How to break into the food industry

Tom Welsh
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FOOD is big business. Food and drink is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with an annual turnover of £76bn. And it's the kind of industry where new items, devised and manufactured by small producers, hit the shelves each day. Between 2010 and 2012, Mintel registered a 47 per cent growth in the number of new food and drink product launches in the UK.

Some success stories are well-known: Gu, the pudding brand, was founded in 2003 by James Averdieck, with seed capital of just £65,000; Levi Roots's Reggae Reggae sauce found popularity after winning funding on Dragons Den; Clippy McKenna (interviewed here recently) turned her homemade jam business into a conserve empire.

But food is also a hard sector to crack, and seeing your product in a supermarket is easier said than done. Camilla Stephens, founder of pie and quiche company Higgidy, now sells a product every two seconds. But it was a hard slog. Writing in the Guardian, she cites the importance of networking at trade fairs (bringing along excellent samples), meeting face-to-face with buyers, sticking with your values, but most importantly getting the technical details right for the supermarkets. "You will need to fall in with their processes," she says. And don't bother trying to sell them a concept. Averdieck has said that "many see supermarkets as business advisers who'll help you with your brand - they're not." Retailers want a finished product, with a proven supply chain behind it.

And there are other possible barriers. McKenna was caught in a tangle with regulation. She was told that she couldn't call her jams "jam" because they didn't contain enough sugar (they were too fruit-heavy). First, she was informed they had to be conserves. Then the regulators changed their mind, and Clippy's became a fruit spread. The new labels and branding was costly, and it wasn't until March this year that McKenna won her battle and her jam can now be called jam.

So while our appetite for innovative new food products seems to know little limit, this tightlyregulated sector means ideas must more than just cost-effective, original and well-pitched.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. @TWWelsh