A small industrial estate in rural Yorkshire houses a band of local suppliers who are realising their big ambitions, thanks to the regional food group. Liz Hamson reports

They are small companies that produce innovative luxury products made from local ingredients. Yet they are winning listings at some of the biggest and most prestigious food retailers in the country as well as receiving the kind of attention from the national media that is usually reserved for much bigger players.

Their secret? Aside from a phenomenal work ethic and enthusiasm, they have all recognised that as small companies it’s much easier to get by with a little help from your friends. As members of a vibrant food cluster at Barker Industrial Estate in Melmerby, near Ripon, they admit that they would not be where they are now without help from each other, Yorkshire Forward,which is subsidising the rent of three of the companies as part of its 18-month-old scheme to support start-up food and drink businesses, or the Regional Food Group for Yorkshire and Humberside, which is funded by the RDA and Food from Britain - particularly the latter.

RFGYH executive director, Karen Carlyle, and her team organise up to 50 activities a year for local suppliers, from consumer and trade shows such as next March’s International Food Expo to meet-the-buyer days. Represented since April under the umbrella brand Deliciously Yorkshire, the suppliers attract huge interest from a food-conscious public. There were 10,000 visitors to the Deliciously South Yorkshire Food Festival in Doncaster last month and the group plans to licence the brand for use as a quality mark on their products. Carlyle says: “We want to demonstrate they are using local products wherever possible.”

Of course, exhibition space at international shows such as IFE is hard to get. “So we have established some ground rules,” says Carlyle. “We have a loyalty system: the more events people attend, the more points they accrue and the more likely they are to be selected for the bigger shows.”

Most of the group’s 195 members have regional rather than national aspirations, but says Carlyle: “For many the big question is whether to list in a major supermarket.” At its meet-the-buyer days - the next is at York racecourse on February 22 - suppliers can receive a brutal insight into retailer expectations and demands. Even for suppliers that impress, it is often the beginning of a long road to securing a listing. Many need to overhaul their entire business plans and the group runs seminars on marketing, packaging, how to exhibit and how to negotiate a price with a retailer.

For those that follow the advice, the rewards can be rich. It was through Asda’s first meet-the-buyer day that Just Puds won a supply contract. Carlyle also cites the example of a supplier who sought advice about his packaging. “He had no business plan, didn’t have money for commercial production and was about to lose his premises. We put him in touch with Business Link, which helped him with his plan and went with him to the bank to secure a loan.

“He’s just revised his business forecast for next year from £10,000 to £300,000."

Just Puds
>>a meet-the-buyer day opens the doors to Asda and then Waitrose follows

It has been a frenetic year for Graeme Robinson, his wife Rosemary and daughter Annabelle since the company won a contract to supply eight Asda stores across the region following a meet-the-buyer day in March.

The company is now poised to launch a new twin single-serve pack in 25 United Co-ops from the end of January. It is busy redesigning its packaging “to make it a bit more contemporary… and take the business more up-tempo” and working up new flavours such as rum and raisin.

It is a far cry from the company’s humble beginnings. Just Puds started life in the Robinsons’ farmhouse kitchen at Lamb Hill in Masham, North Yorkshire, in 1999 when Rosemary was asked to bake treacle puddings for a Christmas fair.

Most of its business then was at farmers’ markets but the family was convinced there was a wider market for their puds so the business moved into a Melmerby unit in 2001. Within two years it had extended its range of luxury puds, winning golds at the Great Taste Awards in 2003 and in 2004 for its sticky toffee pudding, saucy chocolate pudding and butterscotch sauce. It had also expanded its distribution base to include specialist food retailers and butchers, eventually picking up business from Harvey Nichols and Waitrose as well as local wholesalers.

“We’d like to become a national company,” says Graeme, who expects the company to turn over £300,000 this year. He adds: “We’re looking for wholesalers to help with distribution across the county so we can grow with the demand.”

