With inspiration to be drawn from its speakers and suppliers, this year’s Food & Drink Expo is all about helping you think big

It’s only five years since Levi Roots made his bid for the big time. He took his Reggae Reggae sauces (and his guitar) on to BBC TV programme Dragons’ Den. He fed the Dragons a story about his sauce. They tasted it - and two of them bought into it.

The rest is history - and grocery legend. Sainsbury’s, with admirable swiftness, snapped up Roots’ sauce on an exclusive deal and put it in stores within six weeks of the programme airing. The Levi Roots range, which has spread to all the major multiples, now encompasses five kinds of table sauce, four cooking sauces, frozen beef quarter pounders and chicken chargrills, bagged nuts, chilled ready meals, pasties, chicken pieces and a range of juices and soft drinks.

And the brand is big. When licensee Vimto announced the Levi Roots drinks in March 2011, it said it would be targeting £10m in value sales for the range in its first 18 months. Although Roots himself has denied it, the overall brand is thought to be worth upwards of £30m.

Precise bank balance aside, there can be no quibbling over Roots’ success. He is an example of how a small business (he used to cook up his sauces in the kitchen of his two-bed Brixton flat) can make it big. That’s why, on 25 March, he will be taking to the stage at the Food & Drink Expo 2012 to talk about his growth and his experience of evolving ‘From Dragon Slayer to Household Brand’.

The opportunity it gives to showcase potential - the kind of potential that Roots demonstrated in the Den as he strummed away in front of TV execs and the five entrepreneurs - is key to the appeal of the Food & Drink Expo. Organised by William Reed, owners of The Grocer, the event gives attendees the chance to uncover - or, in the case of exhibitors, to be - the next big thing.

“An event like the Food & Drink Expo gives suppliers the perfect platform to show the whole market their offering,” says Andrew Reed, MD of William Reed’s events and exhibitions business. “It acts as the face-to-face element of their marketing and so provides buyers with new ideas.”

Reed says businesses accept that the economy is not growing significantly. As a result they must develop their products and innovate ahead of the competition. This has given many enterprises the drive to take advantage of events like the Expo to give their brands maximum publicity - with the upshot that attendance at the show promises to be extremely good.

Running alongside the Food & Drink Expo at the NEC, the National Convenience Show hosts a programme of events aimed at the UK convenience sector - including the Association of Convenience Stores’ annual summit (see box, p75) - and gives attendees the opportunity to make contact with more than 200 suppliers. Exhibitors range from household names to small businesses - and a key draw of NCS is the chance to sample some of their latest products.

NPD on show includes a tequila beer from Global Brands (stand D80) and, at rival Molson Coors (stand D100), new Carling Zest, a beer made using citrus fruit to make it more refreshing. More adventurous visitors can sample long-lasting three-layered chewing gum from Perfetti Van Melle (stand E60) that sounds like it’s come straight out of Willy Wonka’s factory.

For retailers with an interest in food-to-go, Martin Food Equipment (stand F71) will showcase Blizz soft ice cream products - which the company says provide up to 75% net profit margins, with year-round sales. There’s also The Perfect Fry hot snack machine from Malibu Corporation (stand C71), which allows c-stores to serve hot snacks without costly ventilation systems.

On top of the chance to discover the most exciting suppliers, a highlight of NCS will be the unveiling of specially commissioned research into the future of convenience retailing.

“Convenience retailers have the opportunity to stand apart from the multiples and cash in on the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the associated tourism during 2012,” says show manager Jack Halliday. “But it’s not easy to know how to overcome issues such as staffing, logistics and what products will sell better than they might in a mult.”

The Forward to the Future study was designed to address such questions. Its findings, announced at the show, will be discussed during a debate on 26 March, one of many events taking place in the Live@theCounter area.

NCS is also offering retailers the chance to claim a share of a £10,000 Community Fund. The money will be awarded on a fund-matching basis to stores with the best ideas for an event or initiative that builds community links. Applicants can visit nationalconvenienceshow.co.uk/fund to request an entry form.

“There isn’t another show that is as well supported by the small and medium-sized food producers,” Reed adds. “These are the people bringing real innovation to the sector and a passion that bigger companies sometimes lose. Coupled with the diverse range of seminars and presentations, that makes it a destination where a buyer will get a good return on the time they invest by attending.”

There is also a great deal on offer at the other key industry events running alongside the show, including the National Convenience Show (see left), the ACS Summit, (p75), Foodex (p75) and Farm Shop & Deli. As show manager Jack Halliday says: “There is a wealth of information for everyone from small businesses to buyers and directors with large multiples.”

