11 June 2018, 08:30 AM
  • Ellen Manning explores the new breed of food and drink entrepreneurs: socially conscious, environmentally aware and determined to make a difference
Meet the food and drink start-ups on a mission

Producers are on a mission. For all of them that involves producing great-tasting food and drink. For some there’s an added personal drive – chasing a dream or keeping the family business alive. But for a growing number, there’s an extra mission that goes beyond all of this to a greater good, whether that’s helping others, the environment or something else.

For Sophie Hobson, head of communications at The School for Social Entrepreneurs, food and drink businesses seem to be having a “moment in the sun”. “I think it’s partly because food and drink products are so easy for consumers to try out if they’re seeking ethical alternatives – as more and more consumers are,” she says. “The decision to buy ethical is much more straightforward than switching your household electricity to an environmentally-friendly provider, for example. And mission-driven food and drink businesses and social enterprises tend to have stories that are easy to grasp.”

“Do something good in the world”

For Africa-inspired health food brand Aduna, the mission is to create sustainable livelihoods for small-scale producers in Africa by bringing their superfoods to the rest of the world. If you’ve heard of baobab fruit, that could well be thanks to Aduna, which also works with other African products including moringa leaf and Super-Cacao. “I used to work in advertising,” says co-founder Andrew Hunt. “Making products that I didn’t believe in or actively disagreed with.” After a “complete meltdown” a six-week voluntary trip to The Gambia turned into four years. “It was during that experience that I saw the potential for business to have a fairly profound and sustainable impact on the lives of some very poor communities.” Fast forward a few years and he and Nick Salter have transformed the obscure baobab into a socalled ‘superfruit’ whilst helping millions of rural households in Africa.

Jason Gibb’s journey involved a similar pilgrimage. After a decade as a TV producer, he bought an abandoned olive grove in Italy and started an olive oil business that grew to supply the likes of Selfridges and Harrods. Keen to share what he had learned, he went on to found food founders’ festival Bread & Jam and is now working on his own vegan brand Planet Jason. “I wanted to do something that I could go home at the end of the day and think ‘yes’, I have done something good in the world,” he says. “For me a mission-driven business is one that wants to change the world. And these aren’t just food people, they are people who have got a mission bigger than food at the centre of their ambition.”

“Heart of the local community”

For Ed Mason, co-founder of Five Points Brewery, that mission is a bit closer to home. When he and co-founder Greg Hobbs set up the brewery in Hackney five years ago, they wanted to give something back to the local community. “We wanted to build a brewery nestled cheek by jowl to the community.” As well as producing great beer, its mission has seen Five Points become the first brewery in the UK to be an Accredited Living Wage employer. They also source electricity from 100% renewable sources and set up an apprenticeship scheme for aspiring brewers at Hackney Community College. “We wanted to establish a successful business, a profitable business, but felt it was possible to run a private company that was in the heart of the local community and had a demonstrable commitment to the wider community. But at the same time we wanted to brew amazing beer.”

“Social entrepreneurship is the future”

It’s coffee, not beer, that is the product of choice for Change Please, a social enterprise staffed by the homeless to help the homeless. Ask founder Cemal Ezel whether mission-driven businesses are important and he’s in no doubt. “With things like austerity and cuts, changes to the economy and Brexit, it falls on the shoulders of businesses and social businesses to try and make a difference. To get the same incredible taste and still make a difference to people at exactly the same price is a win win,” he says. “So we are able to make a difference to people off the streets and that isn’t costing the consumer anything extra.”

Ezel says he is seeing a growth in awareness of the value of mission-driven producers, from big corporations and their millennial employees who prize purpose-built organisations to students. “I am seeing more and more students say that the only jobs they would consider in the future are in social entrepreneurship,” says Ezel. “I think that’s really interesting because they are the future.”

Combine the growing interest with an increase in the number of social businesses in the UK and Ezel says it’s the “zeitgeist of social business”. He’s not alone. “At the end of the day customers want to feel something, and they are going to feel something if that brand has a purpose,” says Gibb.

“Competitive advantage”

But is having a mission at the heart of your business a help or a hindrance when it comes to making it work? “I’m very much of the view that having a purpose or mission as part of your business is a competitive advantage,” says Hunt. For him, the mission is something that can win over buyers and investors who are as human as the people behind these social businesses.

“Most human beings who have an opportunity to make a positive contribution through their work will take that option. They’re going to choose it not only for charitable
reasons, they’re going to choose it as well for commercial reasons because they know customers are also looking for that. And particularly with food – the link between food and ethics and sustainability are so strong that if you’re not ethical, not sustainable, you’re actually at risk. I think we, purpose-driven businesses, are a little bit ahead of the curve and the bigger players are trying to invent purposes to retrofit into their businesses.”

“They [mission-driven businesses] have got many advantages over everyone else because when you’re doing something you love and are passionate about and feel driven by you’re going to put more into it,” agrees Gibb. And thanks to social media, these small businesses can communicate their mission to the consumer with even the smallest of budget. “The internet has opened up the ability to connect and tell your story to the consumer like nothing else. And big businesses aren’t able to fake this.” Mason agrees that cost pressures make it hard to operate at a small level without the economies of scale available to large nationals or multi-nationals, but the positive side is that: “You’re able to take on the big multinationals on your own terms and provide a genuine point of difference.”

“Adding value”

But the lofty aim will only win over consumers if it comes alongside a great product, says Gibb. “The mission-driven businesses who really succeed for me are the ones that are a great quality product. It’s not that they are vegan or surplus food or a social enterprise, it’s a great product then you scratch the surface and there’s a mission beneath it. You can put people off by being too worthy, you have to make the number one point that it’s a great product. The opportunity is where you can buy a product that’s as great as other things out there but has that added mission, it’s adding value.”

Ezel agrees. For him, producing coffee that’s the same quality as his competitors is vital to success, especially when it’s often assumed that a social business may sacrifice quality in favour of its mission. “The biggest issue is perception of quality,” he says. “People automatically think just because you’re doing social impact the quality or taste of the product will be diminished in some way. We overcompensate to prove that just because we’re doing social good, the quality isn’t going to be lower. That perception of quality in every facet of social business is an issue. It’s a misnomer we need to overcome.”

Focusing on quality and competing on a ‘like-for-like’ basis is his advice to anyone planning their own missiondriven food or drink business. He’s tested this by raising the price of Change Please’s coffee or lowering the quality and it showed that the mission itself isn’t enough to keep customers coming back. “If you’re more expensive and your product doesn’t taste as good there’s only a small distance your social impact will go.”

Equally, the business model has to be viable, says Aduna’s Andrew Hunt. It also helps if the social and the commercial work alongside one another. “For us the commercial and the social are completely integrated in terms of their objectives so that means if we sell more products we make more impact,” he says. “That means that our objective is to sell more products. You need your purpose to be integrated completely centrally into your business model. Otherwise what happens is the commercial will take over and you will say, ‘we’ll do that later when we’re making money, or we haven’t got time or resources to do that’.”

“Rich rewards”

“The main challenge for mission-driven businesses,” says Sophie Hobson, “is that, because they’re doing things in a more ethical way, they tend to have a higher cost base. If you’re a start-up restaurant that trains adults with learning difficulties to be waiting staff, your costs are going to be higher than the next-door high-street superbrand that can select the best professionally-trained staff available on the market and realise economies of scale through its franchise network. Or if you commit to buying Fairtrade and organic products to make your food item, your cost base is higher than a non-ethical alternative. But the rewards of running these organisations is so much richer.”

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