episodes of the show, subscribe to my email list at myartisanbusiness.com and I’ll let you know when new episodes are live.
You can find me on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow so please do get in touch if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.
Until next time, I’m Catherine Moran, happy cooking, happy brewing, happy fermenting, and thank you for listening.