Live events
Levi Roots’ presentation, taking place in The Brainfood Factory - an area of the show dedicated to conversation and debate - is one of numerous live events scheduled for this year’s Expo, with workshops covering everything from butchery skills to cupcake decorating, cooking demonstrations, interviews and discussions. Other names to look out for include Alex James (the former Blur bass player), who will talk about his escapades as a cheese producer selling to the multiples and a talk by Jay Rayner, the well-food critic best known for his supporting role on Masterchef.

Another live event of note is Ask The Editors. Conceived to celebrate the 150th anniversary of The Grocer this year, it will feature Adam Leyland, the current editor, alongside previous incumbents Clive Beddall (a 40-year veteran before switching to consultancy) and Julian Hunt (now CCE’s vice president GB for public affairs and communications) in a Q&A style seminar.

Then there’s the panel discussion ‘Being Small, Thinking Big’, featuring Kirsty Henshaw - another ‘Dragon slayer’ and founder of Kirsty’s Freedom allergen-free foods - alongside Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, founder of The Black Farmer, Richard Williams, founder of Williams Murray Hamm, and Andrew Thornton, owner of the award-winning Thornton’s Budgens stores.

Thornton believes it is enthusiasm for their products that gives the small businesses exhibiting at the Expo the edge over more established brands. “To succeed, you need to be offering something unique and be completely passionate about it,” he says. “Whatever you do, it has to be authentic and when you are communicating with your customers, make it personal. There’s a sea change taking place - customers want to connect with real people.”

Thornton’s fellow panellist Emmanuel-Jones agrees that consumers are buying into smaller brands. “We’re at a time when people want to support the small business,” he says. “People want to know where their food is coming from and who has produced it. In the past it was all about being part of a corporation, but now that is changing.”

Farm Shop & Deli’s fresh apprach to food and drink

A keynote address from agriculture minister Jim Paice. Jeremy Bowen, sales director at cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, talking about how to spend less, but achieve more. John Farrand, Guild of Fine Food director, advising on putting forward a business for awards. A Dragons’ Den-style event, The Dragons’ Pantry, in which producers get the chance to pitch a product to an influential industry panel. Farm Shop & Deli Live is bursting with information, advice and entertainment for food businesses looking to stay ahead of the competition.

But it’s not just about live events. Like its sister shows at the NEC, Farm Shop & Deli offers a valuable opportunity to meet others in the industry and make contact with the most interesting manufacturers.

One such supplier is Shamus Ogilvy, MD of Ogilvy’s Honey, who says he is on a mission to bring the best honey from around the world to UK counters. At Farm Shop & Deli he’ll be offering visitors to his stand (D168) the opportunity to taste the company’s latest offering, a rich aromatic honey from the rainforests of New Zealand.

“People only ever think of English honey,” says Ogilvy. “But I want to show there is a world of tastes and textures depending upon what plants the bees have visited.”

Ogilvy’s Honey offers a new culinary experience - but visitors looking for something really unusual should make their wayto Trotter’s Independent Condiments (stand B126). The company specialises in sourcing, developing and producing products that are obscure or unobtainable in the UK. Its products include Mojito Jelly, part of a cocktail-themed range, as well as newly-launched Uncle Allan’s Chutney, soaked in vinegar for several days prior to jarring and matured for a month before selling.

Country Puddings, meanwhile, is using the Farm Shop & Deli platform to refresh its branding to better reflect its rural, handmade credentials. Visitors to its stand (D152) will be able to familiarise themselves with its new identity - intended, says owner Lynne Mallinson, to reflect “how Country Puddings was set up”.

From reggae to roots
If any business knows about the importance of emphasising its provenance, it’s Pieminister (exhibiting at stand D179). The brand isn’t a behemoth in the Levi Roots mould, but it has managed to make its way on to supermarket shelves while staying loyal to its roots - and sees this as central to its appeal. “We have been told by supermarkets that we have brought a new customer to the pie aisle,” says Pieminister press manager Romany Simon. “Our customers have grown with us from our days selling at festivals and now in supermarkets.”

Indeed, Simon maintains the story of a business - how the idea was conceived and the journey the owners have undertaken to get the product to market - is the most important tool any SME has at its disposal. “A compelling story is something a large brand cannot compete with - and something supermarkets welcome when listing new products,” he says.

And because it attracts so many small companies from all around the UK (and indeed from outside it), the Food & Drink Expo is teeming with compelling stories. Kevin Stone’s is one example. After ending up in hospital due to high blood pressure, he was told to change his diet - and quickly became aware of the lack of salt-free cooking sauces in supermarkets. Following in the footsteps of Levi Roots, he took to his kitchen to make his own.

