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The food and drink sector is a competitive world. According to government figures, there were around 6,600 micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the food and drink sector in 2016. It might not sound like much, but that number is likely to have grown hugely in the last two years along with it its turnover, which was £19 billion in 2016.
With so many small food and drink businesses vying for success, it would be easy to imagine an environment where each one operates in its own bubble, refusing to engage with competitors for fear they will take much-needed custom in increasingly tough economic times. But it seems that’s not the case. In fact, collaboration is the name of the game.
In 2015 the government announced a network of food hubs across England to create new jobs, support tourism and inject investment into rural communities. The 17 Food Enterprise Zones were planned to champion celebrated British foods and plans included an Artisanal Food Village in Cornwall, an agri-food park near Malton in North Yorkshire, and a cluster of local artisan food producers around the River Orwell in Suffolk.
“Support works through sharing knowledge and giving access to practical and academic support”
That kind of support can often pay off. Just last month, a report showed that a Welsh Government and EU-funded project had delivered more than £44m of impact in its first two years of operation. Project HELIX, delivered by Food Innovation Wales – a partnership of three food centres based in Cardiff, Ceredigion and Anglesey – aimed to support food and drink producers and manufacturers.
That support works through sharing knowledge and giving access to practical and academic support, in turn helping businesses increase and retain sales and reduce waste and processing costs. And according to a report in July, it’s been a success. The report lists a range of successes that make up the £44m of impact, including creating 147 jobs and safeguarding a further 869, supporting 92 new businesses, accessing 77 new markets and helping develop 203 new products.
“Away from official help, food and drink producers are forming their own collaborations”
Government support is clearly helpful. But it seems it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. Away from official help, food and drink producers are forming their own collaborations to get the best out of their businesses. From food hubs to online communities, organised trails bringing producers together and informal co-operatives, the industry is putting collaboration ahead of competition to ensure its collective, and individual success.
For the founders of Bowhouse, a food innovation hub based at the Balcaskie Estate in Fife, it’s about replacing a “missing link” in the food chain from field to fork. The hub already provides a home for at least seven micro and small producers from a heritage flour business to craft beer and is likely to see more take up residence there. On top of that is provides a dedicated space for producers as a large, covered market space and holds food ‘weekends’ that draw thousands of people to the site.
Founder Toby Anstruther established Bowhouse after noticing that something was missing in the way the supply chain worked together in his local area. “I was struck when talking to one local chef who said, though he was very keen to use local ingredients, he ended up sourcing his vegetables from the Glasgow veg markets or even from Holland, because, despite seeing the vegetables growing in Fife’s fields all around his restaurant, there was no way to connect the field to his business. Bowhouse is intended to be part of the answer to this challenge.”
“You feed off everyone and get their expertise”
By putting producers together in one place, the hub helps form that missing link, says Bowhouse Event Organiser Kylie Kirkcaldy. “It connects everyone together,” she says. “They are definitely learning from each other.” The owner of the hub’s soon-to-open cafe is already working with the artisan bread producer based there to learn about how it’s made so he can pass that on to his customers, she says. “It’s just a learning experience for all of them, you kind of feed off everyone and get their expertise.”
That sharing of knowledge is something that Alison Swan Parente, founder of The School of Artisan Food, has seen between food and drink producers for a decade. “For 10 years we have been doing a diploma in baking and over these years we have not only sent our bakers out to lots of work experience with artisan bakers but they themselves have set up small artisan bakeries and have had our students in on work experience. That in a way is a huge network of collaboration.”
One example is the artisan bread community, she says, with the Real Bread Campaign – since taken up by Sustain – showing how people are working together to make the best products they can. “There’s a whole lot of information exchange going on,” she says, giving an online thread discussing how best to cope with the effects of the recent heatwave on bread-making as one example.
For Swan Parente, collaboration among small producers is a product of a lack of co-operation from ‘big food’. “The knowledge exchange is about how to make good food really, because it’s small producers who are doing it,” she says. “They don’t have the kind of institutional support that big industrial food producers have. And I think they have increasingly become interested in networks.”
Whether it’s sharing delivery to save costs – something she does herself – or diversifying and working together, Swan Parente recognises growing cooperation and collaboration between small food and drink businesses.
