Meet the people making waves in the South West food & drink sector

Steve Bowen - Steak of the Art

Steve Bowen – Steak of the Art

Food & Drink is an important sector for the South West and the region is home to some of the UK’s most innovative and successful brands. BLM met with some of them to find out more about their secrets to success and the challenges their industry faces

Where did the idea for your business come from/ How did you end up in your job?

Griff Holland (Friska): “I had the idea for Friska when I was in California and only 16. The hospitality there was memorable and I wanted to bring that to the UK. Everyone has their favourite restaurant, but you wouldn’t eat their every day. I wanted to create an everyday place to eat with fresh, interesting food and memorable hospitality.”

Chris Smith (Marshfield Bakery): “I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years and I’ve worked for big PLCs and smaller companies. For over 10 years I was self-employed as a consultant. I joined Marshfield Bakery as part of a Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) program.

“I loved it and I’ve been there ever since. In this time I’ve seen the business grow from a £600,000 turnover to £4m.”

Chris Smith

Chris Smith

What are the main challenges you face?

Griff: “We have a clear idea of how we want Friska to be, and it’s just a case of making those ideas real. Talking about things is easy, making it real through great practices and systems is the challenge.

“The industry still has a long way to go in terms of recognising the people working in it. It’s all very well saying things like the national living wage is going to be good when you’re rolling around in your Bentley. We’ve never paid minimum wage and we offer private health care for all team members, along with additional benefits.”

Chris: “Defining the direction of the business. Cash flow and getting the finance to fund growth – we want to grow to £7.5m in the next three years.

“A primary challenge has been recruitment. We’re rural based – there are no bus services, no public transport – so we have to attract the people in different ways.

“We have no issue attracting junior or senior management. But unskilled migration is a huge problem. We have people outside the UK coming here to work but without the necessary skills.”

Steve Bowen (Steak of the Art): “On a day to day basis it is about keeping the team motivated and on the ball, to ensure that our customers are given the best possible experience we can all the time.

“More strategically it is about understanding how we can fully adopt the living wage principles into our cost structures; without passing too much of that impact onto our customers.

“Finally, as in any service-oriented business, it is keeping on top of customer wants and needs and ensuring we deliver them. And in instances where we don’t, we acknowledge it and correct it as soon as we can.”

The IoD South West Entrepreneurs Celebration and Director of the Year Awards at The Paintworks, Bristol. 12th June 2014. Picture by Clint Randall

The IoD South West Entrepreneurs Celebration and Director of the Year
Awards at The Paintworks, Bristol. 12th June 2014.
Picture by Clint Randall

How important has establishing your brand been to make your business successful, in what is a crowded marketplace?

Griff: “It’s been important, but it’s not down to the graphics we use, the fonts, the Twitter account – though this has helped.

“Building a brand for us is about better communications in store. We took everything that was already at the core of our business but now we’ve started telling people about it and that is why they come. Authentic is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but that is our brand and people like that.”

Chris: “Branded sales currently make up only 15 per cent of the business, but we want to put more emphasis on the brand. We’re investing heavily this year in a major rebrand of our products.”

Steve: “Brand is everything! A brand is what defines you in your marketplace and on which your reputation is built. Without a successful brand there is no business.”

What has been your secret to strong growth during the recession? Why have you been successful and others have failed?

Graeme Fearon, Thrings. Credit: Professional Images/@ProfImages

Graeme Fearon, Thrings.
Credit: Professional Images/@ProfImages

Griff: “The recession was a good thing for us, without it we’d never have been able to get our first store. It allowed us to get in when the market was totally dead and try to figure out what makes for a good restaurant.

“Sticking to our values and applying these throughout the business, from the food through to our staff and service.”

Steve: “I hope people feel that we deliver great food, with great service, in a fabulous environment, with a value for money price point. That might sound like the cliché answer, but delivering those four points is harder than it looks, and those that succeed in doing so will invariably enjoy good business.”

Chris: “Customers see us as a flexible and responsive manufacturer with very high technical standards, and this has helped us stand out as a smaller company competing with much larger UK businesses.”

Do you have plans to expand nationally/internationally?

Griff: “International expansion is a bit too foolhardy at the moment but nationally absolutely. In February we’re opening up a new store in Birmingham and in April/May we’ll be opening a seventh store in Bristol.

“We hope to have 14 new sites by the end of 2017 and will be fundraising in the latter part of the year for this. Our brand will never change. We want to be the best place to go for breakfast, lunch or coffee every day. If you want a fancy dinner, a beer, a cocktail, there are other places.”

Chris: “Yes, we have plans to expand and exporting will become a focus this year. We’ve already extended our factory space, and in the year from June 2015 to June 2016 we will have invested £700,000.”

From client experience, what are the main challenges facing the food and drink sector?

Graeme Fearon (Thrings LLP): “We have advised clients on matters of varying sizes and seriousness, from a restaurant caught using meat unfit for human consumption, to a cheddar manufacturer supplied with an unsuitable coagulant resulting in edible but unsaleable cheese.

“Increased UK and EU regulation around packaging, nutritional content and labelling is also a major challenge.

“Finally I would say pricing and margins. The dominant bargaining power of large retailers continues to be a problem for suppliers and producers of all sizes.

“The Groceries Code Adjudicator has historically been rather powerless and largely sidelined by the sector, although Parliament has taken steps to redress this. There is still a strong reluctance on the part of small suppliers to take any steps that may rock the boat.”

From a legal perspective, what are the main pressure points for food and drink firms?

Graeme: “The need to operate as a business as well as a producer or supplier – and manage proper brand protection and online sales – is one.

“Direct business to consumer sales are an easy add-on, but do bring additional compliance issues, especially when dealing with consumers.”

Can you tell readers about any of the up and coming companies you work with in the sector?

Graeme: “Ramsbury Tea is one. It is a niche ultra-premium tea and coffee merchant with a specialist following. They work with us for their corporate and trade mark work.

“Denhay and spoiltpig are both great examples of applying branding to a food product to diversify and add value. We help them with various commercial and HR advice.”