Two Decades of Progression, Passion and Purpose
Last weekend we celebrated our 20th birthday, so this week a few reflections from the last 20 years
Cotswold Fayre was established in February 1999, but its origins date back a little further than that, to a time when founder and CEO, Paul Hargreaves was supplementing the income from his job working with low-income families across the estates of South-East London. From an early age, I believed in a personal purpose to help make the world a better place, hence my early career was spent working with churches in the inner-city who were trying to make a difference. However, with a young family to provide for, this passion didn’t always pay the bills, so for a couple of years, I supplemented my income, one day a week, selling artisan products from the Cotswolds to delicatessens and farm shops in and around London.
It was during this time that a customer asked if I had ever thought of expanding the business as she was finding it both time consuming and costly to deal with hundreds of different suppliers. And so, the idea of establishing a wholesaler of artisan food and drink products serving the then niche market of delis and farm shops, was seeded and in 1999, Cotswold Fayre opened for business. Fast forward a couple of years to 2003, and a proper company had been established with in the region of 800 products, eight employees and 300 customers. At this stage a valued business partner had been and gone, and while making a meagre profit, the business wasn’t fulfilling my personal purpose, nor I suspect offering meaningful employment to the team.
It took a further five years for the business to become one that was truly purpose-driven, with change at the heart of its vision, and doing business in a better way for the benefit of the environment and the community. Encouraging supplier consolidation, led to decreased deliveries benefitting both the environment and increasing efficiency for the retailer and supporting an orphanage in Kenya which was embraced by all employees are examples of this purpose becoming practical.
In 2015, Cotswold Fayre became one of the first companies in the UK to achieve certification by B Corp. B Corps are for-profit companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency, and certification and recertification has driven further the drive of the company to be better for people and planet. The challenge now is to challenge as many of our suppliers to follow the same road. I am a UK ambassador for B Corps to further this aim.
Over the two decades, what retailers are looking for has not enormously changed. They are still seeking differentiated products, artisan producers and items that fill category gaps. But, the market itself has expanded exponentially, with fine food no longer the exclusive domain of farm shops and delis. Garden centres, convenience stores and forecourts are now all seeking to fulfil customer demand for different and artisan. Farm Shops in particular have had to become far more commercially minded with an offering that entices in a wider, younger audience by expanding their range from literally home-grown produce. This is also true of convenience stores, who seek to offer more decadent weekend treats, free-from and generally different products alongside their household staples.
Interestingly, provenance which lost its way as a key stocking factor over the past decade is beginning to come to the fore again, with even the large grocers looking to stock local artisan products. It is not just the number of fine food retailers that has increased, so has the number of products entering the market, which means that marketing these brands and products has become more important than ever. Ten years ago, Cotswold Fayre received a few products a week to review for a potential listing and this has now increased by at least 800% to around 30 approaches a week from new suppliers. The producers themselves have also changed massively over the decades. Two decades ago, most of the producers were fifty plus. Today, the average age of its suppliers is 35, and the brands they represent are a full-time passion not a part-time retirement project.
There is no doubt that the popularity for artisan products remain, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to spot genuine products with mass produced, big brand products creating stories and packaging to exploit this popularity. It’s an exciting time for everyone involved with the fine food market. Demand has never been higher, but with the number of suppliers exceeding the retail opportunity, only the strong will survive. And while much of the past 20 years has been about good products, much of the next 20 years will be about good companies. It won’t be enough to have good products as far as consumers are concerned, they will expect producers to be doing something positive to make the world a better place.
I have written much more about this subject in my book “Forces for Good” published a few months ago and available in paperback, audible and e-book from all on-line retailers.