“There are different ways that people are doing it, there are small co-operatives doing it. A lot of people are diversifying in the countryside. Say you have a dairy farmer making ice cream. That ice cream might go into the local farm shop. The farm shop then thinks, ‘perhaps I will open a cafe’, and it starts to gain traction in the local economy.”
But despite their growing importance, Swan Parente is concerned by the lack of mention of food in Brexit negotiations and how a departure from the EU could affect these small businesses, adding: “I think small food businesses are part of a huge network of SMEs all over the country and they produce quite a lot of economic activity in ways that the government really should probably look at because it’s becoming much more economically important.”
The position of these small British food and drink producers on a wider stage is one of the motivations behind another manifestation of this collaboration – the Exeter Food and Drink Trail. Launched by Visit Exeter, a tourism arm of Exeter City Council, the trail unites businesses that celebrate local produce, from cheesemakers to brewers, gin distillers and a cooking school. The aim is to put Exeter on the map as an international food destination, says Tourism Promotion Officer Deborah Lewis. “It was about having a trail that people who are coming to the area can use in any way they want. They might come as a group, they might come individually. It’s adaptable to anyone.”
While Exeter has a thriving food scene, from celebrity chefs to award-winning restaurants and producers and a successful annual food festival, uniting all of those small businesses hadn’t quite been done, says Lewis. “It gets the businesses talking to each other. People tend to be so busy doing their own thing but they can really complement that with other businesses.”
It’s that collaboration, says Lewis, that gives those businesses a louder voice. “That’s exactly why we’re doing it - to give a voice, particularly to some of those smaller businesses, and collaboratively they can have a much bigger voice.”
“We are all relying on each other”
It’s an idea that fits right in with what Karen Skerratt, owner and managing director of Exeter Gin – part of the trail – has been trying to do for several years. Skerratt, who started Exeter Street Food, is an ambassador for the trail, which she says builds on the same idea of community that she believes can help small businesses in food and drink weather difficult economic times.
“We have done things with lots of different people and what we do by supporting each other gives us all a voice,” she says. “We are all relying on each other.” For Skerratt, initiatives like the trail form the ‘glue’ that knits together individual producers. “All of these things are collaboration but you need something to knit them together,” she says. “The trail knits it all together, it’s basically the glue for the product - the product being us.”
Exeter isn’t the only place where a hub is being used to bring businesses together. The Food Enteprise Park (FEP) in Norwich aims to create a central cluster of food related businesses by attracting occupiers and investment from local, regional, national and international companies.
In Yorkshire, Spark:York is a retail and food hub made from shipping containers in York, aimed at creating an affordable space in the city. Supported by £150,000 in funding from the Business Enterprise Fund (BEF), it is already home to 23 independent businesses.
The Dorset Growth Hub aims to help businesses grow and develop by offering tailored services like advice, training and networking and has partnered with Dorset Food & Drink to help promote the sector and get businesses the help they need. And in Wales, the Black Mountain Food Hub works like an online farmers market where local consumers can buy direct from local food producers through its website, aimed at helping to encourage more small scale local food producers.
“Our community is incredibly willing to support each other, share advice and recommendations”
And while much collaboration is happening in person, the online world opens up a whole new way for food and drink businesses to work together. Jason Gibb, founder of Bread & Jam – an annual two-day conference for emerging and scaling food and drink brands whose inspiration was collaboration – is also behind the FoodHub Forum. The forum, which is a closed Facebook group of more than 4,000 UK food entrepreneurs, forms an online community of like-minded people who can share contacts, tips, insight and their own experiences and is a great starting point for any food founder.
“When you start off on your entrepreneurial journey it can be a lonely road, and you feel like you are on your own, doing it all for the first time,” says Gibb. “The fact is that there are thousands of others following the same path and I discovered that our community is incredibly willing to support each other, share advice and recommendations. Thousands of questions have been asked on the FoodHub, whether it is about getting barcodes, preparing a pitch for Whole Foods, or finding a value-for money branding agency, and you always get at least five good suggestions. I know of numerous connections and business deals that have been done through the FoodHub and long may it continue.”