The Business of Butterbelle
In 2015, Zoe launched an all-natural nut butter company from her home whilst raising two teenage daughters and completing a university degree. Forthright, warm, and full of grit, she shares with us her unexpected journey into F&B, challenges of marketing a vegan product to rural farming communities, and practical tips to help others succeed.
Words and recipe below by Zoe.
I grew up not far away, in Wolverhampton, which is a city in the Midlands. We relocated to Shropshire because my daughter got a place at the grammar school in Newport. There are elements I miss about the city, definitely, but I can’t say I would like to go back! I do love it here.
I studied at an agricultural institution, Harper Adams University. There is a dairy herd there, a working farm, so a lot of the module content was based around meat science and the dairy industry. There was also a huge focus on sustainability — sustainable packaging, sustainable diets. The course I enrolled in was Food, Nutrition, and Wellbeing, which was quite a technical degree as it was nutrition for the food industry — formulating recipes, product development, safety in food manufacturing, things like that.
‘There have been periods of real self-doubt but, looking back at everything that has happened, most of the sound decisions I have made have been made with my gut.’
To be brutally honest, my catalyst for having to throw everything into the air to retrain at university was a divorce. All of my finances had been tied up with my husband: we had a business together, a house we owned together, everything. So when we were divorced, I didn’t only lose my home, I also lost my job and source of income, and this is something that happens to so many women. Because I was such a young mum, I spent what would have been my career-building years raising my children. Then, from age 35 onwards, that was when I really drove my career forward when my children went to school. I kind of did everything back-to-front.
I have always had a desire to work in food. A lot of people do but don’t really consider it as a proper career; they don’t realise how massive the food industry really is, and how many jobs are available. I think the issue is that schools are slowly reducing and taking food out of curriculums, rather than encouraging kids to become aware that it is a career option for them — because it is a massive issue: the obesity crisis, the whole sustainability issue, our diets and what we are supposed to be eating, the inability of our current food system to cope with our growing populations. There are jobs in food engineering, food technology, product development, you name it — if you study food, you are absolutely guaranteed a job. Yet people don’t really understand and it’s such a shame; they just see the blue hair net and think it’s some kind of underpaid, undervalued industry, and it absolutely isn’t. Some of the girls I studied with have gone on to massive things. And when I went to Harper Adams, I had no idea of the doors it would open for me.
I started my business purely by circumstance in my third year, our industry-placement year. As a parent (I had two children at senior schools in the area at the time), I was very limited as I had to stay local. There were girls whom I trained with who were going off to Spain and to all these wonderful places! But I completed my placement at the university handling food safety within the on-site catering department. They were very supportive and I valued the experience, but I knew that I ultimately wanted to work in product development, so I launched Butterbelle in 2015 on the side as a little project to enhance my CV. Developing the products myself, I started selling them and the business kind of grew legs. By the end of that third year, when I was ready to go back to complete my dissertation, I decided to carry on with my business and the only way I could juggle the two was to complete my research project on the business.
My project was about sustainable packaging. All of the big nut butter manufacturers at the time were moving towards plastic packaging because it’s a very dense product. If it’s sold in glass jars, it’s heavier and therefore more expensive to distribute, and you risk lots of breakages. So many companies have gone down the route of plastic jars and single-use sachets — you know the squeeze packs that are very popular with runners? — but, because they are lined with foil and plastic, there is currently no recyclable material, let alone biodegradable, that can handle the oil content of the product. With my research, I wanted to find out how those who are eating nut butters felt about the way the products were packaged. I graduated with a first and it was fab. Then I went out into the industry and worked in product development for a big cake manufacturer. It was all about trying to get as much sugar, fat, and water into a recipe to get the costs down, and went against all of my own ethical viewpoints. So, I decided then that I was going to go full-time with the business, and the business has just grown from there.
‘People have become so accustomed to mass-produced supermarket brands that they don’t realise the difference until they try an alternative. Watching their faces when they taste the difference is the best part of what I do. Food doesn't have to be complex to be amazing.’
Our ethos is to create amazing flavours with very few ingredients. We don’t use any flavourings. For instance, our Gingerbread Almond Butter is: almonds, ginger, and a little bit of coconut sugar. That’s it. The nuts are the star of the show and we just enhance them. Often times, people think ‘nut butter is nut butter’ but if I can get them to try it, a majority of them automatically turn the jar around to inspect the ingredients, which is great, and often express surprise to see it's just 2 or 3 ingredients. People have become so accustomed to mass-produced supermarket brands that they don’t realise the difference until they try an alternative. Watching their faces when they taste the difference is the best part of what I do. Food doesn't have to be complex to be amazing.
The 12 products I have ended up with are very different to the ones I started with because they have been tweaked, adjusted, and improved. There have been others that I have pulled after a short time because of the way the ingredients behaved. We used to do a maple and walnut butter, which was gorgeous, but walnuts contain something called tannic acid that causes a bitter flavour. Walnuts are also very high in oil so they rancidify very quickly, even though technically it’s a long-life ambient product. So while they were beautiful when they were fresh, the taste quality deteriorated with time — it just did not have the longevity. You wouldn’t necessarily know these things until you get out there and people are tasting your products over time. So we scrapped it and now encourage people to make it fresh.
