If you haven't yet caught up on Martin Hesp's brilliant round-up of five years of Cornwall Food and Drink, have a read through here.
Meanwhile, take a look at the full interview with Ruth Huxley here - you'll find info on where it all started, how we function in the wider world of food and drink, and what we can do for our member businesses...
Where did it all begin?
My parents were the biggest influence on my interest in food. My dad was a big gardener and my mum always cooked from scratch, mostly I think because we never seemed to have much money and growing our own produce then using it inventively was a necessity to make ends meet. Meat was expensive so my mum’s Sunday roasts were always brisket of beef or shoulder of pork or lamb, cooked long and slow in the Aga - and the flavours she managed to get would knock the spots off any pulled pork or brisket you’ll find on a menu today!
Our home in Somerset was on a sharp bend on a main road and a nightmare for dust and noise with lorries thundering past day and night, but they bought it entirely because of the garden. My dad couldn’t say no to it when he saw it had a huge fruit and veg plot with mature asparagus bed and walnut and greengage trees. In summer there was endless veg and soft fruit and I can still remember sitting on the back step shelling peas with my sister – eating the pods as we went. There were no freezers but by the time winter set in the shelves of the larder were groaning under the strain of Kilner jars full of salted and pickled veg and jams and jellies.
You often hear people talk of a ‘disconnect’ with food today and a lack of understanding about what to do with it or where it comes from, which is blamed for everything from the state of farming to the rate of obesity. The education system is usually cited as the cause of the rot, but it’s an easy target for something much more complex. I wasn’t taught anything at all about food at my village school and there was no kitchen there. The dinners were brought in from somewhere else and so dreadful (I can still smell that cabbage) that many of us went home for lunch. But we never had sweets, crisps, chocolate or fizzy drinks at home – they were what you bought with your pocket money – and none of my family, nor any of the kids at my school, was overweight, let alone obese.
When I went to the local Grammar School, we did learn proper Domestic Science (just the girls) and that was when I began to get interested in the wider subject of food. But it was a subject very much disparaged by academics and you only did it as an exam subject if you weren’t brainy enough to do anything else. Private schools usually didn’t even consider it a subject worth teaching at all; it wasn’t what paying parents thought their children should be learning. When I decided I wanted to take cookery at O level alongside languages, it challenged the school’s timetabling system because no-one had ever wanted to learn Latin at the same time as learning the science and skill behind pastry and bread and a roux sauce before! So let’s not pretend that schools used to teach kids everything about food and cooking, they really didn’t.
There must have been something about our parents’ influence that inspired my siblings and me because we all ended up in careers involving food in some way – my sister ran a successful café and my brother a veg box scheme – although we all started out with other careers first. Mine was a decade or so in banking, with Coutts, the bankers to the rich and famous, which got me a sound grounding in commerce. Oddly it also got me started in marketing. It wasn’t something Coutts had ever had to worry about really, but in the early 80s the whole financial landscape was beginning to shift and the bank started considering how it might seek new business proactively rather than wait for it to come to them. I got really interested in this, in particular in using data and analytics to drive the ideas.
By the time I came to Cornwall in 2000, I’d left banking, had three children, run a small but successful bakery business of my own, had a spell working in the public sector, but had finally realised that I was still itching to do a bit more learning around the subject I really loved – food – so I’d gone to uni in Bath 20 years after I’d left school, to do a degree that covered the whole spectrum of food – from global food supply to lab work to agriculture to nutrition and also marketing. Call it a mid-life crisis (wretched divorce and a spell being single mum to 3 small children had almost wiped me out), but for me it was an opportunity to combine everything I’d done into one thing I knew I REALLY wanted to do. I also relished the challenge, put everything into it and graduated with a very good First.
Whilst studying I got bitten by the research bug – that analytical bent I’d developed at Coutts meant I loved doing primary research and critical thinking. Happily I was able to put this to good use when I got a job working for our sorely missed colleague Carol Trewin when she was running the Objective One funded project for Taste of the West covering Cornwall and Scilly. I was hired to provide market intelligence to businesses but soon discovered that all the usual market intelligence sources were much too broad to be relevant to most businesses in Cornwall, yet there was very little hard intelligence about the food and drink industry locally and also regionally. How could direction and strategy be determined, I argued, when no-one actually knew, for example, how much and what type of products Cornwall was producing, where it was being sold, or where the market gaps were? Carol, and later Angie Coombs who succeeded her, were instrumental in allowing me to redress this with new research.
How was Cornwall Food & Drink formed?
Cornwall Food & Drink came about completely by accident and as much a result of my doggedness and naivety as anything else. In 2008 the funding that had created the Taste of the West project had come to an end and, despite it being acknowledged as valuable work, there was no direct replacement for it, or for other similar projects that had been set up around food, drink, horticulture and agriculture. By that time I was working freelance and found myself being approached by businesses to ‘do something’ about the lack of a central resource for the county’s food and drink. Alongside, I thought it was reprehensible that a sector that had been undergoing such a remarkable transformation but was looking down the barrel of a gun as the recession loomed, should be left without a plan for the future. And besides, what a waste of all that public investment if the momentum and drive stalled at that point.
