If you sat down and made a list of the biggest product areas out there food would probably be high up on your list. It’s a pretty good sector to be involved in, simply due to its sheer size and the fact everybody buys it. The UK food and grocery market is worth about £170 billion every year.
Within that artisan food – quality, handmade food – is a very interesting opportunity in itself. Because at a time when most consumers have been seeking out pound and ‘value’ lines sales of higher-priced, upmarket food products have actually been booming.
For example, Waitrose (who seem to know a thing or two about selling in today’s tough economy) say that sales of their premium artisan products rose 16% in 2013 alone. They’ve expanded their range to 2,500 artisan product lines from 600 different, local producers. Think about that for a moment: It’s a big rise in a market where budget supermarkets seem to be taking over.
So in this report I’m going to look at the artisan food business and how you could get involved. By the way, you don’t need to know anything about food to get started, or even handle a single food product if you don’t want to. (More about how that’s possible is coming up.)
What are artisan foods?
Artisan foods are pretty much the direct opposite of most of the foods we buy in the shops on a day-to-day basis. Most food products nowadays are mass produced from bulk ingredients on factory production lines. Every finished product looks the same and tastes the same.
Artisan foods on the other hand are individually made by skilled craftspeople, using carefully selected often local ingredients, and usually made by hand or using simple equipment. Every product is individual, varying in appearance, texture and taste. They’re what food used to be like before factory production took over.
Why are artisan foods a hot product right now?
In a world where there’s a tendency towards standardisation and globalisation it seems a bit odd that artisan foods are thriving. Here’s why I think that might be:
* Post-recession the grocery market is becoming polarised with both low and high end products doing well… think the ‘Aldi and Waitrose effect’. There’s room at the top for artisan foods.
* More and more consumers like to know what’s in their food, and where it has come from. Artisan foods are usually very traceable.
* Consumers are attracted to products that are different and artisan foods often are. If a chutney is slightly too chunky or a pork pie slightly too portly that’s all part of the appeal.
*Artisan foods are the nearest you’ll get to home made. They take consumers back to ‘the good old days’ before mass produced convenience foods took over.
* Artisan food generally sell at higher prices and that usually means higher profit margins too. So it’s an area small entrepreneurs can get involved in without being pushed out of the market by the big retailers.
Could this opportunity be right for you?
This is an opportunity that operates on two levels. You could get involved with either side of it, or even both.
If you’re interested in actually making artisan foods yourself then you can. You’ll need some cooking skills and some food preparation space.
If you’re not interested in actually making your own artisan foods then you don’t have to because you can operate this opportunity on a brokerage basis. That is, sourcing interesting, good quality artisan foods from your own area, finding buyers for them in other parts of the country, then claiming a commission for bringing buyer and seller together. In this case it’s mainly an office based business, although you’ll need good organisational skills to keep it all running smoothly.
Types of artisan foods you could get involved with
Pretty much any kind of food product could be an artisan food product idea. But some things will work better than others. It’s best if they are unusual or unique in some way, or perhaps even slightly quirky. (Anyone for moose burgers?) It’s even better if there’s a story behind them which you can use as a sales point. For example, does the cream used to make them come from a special breed of cows which are fed by hand and only milked by moonlight? Are they produced to a 500 year old recipe which is kept locked in a bank vault and only known to one person?
But the products you handle also need to be reasonably practical. While modern supply chains can handle fresh, frozen and chilled foods, the better a product travels and the longer its shelf life the easier it will be.
Next let’s run through a few actual ideas you could consider:
* Bakery products. Bread, cakes, celebration cakes, savouries, pastries, biscuits/cookies.
* Dairy products. Cheese, butter and other products made from milk. Ice cream. (Cheese is a massive artisan product in itself.)
* Meat, poultry and fish products. Lots of choice here. Cured and preserved products – technically known as charcuterie – are more practical. For example, cooked meats, sausage or paté.
* Fruit and vegetable products. Preserved, dried or bottled fruit and vegetables.
* Preserves and condiments. Jam, marmalade, chutney, pickles, honey, mustard, oils, herbs and spices, table sauces. This is probably one of the easiest artisan food products to get started in.
* Cook in sauces. For example, Italian, Chinese, Indian. (Just look how much space supermarkets devote to these. How about selling artisan equivalents?)
* Beverages. Alcoholic drinks – beer is especially suitable as an artisan product. Soft drinks, such as fruit juices and smoothies. Tea (including herbal) and coffee blends.
* Confectionary. Fruit and nut bars, toffee, fudge, sweets, chocolates and chocolate products.
