In 2007, childhood friends Rod Garnham and Ross Taylor turned their backs on their day jobs in engineering and logistics to go back to their roots on Ross’ family farm in Cambridgeshire. Their quest was to find a way to add value to the unique Naturalo potatoes the family had been growing since the 1800s.
Six years on and one factory purchased online and unseen from Cyprus(!) a portfolio of Great Taste Award winning flavours, and a Guinness World Record, their Corkers Crisps brand is set to fly sky-high – literally!
1. What did you do before you were involved with Corkers?
Ross and are both from farming families. Aged 16 I left agriculture and went in to aircraft engineering; you have a choice, you can sit on a tractor for £4.20 an hour, working for your dad, getting shouted at, or you can go off and have a career. Ross actually left his farm and went off in to logistics and transport- he had his own logistics business – and I was off travelling round the world with aircrafts. I worked in Australia, Canada, Sweden, Norway….I did that for 12 years.
2. Ross’ family has been farming the land where you grow your potatoes since the 1800s, but you didn’t start producing crisps until 2010. How did you get started with Corkers?
In 2007, a group of us had our annual pilgrimage to Soelden Austria for a ski trip. We were sitting and talking; Ross said he was winding up his logistics business. I was out of the country so much and had a young family at the time, and I wanted to be more grounded and back at home. The thought of doing something different was also quite exciting. We talked around Ross’ potatoes – they’ve always been really special, it comes down to the soil, its very unique, our USP. So it was trying to find something to do with those. We were interested in trying to market those potatoes, and sell them. We tried a couple of different things after we had turned our back on our other careers.
3. What tried and failed ventures do you have under your belts, and what did you learn from them?
When we first started we tried to wash the potatoes and sell them in plastic bags to the likes of Waitrose. The idea was we were going to deliver a washed and polished potato that is ideal for chipping and roasting, and make it available for the wider market. As soon as you refrigerate a potato, what you actually do is you take the starch content and turn it in to sugar. So there are all these fantastic recipes for ‘the best roast potato’, but you don’t need to do any of that, you just need a proper potato that’s been looked after and is designed to do what it does.
Supermarkets at the time didn’t quite buy in to it, and in 2008 the massive recession hit us and everything ground to a halt; everyone put their tin hats on and nobody wanted to take a risk. Using my engineering skills, we had built a washing and packing line; we had been out there personally late at night welding and constructing by hook and crook, and it was all sold off in a week. Hours and hours of our time, and we’d only put about 100 tonnes of potatoes through it, so it was heartbreaking really.
I think from that we learnt that supermarkets are far more likely to stock a product that enhances an entire market sector, rather than positions itself as the ‘only one you need’. We also learned to only put in as much time and money as is required at this stage of testing a product, which we took on board later with our sample products and branding. Having expertise in other industries was also really helpful – we always had other skills to fall back on to to earn some money.
4. But you didn’t give up on potatoes?
After that we went on another skiing trip, and we were sat there, having this discussion. We’d had an awful packet of crisps, and we looked at each other and it came up in conversation, “I wonder what the potatoes would be like to make crisps from?” We rung Ross’ dad while we were still on holiday and said “Basil, have you ever made crisps from these potatoes?” and he hadn’t. Until that point, we’d always let someone turn up to our farm and say “I want to buy this, and I’ll give you this for it” and we’d go, “Oh, alright”. Farmers are brilliant at growing crops, but we’re rubbish at selling them. We let people dictate and control the market, so this was all about using our experience from the commercial aspects of our lives that we’d gained away from the farm, to find a new way of selling and adding value.
5. Now you had the idea, how did you get this up and running in a practical sense?
We got back from the trip and took a ton of potatoes to a manufacturer that made private label products. We said “Can you make some crisps from these, and tell us what your thoughts are?” They said “These are the best crisps we’ve made out of this factory in 20 years – can we buy all of your potatoes?” We said, “Thanks! But no. We don’t need someone else buying our potatoes, we’ve got plenty of people that want to buy our potatoes, but we want to add value to them”.
We came up with some names, did some market research. We worked with a branding agency to put on the packet what we wanted to convey, our ideas. We then took the crisps and mock-up packets to the Speciality and Fine Food Show. Harvey Nichols came on to our stand and said “We want it, when can we have it” and it was as simple as that. We thought ‘Ah ok, we best go and get some film printed [for the crisp packets]’. Harvey Nichols were our first customer.