“I come from an IT background and had no real knowledge of the food industry,” says Stone. “We found experts to help develop the product and test the market.”

Fill up with inspiring ideas at the Foodex show

For suppliers who want the latest information on logistics, packaging and food processing technology, Foodex is an important event to visit. The show features over 350 exhibitors displaying hundreds of new products, including a new Fusion Bread Plant from Mono Equipment (stand T290) and a world-first all-electric range of heat sealing machines from Packaging Automation (stand K309).

It’s also brimming with competitions to enter - or simply to watch for inspiring ideas - including the National Meat Product Competition, hosted by the NFMFT, and the Q Guild of Butchers’ Ready Steady Cut.

Bakery, too, is well-represented at Foodex - there’s the Easter Bakery Competition, in partnership with NAMB, and celebrity baker Paul Hollywood will be giving a masterclass on ‘The Art of Dough’ (25 March, Live Events theatre).

David Lesniak and David Muniz of the Outsider Tart brand will also be demonstrating their expertise (25 March, Live Events theatre). The pair will be baking, but also talking about their experience of starting a business in the UK after relocating from New York.

Muniz says they want to get across the message that larger suppliers need to be more business-friendly to small players. “The main difference between here and home is that larger suppliers there will take on small orders,” says Muniz.

“That’s not the case in the UK. We had to work really hard to find suppliers when we started out. Now we have grown, it would be cheaper to switch, but I’m staying with the people who supported us. That’s something larger players do not get. If you take on a small business, when it grows it will be loyal and put larger orders your way.”

It took two years for Stone to be happy with the quality and taste of Hampstead Farm sauces, named after the road he lives on in Brighton - but he is now preparing to launch them at the Food & Drink Expo (stand D186).

Many of the exhibitors at the Food & Drink Expo are notable not just for the stories behind how and why they started, but for their innovative thinking. Norfolk-based cold pressed rapeseed oil producer Larchwood Foods (stand F121a), for instance, and Sharpham Park (stand E211), showcasing its range of spelt bran flakes. Another example is LittlePod, which manufactures ingredients including vanilla pods, vanilla extract, chocolate extract and a new coffee extract. The company claims it was the first to market natural vanilla paste in a tube - and is collaborating with a local brewery on a vanilla beer, available to sample at its stand (B140).

“SMEs do not have the budget of a large brand, so they are forced to be more imaginative”

Emma Goss-Custard, Honeybuns

The Food & Drink Expo is a reminder of how important small businesses are in accelerating the pace of innovation across the industry. Unlike bigger companies, small enterprises are often in a precarious position - for many, it’s a case of ‘innovate or die’.

“Because SMEs do not have the budget of a large brand they are forced to be more imaginative about their business,” says Emma Goss-Custard, director of gluten-free cake company Honeybuns (E191). Starting Honeybuns as a student, she began - like so many businesses - by making the cakes in her kitchen, using recipes handed down from her mother and grandmother and delivering the cakes on an old post office bicycle.

Goss-Custard knows it’s all about, as she puts it, “innovation and authenticity”. “That’s how you offer customers something new and personal, whether it’s the product or the way you interact with them. When they know you are passionate about the business they feel that too.”

Of course, the crucial thing - both for small businesses making it big and for retailers giving them shelf space - is that this innovation and authenticity is not lost as the organisation grows. Although most of those exhibiting at the Expo are small enterprises, many of which are not yet listed in major retailers, some are more established and have already made their way on to supermarket shelves.

Pieminister is one example. The company is keen to show it’s still innovating - visitors to its stand will be able to taste some of its new and future pies, including Big Cheese (Cheddar, potato and onion), Sebastian Cow (beef steak in a chipotle and chilli sauce) and a Lovely Jubilee celebration pie, available from May 2012 and filled with chicken and sweetcorn in a curried sauce.

Little Dish, which produces fresh meals for babies and toddlers, is another of the more established businesses exhibiting at the show (stand I163). Like Levi Roots, it provides an example of how a brand can grow in just a few years. Founded in 2006, the company claims it now feeds about 100,000 children each week and has created a new category within the chilled aisle.

The presence of Little Dish, Pieminister and especially Levi Roots himself at the Food & Drink Expo is a reminder of what small enterprises can achieve. His Reggae Reggae recipe was unique to Roots, but the factors in his success - a good story, the right drive and the right backing - were not. When it comes to making it big in grocery, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.