Producing artisan foods yourself
If you decide to produce some artisan foods yourself here are a few things you’ll need to know:
Food hygiene. It would be a good idea to take a Basic Food Hygiene Course. These cover things like cleanliness of the working area and equipment, handling raw and cooked products separately, storing ingredients and finished products in appropriate conditions and good personal hygiene practices. The Food Standards Agency (www.food.gov.uk) and your local authority can provide more information on this. Many local further education colleges offer courses – the course normally only lasts half a day and the costs are fairly low.
Food licensing. By law you must register every premises where you carry out food operations. You can register your home or commercial food premises. Contact your local authority to register (it’s free) and for details of what’s involved.
Most food and drink products don’t need a licence to sell, the main exceptions being alcohol and game.
Food packaging. You must use packaging that’s suitable for food use. Suitable packaging is marked ‘for food use’ and/or with a knife and fork symbol. More info. from the Food Standards Agency website.
Food labelling. Foods that are packaged for sale rather than being sold loose must be labelled with certain minimum information as follows: The name of the food. A ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date. Quantity or weight. Any necessary warnings, eg. if nuts, certain colours or preservatives are included. A list of ingredients (if there are more than two). The name and address of the manufacturer, packer or seller. A lot number (or use by date if not). Any special storage conditions. Instructions for use or cooking, if necessary. There’s more useful information about all this on the Gov.uk website
Sourcing artisan foods for a brokerage
There could be some great opportunities here for finding local or regional suppliers and then ‘exporting’ them to other parts of the country. So I’d strongly suggest you start in your own area and work outwards. Have a think: What’s available in your local area that might sell very well in another part of the country? Is there a local type of cake, cured meat or locally brewed beer that people in say London or Manchester might enjoy too?
In most areas, both towns and rural areas, you’ll find local artisan producers who are passionate about what they make yet often lack the time to go out and find more customers. This sort of brokerage service would be perfect for them.
Here are some types of suppliers you could consider:
Home based/amateur producers. Who makes great celebration cakes or great chutney? Would they be interested in supplying you? Also consider local market gardeners, smallholders and allotment holders if there are any in your area, even any enthusiastic gardeners you can find.
Farms. There’s a lot of interest in food from source. Better still, high quality, direct from source, traceable food can sell at premium prices. So this is probably one of the best sources of artisan foods.
Individual farms produce quality local produce but, with a few exceptions, often don’t have the time or aptitude to sell it themselves. So have a think, what farms are there in your area (or any area you know) that sell their own produce, or that maybe could supply you?
Local specialist producers
Have a look at what specialist producers there might be in your area. Perhaps these businesses are already supplying their customers, but who could make some additional products every week and supply you too. If the product you choose already has a reputation or established brand name in their local area so much the better. You can build on that when selling elsewhere.
For example, there are lots of small, independent bakeries out there who produce interesting artisan breads, pastries and savouries. Also look for smaller-scale wholesale bakeries who could make up your own product ideas. Is there a local butcher, famous for their own ham, sausages or pies?
Look for individual locally owned dairies and creameries. Some dairy farms have their own dairies. Microbreweries are found in most areas nowadays and some pubs brew their own beer.
Are there are any chocolatiers, or shops selling their own hand made confectionery in your area? How about local tea and coffee merchants. Do they have a special blend that would sell well in other areas?
How to locate suppliers
In this case local knowledge is ideal for tracking down good suppliers – you’ll be able to find those unique suppliers that hardly anyone else knows about and have access to. So, visit farmers’ markets and fairs, and local craft markets. Have a look round your local school/church/village hall/charity fairs. Look on local notice boards for anyone selling local products. Look in local health food type shops and gift shops – you could find products from local suppliers who’ll be interested in selling their products in other areas. Many areas also have a local food promotion organisation – check with your local library or local council to see if there is one.
If local knowledge isn’t an option then here are some contacts you can use to get started:
The Artisan Food Trail: Online directory of small, local and artisan food producers across the United Kingdom, connecting with consumers, shops, restaurants, chefs and delis.
Food Legacy: contacts for artisan and smaller food producers and organisations which promote them.
Bakery – directory of trade contacts here.
The Specialist Cheesemakers Association has a really good directory of suppliers.
Farm Direct – Includes a directory of farms who sell direct and of farmers’ markets.
FARMA is a co-operative of around 500 businesses from across the UK that share one thing – a passion to promote food which is grown and sold by the same hands.
BigBarn includes a directory for local food producers.
Organic Portal - Directory of organic food suppliers (many organic food producers are also artisan producers.)
