Stocking Up for Christmas
Somerset's Business Link helps the county's businesses to find the best market for their produce. Make the most of our fabulous food and drink!
The turkey's reached its full weight, the pud's ready to burst into flames and the wine's getting close to room temperature - right across the county, people are nearly ready for Christmas. Few groups of revellers, though, will feel more ready for a break than the people who work tirelessly for Somerset's food producers and suppliers, many of them innovative small businesses, who are tapping into the county's ancient tradition of excellence in all things to do with food and drink.
In fact, according to figures from Business Link, some 20,000 people in Somerset are involved in some way with food and drink, representing around 10% of people working in the county. And according to Business Link's Penny Bond, who has worked with many hundreds of food and drink businesses right across the South West, "Some of these are the most forward-looking, innovative and creative companies we've come across."
One business that is constantly innovating with new brands and routes to market is the Wiveliscombe-based Cotleigh Brewery, best known for beers including Tawny Owl, Golden Seahawk and Barn Owl. The company has been owned and run since 2003 by business partners Fred Domellof and Steve Heptinstall. "It's a mature business that's a real credit to Somerset," says Penny at Business Link.
According to Fred, the last five years have been fascinating and successful, including significant growth in brewing production and two Somerset Life Food & Drink Awards for Drinks Producer of the Year. "But the landscape of the business is constantly changing and the introduction of the smoking ban in July last year is having a significant effect on beer volumes being sold in pubs," he says.
So Cotleigh has been putting an emphasis on developing the off-licence trade. New brands are also on the way, including the company's move into the cider market and an alcohol-free cider for sale through unlicensed convenience stores. Christmas is an important opportunity for Cotleigh and in the run-up to Christmas this year it is selling its special 'Red Nose Reinbeer' Christmas brew.
Fred himself continues to find Business Link a valuable resource. "It's a very important networking forum for like-minded businesspeople, keeping us all up to date with constantly changing factors like employment law," he says. "It means that really active business owners can concentrate on what really matters - and for us, that's creating great beers."
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Business Link's Penny is quick to point out that not all the most innovative businesses are producers. "The Cheese Gig, based at Buckland St Mary near Chard, is the brainchild of Kath Gigg, who in 2005 set up a cheese-tasting club which has evolved into a successful and very interesting internet-based business."
According to Kath, who is a regular finalist in countywide business awards (including Taste of the West and the Somerset Business of the Year), "We've now got well over 100 Westcountry cheeses on the site, all artisan-made, typically by one man (more often, woman) and a dog. The more producers I meet, the more I find out about because they always refer me on to others, meaning that I now have a deep and still growing knowledge of the region's cheeses."
A great source of presents as well as outstanding Westcountry flavours for the Christmas cheeseboard, the Cheese Gig offers a range of gift options, including special selections, vouchers and subscription to Kath's monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly choice of the best cheeses she's discovered.
At Bridgwater-based Diverse Hampers, founder Nicki Stewart has recently won an award from entrepreneur-support website businesszone.co.uk. She wowed the judges on their 'dragon's den'-style panel with a pitch about her successful company that's re-energising the sometimes fusty world of gift hampers with its modern packaging and excellent, artisan-made food from across the UK that's very hard to find elsewhere.
For Nicki, making every hamper totally distinctive, through how it looks and what it contains, is fundamental to competing successfully with bigger and much more established businesses. "Innovation of this sort is a constant challenge, but fantastic fun," she says. "We just want to give our customers something they've never seen before, and that means paying a lot of attention to sourcing and design."
When it comes to product innovation, another example that Business Link's Penny Bond highlights is that of Fussels Fine Foods, launched in 2007 to make and market oil from the rapeseed grown on Andy Fussel's farm near Frome.
According to Andy's partner Gary Holloway, "When we launched the brand, we weren't at all sure what to expect. But since then we've got a South West listing with Tesco and two wholesalers, and it's selling well. We harvested two large fields of sunflowers to create a new oil variety and we launched a range of new products this autumn, all based on classic but unexpected English flavours that mean good, simple food." Gary remembers the help and support they received from Business Link leading up to the company's launch - "Without it, we probably wouldn't be here at all today," he says.
So, innovation is alive and well among Somerset's food and drink businesses. As Business Link's Penny Bond says, "It's humbling to see what these and other businesses are achieving every day and we're delighted to have helped them in any way we could. Anyone looking for support in getting a new food or drink business off the ground or taking it to the next level should contact us on (0845 600 9966 or visit www.businesslinksw.co.uk. We'll do everything we can to help them achieve their goals.
"In the meantime, though, Christmas is nearly here - let's hope that some of them can take a long enough break to relax and forget about their businesses for a while!"