Alumni Expert View: Supporting artisan food producers to break through barriers to success

Keith Gill MSc (Hons) is a seasoned entrepreneur with over 35 years’ experience working within the food industry. Keith studied MSc (Hons) Applied Chemistry at Hatfield Polytechnic in the 1970s and received his honorary masters degree from the University of Hertfordshire in 2015 for his contribution to the food industry. Keith is co-founder of the Phileas Fogg snack brand, focused on delivering a taste of international flavours to an untapped adult snack market. Keith’s innovative ideas in food packaging and technology brought huge global success to the company.

Keith uses his extensive experience and knowledge within the food industry to work with regional artisan food and drink producers, to establish new sales channels to increase their success. This has been of particular importance during the pandemic, when our shopping and eating habits dramatically changed – having a significant impact on the food and drink industry.

Food micro-businesses responding to increased demand

“Artisan producers are small enterprises that make and/or distribute small quantities of food and drink and are epitomised as being under-resourced and under-capitalised. Pre-pandemic, the UK’s food and drink market was made up of around 96% of SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises). In the past 18 months, there has been a noticeable increase in demand for food production, and here on home soil, demand for snacks, baked goods and confectionery, all of which are key products for some of the UK’s increasing artisan food producers, has also risen”.

Overcoming barriers to success

“Finding suitable sales channels is the trickiest element for any small producer. Common outlets include farm shows and exhibitions, where sampling and direct sales can take place, and producers are able to gather customer data and build a client base through digital marketing and subsequent web sales. However, limited resources of the artisan producer means balancing time between producing the products and direct selling as well as fulfilment of future deliveries.

During the pandemic, food shows and exhibitions were all closed and so the focus was channelled towards getting products directly to consumers. The artisan producers we are working with have experienced significant growth through this sales channel aided by courier service delivery. Early estimates suggest that the ‘Direct to Consumers (D2C)’ channels have grown by the equivalent of 10 years within the past 18-month pandemic period. This has been helped by more open consumer attitudes actively searching for products with a point of difference.

Packaging development is also a tough area to crack. The next stage is to use direct marketing to build on product brand, and packaging is crucial to this element. This is one of the hardest areas for the artisan producer to get right, to stand out from the crowd and get their product noticed.

Another critical barrier for the smaller artisan food producer is shelf life. Many products need an extended shelf life of at least six months, and assessments of the packaging barrier properties to oxygen, moisture and the UV spectrum of light (which can accelerate the radical oxidation process of oil decay in rancidity and reduced shelf life) need to be considered. Clearly, the technologies used either assist or hinder shelf life and therefore dictate distribution, storage and display of products. This has been undoubtedly affected by the pandemic as food businesses were forced to close and those using shorter-life products were faced with lack of custom. However, artisan producers using more protectable packaging has allowed them to benefit from easier courier delivery and longer storage availability for the consumer.

Quality control regimes can also be a big hindrance, one of which is the basic requirement of accreditations which help local and regional food and drink producers supply their products to regional and national buyers. However, it can be very costly and time-consuming to maintain, and the continued sustainment and reporting needs to be factored into resources too.”

Reaching the masses online

“E-commerce has been emerging over the past 20 years but the penetration of food products in this sector has lagged behind other market sectors despite the major supermarket retailers establishing their own home delivery systems and the emergence of companies like Ocado. However, the pandemic has accelerated the penetration of artisan producers through courier distribution by about 10 years in market development time, which has aided not just corporate survival but built a whole new sales channel that many had previously struggled with.”

Passionate about helping regional and artisan producers

Keith’s company, Artisan Food and Drink Associates, works with regional artisan food and drink producers to establish new sales channels using their own experiences of working with corporate, SMEs and the vast array of micro-businesses that now proliferate the UK food industry. He has steered many businesses through the last challenging 18 months, helping many of them capitalise on new shopping and eating trends, respond to a shifting consumer landscape and supporting the in breaking down barriers

Image of Alumus Keith Gill Keith Gill