Food innovation: how small manufacturers are doing things differently
1st April 2010
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We ran a great seminar on Food Innovation (with thanks to Grant Thornton who kindly donated their office, and to our sponsors the London Manufacturing Advisory Service and ERDF).

Food and drink is a sector that we’ve been working with for several months now and it’s an fascinating one. It’s usually the big players who make the headlines, often for the wrong reasons. But behind the scenes are many hundreds of small manufacturers who couldn’t be further away from the food giants in terms of attitude. They really care about how their products taste, ingredients, appearance, and the ethical values behind them – and they don’t particularly want to be just another invisible link in the commoditised global food supply chain. We had around 25 executives who run these sorts of businesses at the seminar.

And there were some stirrings of revolution against the supermarkets who, as one presenter put it, “you sell your soul to”. For many small manufacturers, supplying the supermarkets simply isn’t an option – you may have to compromise your ingredients to meet their shelf life requirements, and accept punitive levels of cost and inconvenience to meet their logistical demands. In fact we’ve interviewed a number who are doing very nicely without their ‘help’, using the many alternative routes to market which exist.

Some interviews you might like to watch:

Feel Good Drinks presented on ‘Applying your brains, not your wallet’. This interview with Dave Wallwork, co-founder and MD, explains how the founders first sat down and thought about what sort of company they wanted to run – and then went about creating a brand from the ground up that was all about having fun and ‘feeling good’. In practice that means not just designing a great product but also looking after employees, doing voluntary work in the local community and actively encouraging customers to call them.

Alan Rosenthal, founder and MD of stewed! brought along some of his products – high-quality stew sold in a pot – for a talk about presentation and packaging (you can see his video here). Alan started selling his stews at farmer’s markets but today it is sold widely through the supermarkets. In line with his organic style of growth, he has developed a fantastic visual identity for his product by a process of trial and error. Alan estimates he’s spent a sum total of £1000 on design, whereas a food giant looking to create a similar product line from scratch probably would have spent five times more on design and branding. Sometimes it pays to start small.

Tom Russell, who is MD of two speciality bread manufacturers, talks openly about the significant downsides of supplying supermarkets: in particular the logistical challenges, the big impact that has on costs, and how little protection there is for suppliers who don’t have their own nationwide distribution networks.

At the other end of the spectrum, Paul Wayne Gregory talks about hisbusiness which sells award-winning handcrafted chocolates. He only sells his products to top restaurants and stores, and explains how taste, ingredients and provenance really are everything if you’re selling direct to a chef like Gary Rhodes.

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