In a fiercely competitive market, food and drink businesses need to do something different to stand out – and small firms are leading the way, says Rob Gray.
SMEs that meet the right criteria.
FSB Funding Platform can also help firms find the funding they need to innovate – see fsb.org.uk/benefits for more information.
“Despite the pressures facing many small businesses – particularly those on the high street – there’s a world of opportunity to succeed as a food and drink entrepreneur,” says Mike Cherry, FSB’s National Chairman. “New technology, as well as changes in the way we all live and work, have prompted really strong innovation in the sector.”
As food and drink is a very trend-driven sector, it’s important to keep an eye on the latest developments. For instance, research for trade magazine The Grocer found that a third of UK consumers would buy food and drink products containing cannabis plant extract CBD. This has added momentum to a wave of CBD food and drink product launches, including Good Hemp’s plant-based milk, Hemp Matcha from frozen desserts retailer Yogland, and the no-added-sugar Drink 420 range of soft drinks. All of these are positioned as healthy options.
“In terms of food trends, street food has continued to dominate as time-poor customers look to grab food that is convenient but also high quality,” adds Ms Nicholls. “Not surprisingly, customers are also seeking healthier options, and we have seen an explosion in vegetarian and vegan options. These may have been relatively niche just a few years ago but are now increasingly mainstream and, in fact, expected by large numbers of consumers.”
Although big brands have the muscle, innovative SMEs absolutely have an opportunity and the ability to flourish in these areas, with customers increasingly concerned about issues such as local sourcing, welfare, provenance and sustainability.
James Eagle started smoking salmon and other fish as a hobby in his garden. As he became more proficient, he began experimenting with different flavour combinations.
Soon he became convinced he was onto something with commercial potential, but concluded that, for a business to work, it would have to be innovative. “I looked around and saw a very crowded marketplace with everyone doing the same thing really: oak-smoked salmon,” he says. “So I tried to do things differently to the way everyone else has done them.”
That started with the distinctive and humorous business name, The Pished Fish, which highlights a key point of difference: all bar one of the varieties are cured in alcohol, from brandy, whisky and bourbon to aquavit, tequila and Pernod. The product is also presented in thicker cuts than the wafer-thin slices consumers typically associate with smoked salmon.
The brand has been listed by Ocado and is available at a growing number of Unearthed deli counters within Waitrose, as well as being stocked at the likes of Fortnum and Mason. Going forward, a key objective is to grow exports to the Far East.
Mr Eagle concedes that Pished Fish is not to everyone’s taste and launching the business was a “bit of a leap of faith” – which has been vindicated. “For every person who doesn’t like it thickly sliced, thankfully there are 10 people who do. You’ve got to hold your nerve and stick to what you believe.”
Claire Fletcher, Alicia MacInnes and Georgina Kitching are neighbours on Jura – an island off the west coast of Scotland that has a population of just over 200 people.
They started Lussa Drinks Company five years ago because of their shared love of Jura, growing plants and gin. They also wanted a flexible business that would work with their busy home lives, and which reflected their diverse skill-set.
HMRC has relaxed licensing rules for rectifying gin, meaning it is no longer necessary to have an enormous still. “We could buy a 10-litre still, which we named Jim, and start in a kitchen,” says Ms Fletcher. “We made more than 4,000 bottles in the kitchen while we renovated an old stables building to move into and house Hamish, our 200-litre copper alembic still.”
Lussa Gin is made using 15 botanicals that are grown or foraged on the island. The botanicals are frozen, rather than dried, which makes for a zesty, aromatic gin.
“We have many challenges,” admits Ms Fletcher. “We’re two ferries from the mainland, so distribution can be problematic, and our internet connectivity is poor – as is our single-track road. The very first pallet of bottles made it all the way from France, only to
fall over within a mile of the distillery.”
However, despite all this, Lussa now produces just over 10,000 bottles a year, about 20 per cent of which are exported. The plan is to double production soon.
Independently owned and managed Kent Crisps was founded in 2011, but changed hands in 2017 when its then Commercial Director Laura Bounds executed a management buyout. The company makes hand-cooked crisps using British-grown, Red Tractor-assured potatoes, and works closely with British producers to create unique flavours that show off the best local food and drink.
“There are numerous USPs setting Kent Crisps apart,” says Ms Bounds. “These include having been one of the first crisps producers to use flavours from real ingredients, the use of local produce and producers for the flavours, such as Ashmore cheese, Biddenden cider and Kent chillies, and the use of landscapes and landmarks on pack fronts.
In recent years the demand for local products has continued to grow.”
The brand has strong links to both food tourism and traditional landmark-led tourism. Each flavour features Kent-specific imagery, including an oast house, the White Cliffs of Dover, and the world-famous landmarks Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral and the Turner Contemporary gallery.
Since Ms Bounds took on the business, regional listings have been secured in Waitrose, 72 Southern Co-op stores and Asda. The crisps are also sold through Amazon UK and the company has diversified to launch sister brands Kentish Oils (a range of cold-pressed rapeseed oils) and Kentish Condiments.
Last May, Kent Crisps was named micro-business of the year at the FSB Celebrating Small Business Awards 2019 UK final.