Colin and Justine Cather, founders of East Yorkshire-based Burnt Sugar Sweet Company, have spent the past five years targeting “sweetie monsters” such as the dedicated customer at their Saturday stall in Borough Market, London. As a loyalty bonus, she gets to guess the weight of her purchase. If she gets it right, she gets the sweets free.
The Cathers admit that they often sound her out on new ideas. But such informality shouldn’t be mistaken for amateurism. Turnover has increased 100% a year to £1m thanks to a professional and highly ambitious game plan.
Burnt Sugar was founded in 1999 after Justine, a self-confessed foodie, recognised the commercial potential of her mother’s hand-made fudge. She started to make small batches, initially in her kitchen, then at production facilities in Beverley, Yorkshire, soon establishing, with her husband, a stall selling a range of luxury caramel-based products at Borough Market.
Buoyed by the positive feedback from customers, Justine showed Burnt Sugar’s products at IFE in London in 2001. A Waitrose buyer liked them. Justine recalls: “From the beginning, they told us, ‘We want to see you succeed’.”
The first order from Waitrose came in May 2002. Burnt Sugar now supplies two lines - Coconut Ice and Butter Toffee - to 146 stores, making Waitrose its biggest customer, generating 20% of its turnover. Colin only joined the business full-time last year after seven years in HR at Unilever, freeing up Justine to focus on the marketing and creative aspects of the business.
In the past, the pair turned down customers, worried that they wouldn’t
be able to handle higher volumes while maintaining high standards, he admits. They aren’t so conservative these days.
As well as moving to new facilities on the edge of Beverley this May, they are seeking listings in Tesco and Sainsbury and hope to extend their relationships with Waitrose, Harvey Nichols, Lakeland Ltd, the mail order retailer, and gourmet shops. They are also taking on two experts to help drive growth. Doug Struthers, who founded Frumba, the company behind Fruvo snack bars, joins next week as sales director, while John Kennedy, commercial director for Green & Black’s, is joining as a non-executive director.
Product innovation is at the heart of the company’s success, says Colin, stressing how important it is to avoid designing by committee. “Remarkable ideas are halted in that process and good products become bland. Some people won’t like great products. But the ones who do love them.”
The pair have plenty of NPD in the pipeline. Two months ago they launched Strawberry & White Chocolate Fudge, which they hope will be a hit over Easter and Mother’s Day. They are also launching seven new products at Food & Drink Expo in Birmingham this month. Priced between £1.65 and £12.95, three are all-year-round products - Smashing Toffee Crunch, Sea Salt Caramel Fudge and Caramel Fudge; and four are Christmas products - Persian Nougat, Figgy Puddings, Chistmas Pudding Fudge and Nutcracker Sweets.
All are hand-made from the highest-quality ingredients. Justine says: “It is the skill of the confectioner that we do not want to forget. Too often something is lost when sweets are mass-produced.”
It’s an appealing business model. Add to it the couple’s new-found conviction and Burnt Sugar’s star should burn bright. As Colin says: “This year we are going to have the confidence and the nerve to do something special.”