The School of Artisan Food teaches all aspects of artisan food production. It offers a unique opportunity for people of all skill levels to expand their knowledge through a wide range of short courses, and a one year Advanced Diploma. Website:
The Anuga General Food and Drink Trade Fair is considered to be the largest and most important food and drink fair in the world. Anuga takes place every other year in Cologne, Germany. The next Anuga won’t be held until 2015 but their website is an excellent source of information and contacts if you’re interested in importing or exporting food and drink (not all artisan).
Speciality & Fine Food Fair. Showcase for UK fine food and drink.
Approaching suppliers and setting up a deal
The next step is to contact some suppliers and offer to work with them on brokerage basis. You can set up deals with one or several suppliers, including those with similar products or quite different ones to offer. If the products are complementary then so much the better as you’ll be able to offer customers not just a single product but a range.
Why should suppliers be interested? Be sure to stress the benefits to your prospective supplier when contacting them. They’ll be able to sell more products, make more sales and make more money. They could take their business up to a whole new level. But by doing it through an agent there’ll be no extra work, risk or expense for them at all.
How to contact them. This sort of thing will work best if done on an individual, one-by-one basis. So I’d suggest sending an introductory letter or email in the first instance. A few days afterwards give them a call, and ask if they’re interested. If you can, set up a face-to-face meeting – you’ll be much more likely to be able to thrash out an agreement this way.
Here’s a sample of the type of letter you could use to send out to prospective suppliers.
Dear Business Owner/Manager
How can you get more sales without extra cost or risk?
We will guarantee more orders direct to your door …. or you will pay us absolutely nothing
Just like you, we’re lovers of artisan food. We know that high quality food takes time and skill to produce. But are there times when you think some additional sales (and of course money) would be good?
If so, this could be the solution!
Let me explain. My business specialises in finding new sales outlets for high quality artisan food products just like the ones you produce. Right now we have customers around the UK who are interested in stocking
products like yours in their stores.
Even better, we can link you up with these new buyers quickly, easily and at no upfront cost. (All we ask is a modest commission on the extra sales we generate.)
If you’re interested in finding out more about what we can offer get in touch with me as soon as possible.
There’s no risk or commitment whatsoever.
PS. Our buyers need more new stock lines NOW. Contact me today and I will explain how your products could be on their next order form.
Operating as an agent or broker – more information
Operating as an agent or broker really is the simplest way of getting involved in a new product line. You won’t need any food products of your own, any stock, or any previous knowledge. You’ll be able to earn a margin just from linking up buyer and supplier.
However, as an agent or broker you’ll need to agree a few things with your supplier:
You’ll need to agree what products you’re handling. Find out what quantities will be available for sale each week/month. (Remember artisan foods are normally produced in small batches.) You’ll need to agree where your territory is going to be, ie. where you can sell the products. Also find out what help your supplier will offer with marketing. For example, are they able to supply brochures, sales literature, help with marketing or make free samples available?
There are two ways of approaching this. You could agree a commission on whatever sales you make for your supplier. For example, 5%, 10% or 20%. This is simple and risk free. Alternatively you could agree to buy from your supplier at one price and then sell out to your customer at a higher price. This involves a little more risk but could produce a better return as you’ll be able to control the price at which you sell.
Finding places to sell your artisan foods
The next step is to find outlets to sell the foods products you’ve become an agent or broker for. (Tip. Start to look into this before you sign up any suppliers. Try and identify those kinds of foods that are in demand, and then aim to tie up demand with supply.)
Who might your customers be? When you first start retailers will be much easier to deal with, rather than wholesalers and so on. Small retailers will be easier to work with and, as the chances are the person who buys from you will also work in their own shop, they should know the market for the product inside out and hopefully be enthusiastic about selling it.
Outlets who already seller similar products. Oddly, it’s much easier to get outlets who already sell artisan foods to expand their range …. rather than convince those who don’t sell artisan foods that they’re a good idea. Focus on those who sell products which your products could complement.
Not only shops. Although most of your prospective customers will be shops also consider other kinds of retail outlet. Such as …. pop up shops, market stalls, farmers’ market and craft fair stallholders, country fair stallholders, street vendors.
Also …. restaurants, cafes, bistros and pubs that sell food are also in the market for artisan foods to incorporate into their menu.
Locating potential customers
Exactly how many customers you need to sign up will depend not only on what you’re selling but how much your supplier can supply. You might start with just one or two but ultimately this kind of opportunity is scalable so you could have many suppliers and many customers.
Draw up a target list of potential. These local business directories are handy for tracking down local contacts. Yell at www.yell.com and Thomson Local at www.thomsonlocal.com. Also look in the Useful Contacts section where you can find directories for shops who sell artisan foods.