6. At this point you also didn’t have anywhere to manufacture the crisps though did you? Cue a trip to Cyprus…?!
We needed a proper factory full of equipment. Ross loves auctions and buying things; he’s an expert at it. He got on the internet and somehow found an entire factory in Cyprus that was up for sale. He decided we were going to buy it, so I did my ‘engineering’ due diligence and found out what all the kit was, where it was made, and rang the manufacturers to find out the history of the equipment. We found out the factory was 10 years old, and it actually hadn’t done anything in that time. This company had tried to get a crisp brand going in Cyprus but for them it was a part-time hobby that didn’t really work out so they were selling everything off. We put in a bid, and won it. We didn’t have the money to pay for it, but we had to have it! We put money on credit cards…. We hadn’t even seen it. The very next day, myself and Ross and two agricultural engineers went out to Cyprus, got a hire car and drove out to the factory. We opened the doors and went “thank god for that!”. As soon as I saw all the equipment and got a gauge for what it was and the quality of the build I thought ‘this is going to be ok’. We stripped the factory bare and shoe-horned it in to two container lorries. We had all the locals there, carpenters building sleds. It was a proper farmer operation with cross engineering. We had 4 days to do it, day and night. And we managed to have one night out in Ayia Napa! When we got back to the UK we had to get planning permission from the local council, which took forever!
7. You have so many different flavours, which is particularly impressive considering what a small operation you are running! What flavours did you launch with and how have you added to the range?
This is how naive we were about the crisp market: we launched with five flavours, and in those five flavours we didn’t have salt and vinegar! We soon launched that though. We had seven flavours at the Fine Food Show, but we couldn’t afford to have the packets made for all of those initially, so we had to be ruthless about the flavours we picked. Instead we went with the salt and pepper, which is really unique, but salt and vinegar outsells it 2:1. You learn your lessons don’t you? You can’t be in business and not pick up a scar or two. We’ve introduced 2 new lines of vegetable crisps – sweet potato with chilli and parsnip with honey and black pepper – and we have sweet and salty popcorn and salted popcorn which is being launched in the middle of March. We’ve got a development field where we plant loads of different vegetables and we’re looking at all kinds of crazy things to put in a packet of crisps. We’re seeing what we can grow and we’re going to have a go at growing the corn. We think we might be able to do it as it’s a dry area of the country in rainfall terms. In the industry we’re in, we’ve got to keep progressing, its all about inventiveness. An exciting year coming up hopefully!
8. There’s a distinct ‘British quirkiness’ to your brand…
Quirky innovators, that’s how we see ourselves. With our new packaging, we’ve moved away from the ‘rustic’ Britishness and we need to keep evolving, so our new positioning is around quirky inventiveness. That is also reflected in our Guinness World Record win for ‘largest packet of crisps’ (5.5m high!) but more seriously in the fact that we offer experience to one or two farming and agriculture students a year from Harper Adams University; they come and get a bit of marketing and sales experience and learn how you can add value to crops. Ultimately, this positioning has aided in our next big adventure which we are in the midst of gearing up for now: being stocked by Easy Jet.
9. Do you have any advice to other budding food entrepreneurs?
Do your market research really well. We did consumer research but we didn’t do market research as such – hence ‘salt and vinegar gate’. We still search daily for USP’s to ‘sell’ our products. Without our ‘story’ it would be really tough. Market research is the absolute key, then from that work out your value proposition. What can you offer the people that stock products already, where are they going to make money from your products. You need to be unique, and you’ve got to be able to show someone that they can make money from your product.
Unless you’ve got your market product right with a clear USP where people know they are going to make money off you they’re not going to take the risk and create space on the shelf for you. A wholesaler will have 2K-3K product lines, for them to take another product on and gives that space in their brochure they will want to know what they can make off of you, who is going to want to buy your product and why. To make money selling a product like this, you need to understand where the margins are, what the potential growth of the business is going to be. If you need investment from people at some point, the investment you are going to get will come off the back of all of that knowledge.
Have a thick-skin. You’ve got to be able to take negative criticism as you will face this. There will be plenty of people telling you you can’t do it, that they don’t like your product. You have to be so focused to see through that.