01 April 2020, 10:51 AM
  • “Hawkshead Relish was founded in adversity some 20 years ago during the UK foot and mouth outbreak,” explains co-founder Maria Whitehead
Business continuity in the face of Covid-19

“We took over my parents’ café in Hawkshead the 1990’s and renamed it Whigs after a medieval style of bread that Mark had resurrected from an old recipe book. The menu featured lots of local produce, it was very much about telling the story behind the food and its provenance, which was quite unusual then.

“We really struggled to find quality condiments that resonated with what we were trying to achieve so we set about making our own in the winter months when the café trade was much quieter. The first one we ever made was the Westmorland Chutney, inspired by the spices and dried fruits that first came into Cumbria through the port of Whitehaven during the 1800s. We then added jams for our scones and chutneys for our sandwiches and meat platters. Businesses was growing and we now had a small range of relishes and jams. That all rapidly changed in February 2001, when foot and mouth disease was discovered in an abattoir in Essex and within two weeks it had rapidly spread across the whole country. Within days access to the countryside was totally restricted and we had no business…

“We’d borrowed money from the bank to buy the café, obviously we had those repayments to meet, but because of the ban on moving about in the countryside our trade and source of income completely dried up. The bank manager arranged to visit us, and I thought we were going to lose everything; our home, which was above the café, and our business. We told him about the relishes we had created, fortunately he saw the potential and agreed to give us a repayment holiday. After 18 months of scraping by selling at farmers’ markets to buy ingredients, the business began to take off and Hawkshead Relish was born.

“We learnt a lot all those years ago and sadly we find ourselves facing a similar situation today, but one that requires us to take a very different approach… one that requires us to nurture and look after our team, because in 2001 it was just us…

“20 years since we started Hawkshead Relish, we’ve developed into a multi-award winning business that operates across three sites, employs 28 staff, exports to 12 countries and delivers product to hundreds of specialist retailers, as well as making white label products for a whole host of customers including Michelin starred chefs…

“But all that counts for nothing with Covid-19… there are more important things afoot and our priority is to look after our team at every turn.

“As Covid-19 began to take hold and the government began to make significant announcements we took stock and made some rapid decisions to safeguard our people…

“The office team were required to work from home, all phones were diverted, and systems were put in place to allow secure remote access to our software systems.

“We established work teams across various areas of the business, we restricted access to our sites by unauthorised and non-essential personnel to minimise the risk of infection and initiated an even more stringent hygiene regime.

“Alongside this we’ve also established a daily morning meeting for our four key managers utilising Zoom so that we can address business continuity issues and to ensure that we can effectively communicate with each other on a daily basis.

“You might have got a feel for what makes us tick and that’s people… which is why we also take the welfare of our team pretty seriously. We always have, which is why we’ve established a regular schedule of welfare checks with each and every member of the team.

“This gives them the chance to chat to someone outside their home, get stuff of their chest or just have a giggle. But we also do this with our local customers too, not so we can pester them for sales but so that they know they’ve got someone else to talk to, someone who understands, after all many of them have become firm friends over the years and we owe it to them to keep an eye on them. 
“You might think what’s this got to do with business continuity… well lots as it goes… it’s a very old but simple mantra treat people as you want to be treated. Talk to people the way you want to be talked to. Respect is earned not given.

“Ultimately, we are a small family business that simply wants to do the right thing by our people. Yes, we are continuing to trade, circumstances are challenging, but we are nimble enough to have adapted to ever changing circumstances we are all experiencing and we will see this through. In the fullness of time we will come back stronger, after all we’ve done it before. Don’t get me wrong that’s not meant to sound flippant, it simply means the reality of the situation is that our big family comes first, and the rest will eventually sort itself out with some hard work and a lot of determination.”