Contacting potential customers
Take a pro-active approach when you first start. Go out and make an approach to potential customers for your product, rather than waiting for them to come to you.
As with finding sources I’d suggest sending out a short sales letter (or email if you can find an email address). Follow this with a call a few days later to see if they’re interested in trying your product.
As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – so if the potential customer seems interested offer to send them some samples so they can taste it for themselves.
Here’s a basic template letter you could send out to prospective customers. (You’ll need to amend this to suit your product.)
Dear Business Owner/Manager
New Product Opportunity!
Stinky Shepherd Cheese : Now Available To Trial In Your Shop Risk Free For 30 Days
Just like you, I’m a lover of artisan food. So believe me when I say here’s one that’s an absolute ‘must taste’ ….
Stinky Shepherd is a premium quality cheese made in the Feta style. It’s produced only from the milk of individually named sheep who graze on organic pastures around Skipton, Yorkshire. The cheese is hand
made in the Stinky Shepherd creamery to a 450 year old recipe and said to have been enjoyed by William Shakespeare!
Stinky Shepherd is already a proven seller, and has quietly earned the nickname locally of ‘Better than Feta’. (Try it yourself, I think you’ll agree.)
As exclusive agents for the creamery, we are currently able to offer you a 30 Day Risk Free Trial of Stinky Shepherd. Test it out in your store for 30 days. In the unlikely event your customers don’t
love it you’ll pay nothing.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Stinky Shepherd and what we can offer please get in touch with me as soon as possible. I’ll be glad to provide you with a free sample tasting with
no risk or commitment whatsoever.
PS. As with all artisan foods production of Stinky Shepherd Blue Cheese is strictly limited in quantity. If you’re interested please sign up for your risk free trial today.
How to set up a deal
I’d recommend you take a soft sell approach here. With this sort of product you want your customers to really want to stock your product, not to tie them up to a contract for something they struggle to sell.
So firstly, suggest your prospective customer stocks the product for a trial period initially – perhaps a month. This will make it much easier to do the deal as there’s no risk for them. If you can offer them sale or return terms even better.
Secondly, ask your supplier if they’re willing to provide some free samples for your customer to use in a ‘taste test’ type promotion. Once their customers start buying and better still asking for the product on a daily/weekly basis they’ll find it very hard not to keep re-ordering.
Once your product has proven its value to the customer you can then talk to them about making a regular commitment to ordering a larger quantity. Which, in turn, should help you cut a better deal with your supplier so that everybody benefits.
Selling to supermarkets and other large retailers
Although artisan foods are still mainly the preserve of small retailers, supermarkets and other large food retailers sometimes offer artisan food ranges – a good sign of the potential in the market. So you could consider contacting their buyers to find out if there’s any interest in the products you’re brokering.
When selling to supermarkets your margins would probably be much tighter although your sales volume could be potentially much, much larger.
Here’s an opportunity that’s well worth thinking about, although it’s probably best regarded as a sideline to the other methods. Now there are even some online sales platforms where you can sell artisan foods.
If you’re going to sell artisan food online then you could of course receive orders from all around the country (and all around the world). So you’d need to make sure you only list foods which it is practical and cost effective to ship.
Once you’re up and running this is something else you might want to try. The market for artisan food isn’t just in the UK, it also exists in many countries of the world. Plus, many if not most countries have their own artisan food products which are already popular in this country. So by extending the basic principle you could sell UK artisan foods worldwide. Or you could import artisan foods from around the world. You could, for example, import artisan olive oils from Italy or local cheese from France.
If you’re doing this you’ll need to check out any special health requirements there might be as well as taxes and the cost of shipping. The Food Standards Agency website has useful info on importing food.
Maybe it does seem a little odd starting up a business which sells a higher priced product in what seems to be a bargain hunting economy. But think about it. In many ways it makes a lot more sense for a new business to sell a product which offers high margins in a small, niche market – than to sell a product which offers tiny margins in a big, very competitive market.
And there’s a lot to be said for being a contrarian sometimes – in trying to buck the trend. When everyone else is moving into one type of product, move into something that is its complete opposite. You could just find that it becomes a lucrative opportunity for you – largely because it’s different and few others are involved with it.
If food doesn’t inspire you as the subject of your business, don’t worry. The same ‘brokering’ principles could be applied to a whole wide range of products. How about, for example …. home knits, handmade toys, crafts and gifts or jewellery. Pick a product area, find a source of good, unique local products, then operate a brokerage selling them into other markets on a commission basis. It’s the basis of many successful businesses.