Yorkshire Soup Co
>>soups that began life as a sideline turn into a super-premium success

Husband and wife team Terry and Belinda Williams came up with the idea for a range of soups as a way to supplement their core catering business over the quiet winter months. But the success of their soups, which include carrot and celeriac with caraway and cumin and their signature beetroot, parsnip, ginger, horseradish and crème fraiche, has led them to consider spinning the soups off into a separate company from what has now become the smaller side of the business.

Terry puts the success of the soups down to a genuine point of difference and high quality ingredients, which are fresh rather than frozen.

“It’s very much a dinner party product,” he says, adding that as they retail at £2.25 to £3, they are aimed at people who are interested in good food, not price. As such they are only listed in independents and top-end retailers such as Waitrose, Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges.
Now two years old, the business has benefited from technical and marketing advice from the regional food group, says Terry. “They generally have someone in every area of expertise,” he says.

The couple plan to diversify into sauces and would like to increase business with Waitrose as well as add Booths Supermarkets to the mix. They are also keen to find a good-quality chilled wholesaler in the region to improve distribution.

Despite expecting turnover to increase from £150,000 this year to £500,000 next, Terry says he doesn’t want to turn the company into a vast business. “We see ourselves as an established brand within premium sauces and soups.”

Bare Earth
>>Biltong for the Brits goes into Harvey Nichols and independent delis

Bare Earth was founded last year by Thomo Leteane, a food technologist from Botswana, and Gary Quinn, a chartered engineer from Yorkshire. Leteane came up with the idea for Biltong, a dry cured beef snack that is eaten widely in Southern Africa, on her postgraduate degree course.
The partners pride themselves on the high-quality ingredients they use and natural processing methods. Farm-traceable silverside Yorkshire beef is cured using natural spices and then air dried in a controlled environment.

They launched the premium snack, which retails at around £1.95, this April, the same time as Deliciously Yorkshire, and now supply independent delicatessens as well as Harvey Nichols.

Leteane says the regional food group provided invaluable help with its marketing strategy and promotion at specialist food trade shows. “Any new product is difficult. We had help with the packaging design as well.”

She is now keen to supply Booths Supermarkets and Waitrose and is enthuiastic about the potential of turning it into a bar snack.

Ultimately she’d like to see the snack enter the mainstream. With a turnover of £7,500 to £8,000 a month, it is already doing well for such a young company. But the two partners and their two part-time staff are working round the clock to make it happen.

“I don’t have any regrets,” she says. “We’re in it for the long haul.
“When people say they like your product it is incredibly gratifying.”

Independent Foods
>>the Chef who took a fresh approach to a traditional English staple

Anthony Sterne, a former development chef at Pret a Manger, got his inspiration for I’sPies from Australian fusion food. “I took a gap year in Australia, and I was really bowled over by the freshness and quality of their take on traditional English staples, like pasties or pies,” he says.

“Here, pies have always been a byword for getting rid of the leftovers. But Australia and the Pret experience taught me that it didn’t need to be that way.”

Sterne, who is just 27, prides himself on using only high-quality local ingredients in his single serving “posh pies”, as locals have dubbed them. He also makes all the stocks from scratch. The theme is very much twists on old favourites and some of his most popular pies are Morroccan Style Lamb, Chicken Pie with Lemon and Herbs and Spinach and Yorkshire Feta.

He supplies the £1.70 pies to two Waitrose and 15 Booths stores as well as Harvey Nichols in Leeds and several independent local specialists and foodservice operators. So impressed has Waitrose been, that it has nominated I’sPies for The Observer Food Awards.

Although the company is under a year-and-a-half old, it currently produces about 2,500 pies a week.

Sterne also plans to launch a Yorkshire Chicken Stock and an all-butter fresh pastry in the new year. It is hard work for what is little more than a one-man band (he employs two full-time staff and a part-time accountant).

But Sterne has grand plans for the company. He would like a listing in Harvey Nichols’ London store. “Supplying a business like GNER trains would be great,” he adds.