I thought I had exhausted all the usual routes I could think of to find some funding to keep something going when I discovered a chink of light – there was a chance that if I set up a commercial enterprise of my own, there was a grant scheme I could apply to just like any other business might, which would possibly provide the answer. Cornwall Food & Drink Ltd was the result. It took about a year to put the application together and get approval and we finally started trading in the summer of 2010. I vividly recall a few raised eyebrows and looks of concern - did I know what a risk I was taking on? Yes, I knew, but I chose to shrug off the reality because it was simply too scary. The bottom line was that by setting up the company in my own name I was taking on the entire risk of finding the match funding of around £0.5 million and would need to sell my house if I failed. Furthermore, no other similar organisation had, to my knowledge, started out needing to find more than half of all the costs, including salaries, from day one. I didn’t ever spell it out that graphically to my long-suffering husband. He did question whether I knew what I was doing but I just said, “Trust me,” as convincingly as I could, and he did.
In hindsight it was ridiculous. I was setting up a completely new type of business concept and no-one ever challenged my assumptions or projections in the way they should have done, or indeed my ability. I had never run a proper company or recruited and employed people. By the same token, I didn’t invite any critique of my thinking either. I didn’t do the very thing I advise any other business to do – let people who know what they’re talking about go over your plans. At the time I would have claimed that I knew I could make it work, but subconsciously I probably didn’t want to risk anyone telling me it wouldn’t.
What are you proud of?
There was every chance that we would follow countless projects before (and no doubt after) us and fold when the grant ended three and a half years after we started. I believe there were people who expected or even assumed that would happen. But I hadn’t run myself nearly into the ground over that time just to create something and then walk away from it. CFD was always intended to be commercial and we’ve striven very hard to make it so, and it is. I can say confidently that our core existence doesn’t depend on any form of financial support other than the revenue we derive commercially from our membership subscriptions and our professional work. Yes, we are always interested in projects that come with a bit of funding to make them work, because it enables us to do more and we generally make a pretty good job of them. But I don’t and never could make a living out of writing bids and waiting for the next honey pot lid to open.
I’m very lucky to have a tremendously hard-working and loyal team beside me, with a lovely sense of balance to it. We all complement each other’s skills and personalities and get on really well. I made a bit of a hash of managing things in the early days, which was a hard lesson.
You only have to look at our list of members to see that a whole raft of the most prestigious names in Cornish food and drink believes in what we do. And they cover the whole spectrum from farming and fishing to restaurants and shops, all sizes of business and all parts of the county, including Scilly.
I couldn’t do this if I didn’t believe it was actually achieving something and, believe me, there have been moments when I’ve had to question whether the pain is worth the gain. I set high standards and put a lot of pressure on the team to deliver better and more all the time. So when people recognise that and tell us that it makes a difference it’s very gratifying. Earlier this year I was staggered when one of the national food writers I know told me that there is no other organisation in the whole of the UK that does for other areas what we do for food and drink in Cornwall.
Some of the people and products we work with are truly amazing, which makes it so much easier for us to do that job. I love it when the ideas start to flow and there is boundless positive energy to make things work. A lot of what we do is win-win, or even win-win-win, where the business gets something from it, we get something from it, and so does Cornwall. A good example of this is our Great Cornish Food Book (and the sequel The Great Cornish Fish Book, released 25th September), which promotes Cornwall and Cornish food and drink collectively while giving the individual chefs and producers who feature in it a boost, and at the same time generates much-needed revenue for us.
This is also a good example of how having to think commercially throws up good ideas. If we had been a quango with a pot of money simply to promote Cornish food and drink, we would undoubtedly have spent it on marketing materials and activities without giving a thought to generating income at the same time.
The same applies to the Great Cornish Food Festival, which takes place every year in Truro at the end of September. We took it on as an event that didn’t have a bean to its name but have turned it into one of the few free major events that stack up commercially in their own right. It’s not rocket science - by paying attention to the quality and marketing, our sponsors and exhibitors are happy and return to us time and again. We are one of the most expensive shows to exhibit at but we sold out of the prime exhibition space in just six hours when we opened for bookings this year.
What does Cornwall Food & Drink actually do?
We’ve always felt that we fill a gap. We’re the only organisation that specialises entirely in food and drink entirely in Cornwall and Scilly. Pretty much any food or drink business in the area can join as a member and that gives them the chance to be featured on our online Great Cornish Food Finder and in our other digital marketing such as social media and email campaigns. They also get to participate in other things we do such as our events, awards and publications, and they can all communicate with each other easily through our messaging system. None of that is ground-breaking but our execution is very good. I was recently contacted by someone on the board of a food and drink organisation in another part of the UK asking how we managed to get everything we do online looking so smart and contemporary and how we manage to do everything we do with such a small team. The answer is very simple – attention to detail and hard work.
Alongside this, there’s the stuff that no individual business can do alone. Dealing with media, trade and public sector enquiries about food and drink in Cornwall, acting as spokespeople and signposters and providing data and intelligence in response to questions. Creating trade and marketing opportunities for our members, either simply bringing the right individuals together or breaking new ground. Gathering intelligence through our own research projects. Creating and (arguably more difficult) maintaining the buzz about Cornish food and drink, but always with solid foundations, so we can’t be accused of hype.
And the final thing is the work we do for individual businesses, which our members pay extra for but get at a special rate. This is where we really are different from a standard type of marketing organisation because we cover a lot of ground, from helping businesses work out their margins to managing business development projects, PR campaigns and those jobs that business owners and managers often find it hard to make time for or get right – like writing grant applications or awards entries.