The US is recognising Britain as the new melting pot of international cuisine', as president of Food from Britain North America Steve Dawson tells Clive Beddall His accent is "mid Atlantic". The well cut blue business suit looks cool amid the concrete financial piles of downtown Manhattan. And he can bore for Boston when it comes to statistics about that city's famous RedSox baseball team. But, to the folks from San José to New Jersey, 40 year old Steve Dawson is still your archetypal True Brit', and don't they "just lurvv the guys from little old England". That's just as well. For the past two years, as president of Food from Britain North America, Dawson has been UK food and drink's ambassador to 270 million hungry Yanks, trawling the intimidating buying offices from Wal-Mart in the Deep South to Kings in New England. A few years ago, his job would have been branded a mission impossible by most Madison Avenue marketeers. The burger lovin' Americans couldn't see further into European cuisine than pastrami on rye in a New York deli. And, anyway, wasn't most Limey food created in Hell? But times have changed. Dawson took on the task when Tony and Patricia Mathews, a husband and wife team who flew the Union Jack from a base in Atlanta, retired. To North American retailers they were the high profile face of UK food and drink, regularly appearing in tv studios to a piped background of Land of Hope and Glory, while opening scores of buying executives' doors for British exporters. But now the hub of FFB's North American efforts has been relocated from Georgia to sleepy Greenwich, Connecticut. A short commuter trip from the Empire State Building, it's within easy access of the hunting grounds which make up the US's complicated, yet potentially profitable, retailing network.That said, Dawson reckons he's sat in every regional airport lounge and queued at every Hertz rental counter in the US as he's criss crossed the state lines during the past 24 months. He's contented in Connecticut. The white painted wooden facades and neat, trimmed lawns are straight out of a US soap opera. They're quintessentially New England, right down to the distinctive packets of Carr's biscuits which act as bait for ex-pats in the local supermarkets and drugstores. And that's where the Dawson connection with the US was developed. He sharpened his sales teeth at the firm's Chicago base having transferred from United Biscuits in the UK. Life began in Oxford as the "unplanned and happy event" for a pair of university students. His parents were later to wed and form the first Married Students' Union at the university. Nowadays, their energetic offspring proudly admits he came into the world as an activist and has "carried on that way ever since". Schooldays were spent in Singapore, Malaya and Malta. Add experience with WH Smith and Avon Products after the London School of Economics and a successful MBA at the University of Boston ­ where he met his wife ­ and you have the thrusting executive with the cool image of "your average everyday Yankee biz guy". Logistically, his Greenwich location is perfect. Two thirds of US importers of British food brands are in the tristate area of New Jersey, Connecticut and New York. NYC is the US's biggest speciality food market, major brands like Bass are in Stamford, Connecticut, all the Scotch people are holed up in Manhattan, and virtually all distributors of European cheese do business from New Jersey. Dawson enjoys his job. He tells everyone he is a "fully trained consumer products marketeer", but one who has dumped the jargon that traditionally goes with the title. Speaking to a recent Manhattan seminar he penalised himself by putting a dollar down every time he mouthed the words "strategic" or "tactical" in a 45 minute presentation. At the end, only two greenbacks had left the Dawson wallet as he treated his audience to a erudite exposé of all that's good and bad in Uncle Sam's grocery market. Dawson unashamedly shies away from projecting the clichéd American view of Britain as a warm beer-swilling, bowler hatted community full of beefeaters riding on red London buses. "The success of what I do will be measured by me introducing a UK firm like Leon Frankel to Ahold in the US as a supplier of its Sensational label for premium olive oil. That means behind the scenes work to help companies win contracts. And that's about as far away from beefeaters and busbies as you're gonna get. It's about British, added value, marketing success." He smiles warmly when he tells you:"Nowadays I can go into a US retailer's buying office and not be greeted with a disdainful sneer. They've come to realise that Britain is the new melting pot of international cuisine and they want to talk about our products. "Having said that, they are the most demanding people in the world. They want to buy a high quality product, they want to know it's unique ­ but if it takes more than two seconds to understand it, they won't go for it!" All well and good. Trouble is, not enough UK food firms are prospecting in the gold field which is North America's retail grocery arena, and that's Dawson's big challenge. As he puts it, all the Union Jack-bedecked promotions in the world can be organised for the famous few ­ like Walker's Shortbread, Baxters, Carr's and Lipton ­ who have sold successfully into the US over many years. But what's missing is a longer list of more grassroots UK producers with the guts to pop across the pond. "Everyone in the UK food community is aware of the potential, but many of them are unnecessarily afraid, confused or intimidated by it. Our role is to cut it down to size for them and open doors." The purists may wince, but Dawson relates how blue stilton with strawberries and even blueberries have been sought by whacky US buyers in recent years. Add a green Earl Grey tea and you have an idea of the demands he has been e-mailing back to FFB's base in London. On the face of it, some of Dawson's advice to UK suppliers contradicts many of the well thumbed international selling manuals. He cites the example of Jordan's Cereals of Bedfordshire who have been rolling out product in the US with a proclamation that their lines are 10% more expensive than the locally produced competition. "Jordan's are being very clever. They're saying, Sure our cereals are more expensive, but they're great', and that's gonna appeal to the locals. So UK firms shouldn't be afraid of having a premium product when it offers a tangible benefit over the competition." But although Dawson's attention is directed mostly along the shopping aisles of the US, he's an avid reader of The Grocer to keep up with trends here. He smiles ruefully when reflecting on Wal-Mart's progress in the UK and mainland Europe. "They're a powerhouse. They're aggressive marketeers who target a particular kind of area where a bargain really means something. The top third of the US population has shown that it doesn't want to shop at Wal-Mart. You don't see any of their stores in Manhattan. But in a relatively short time they've gone from nothing to 10% of the grocery dollar in the US and that is a heck of a story by any standards." Meanwhile, like the rest of the army of ex-pats who have crossed the pond in search of a new life, Dawson, wife Leslie and eight year old daughter Ella are pleasantly surprised at North America's competitive retail prices when compared to the UK. So does he subscribe to the Rip-off Britain notion? "I don't, but my wife probably would. She does the shopping in our household and is able to make a judgement," he says diplomatically. "That said, I understand why it's not possible to make accurate comparisons. I sympathise with the UK multiples who have been running scared recently. They thought they had seen off the price threats when they reacted to the invasion of the German discounters. Now, Wal-Mart has hit town with big ambitions." A big make-your-own-barbecue burger man', he rejects the "Frankenfoods" debate on GM as "complex, confused and a waste of time". "There is a major food crisis in this world and we need GM products. Americans are more attuned to the concept of progress and science being a friend. And that's a very different perspective from Europe where science is something to be sceptical of." Having said that, the Dawson family find there are many things in US store cabinets which need clarification. "In dietary supplements, for example, you'll find teas which promise benefits ranging from mood enhancement to sexual libido and all kinds of stuff which shouldn't be there. Regulation has yet to catch up with business." The Dawson persona may be essentially New England these days, but that doesn't stop nostalgic glances towards the home country. Although he insists he's no idea why, he still looks for the Everton result every week as soccer shares his sporting affections with baseball. But in quieter moments he admits there's a "significant downside" to the job. "Like many Americans, I get up at 6am and the first thing I do is check e-mail. I carry a cellphone and live five minutes from the office. I never have an average day in that I stop work, go home, have a beer and watch TV. It's not that sort of job any more. "I'm running my own business. It never stops, it's always on my mind. But I love every minute of it." {{PROFILE }}