That is absolutely invaluable — testing the market thoroughly and rigorously, before you decide to scale up. It really is the foundation for any kind of resilient business. Many businesses fail within the first year after investing thousands in branding and marketing, without knowing whether or not the people are going to buy it. You can have the most amazing concept in the world but if people don’t want it, you don’t have a business.
It's also about observing the market, adapting, and moving with what our customers want. For instance, the people I was meeting at the vegan fairs were constantly asking how to make it themselves, so I started hosting workshops and I now do children’s workshops as well. We are also bringing out a range of smaller glass jars (we only pack in glass jars and our labels are made from bagasse [sugar cane fibre] which is completely biodegradable, and the plastic-coated material that they are unfortunately backed with gets re-purposed for packing material) and supplying zero-waste shops with refillable Kilners so customers can pay a deposit, take it away, bring it back, and the jars can be re-used.
Because this is a rural area, when we first began retailing Butterbelle, especially at local events and farmers markets (which was the step we took to get market feedback), we were up against the fact that most people here are shopping for things like sausages, eggs, cheese, and pies, because this is a farming community. The category we are in, our product, was quite disruptive. We soon learned that local food festivals didn’t work for us because people are there to eat hot food, drink beer, and are typically not looking for healthy food products, so I have to travel a lot to events and markets elsewhere. Whereas, if I had been in somewhere like London or Bristol, or somewhere with a thriving vegan community, it would have been very, very different. Being in a big city kind of accelerates you; you are already miles in front. We had to find our customers and stockists out-of-area, and it has been tough. Today most of my stockists are in places like Nottingham, Coventry, Birmingham — the cities.
Funding access was also a big issue. When I moved into my premises, the main thing I needed was machinery. The first hurdle I hit was, it’s very difficult — in fact, I found impossible — to access funding for physical objects. It’s always for services, branding, consultations, things like that. And it’s all match-funding in our area, so you have to have money to access money or you have to secure funding from two different sources. In order to access that, I would have to be 80% business-to-business, so 80% supplying to shops rather than retailing directly to the consumer. That becomes a huge chicken-and-egg situation because I can’t supply to that many retailers without the capacity to do so, and I can’t have the capacity to do so without the machinery. It’s just crazy! You are tied up in so many knots. Because this is a rural economy and agriculture is the backbone here, so they have to be supported which is understandable, but when you come along with a different kind of product (I’m not making cheese, I’m not rearing animals) it’s difficult, but I don’t think it needs to be.
There have been periods of real self-doubt but, looking back at everything that has happened, most of the sound decisions I have made have been made with my gut. For instance, I’m so committed to our local Shrewsbury Farmers’ Market because, although it can be really tough, it’s also where we look after our regular customers who keep us going through the hard times. There was this one horrendous day, it might have been in winter — it was cold, raining, we had hardly any customers — I was standing there thinking, 'What am I doing with my life? Why am I here? Nobody wants this here.' You know? But a buyer came that day from a luxury retailer in London who just so happened to be in Shrewsbury because she was visiting her parents. It was completely by chance. Sometimes, what you think is a bad decision at the time turns out to be good one. And now I’m going to be working with them on a range of products. I could have woken up that morning and gone, 'I’m not going, it’s raining, I’m going to stay at home!' But if I had not gone to look after my regulars that day, then I would have missed that opportunity. Chance encounters like that remind me that you really have to put in the leg work. It’s that old saying: get up and show up. That kind of mentality. And that is what you have to do, it really does not come easily.
‘That is absolutely invaluable — testing the market thoroughly and rigorously, before you decide to scale up. It really is the foundation for any kind of resilient business.’
Moving the business from my home into a commercial premise was the best thing I have ever done for my mental health and productivity. As an entrepreneur, it's never easy to find a healthy work-life balance but the routine of going to work and coming home everyday has really helped me work towards that. And, of course it's nice when the kids come home to visit and I don't have to move 25kg sacks of nuts out of the way to let them into the house.
Our production unit is based within a converted Victorian tile factory, Maws Craft Centre. It’s beautiful. But, it brings its own challenges such as designing a food-manufacturing compliant space within the Ironbridge Gorge, a world heritage site. We also have weekly pallet deliveries of jars and nuts, but the narrow rural roads mean that we can't have articulated vehicles on site. Some careful planning was required to make sure that we have what we need to do our jobs. We have built up good relationships with our main suppliers who are sympathetic to our needs and send our orders through a smaller haulier. We also rely on couriers to collect our online orders daily for delivery. It’s things like that — the logistics and deliveries, the fulfilment of your orders — which can all be affected by your location. But at the same time, my overheads are likely much lower than someone in the city.
We are very proud to be the first food manufacturer located here. It suits us perfectly and it's an ideal location to hold my workshops. There is a wonderful whole foods cafe onsite and we are very lucky to be amongst an eclectic group of artists and craftspeople. I can honestly say I look forward to going to work every day.
We roast our nuts and seeds on site, which is a big part of what makes our products special. Roasting nuts at high temperatures for long periods of time changes the structure of the fats and makes them more prone to oxidation, which affects the quality of the end-product. It's better not to store pre-roasted nuts, so we have developed a tight production schedule of light roasting, cooling, and processing to preserve the quality and freshness of the nuts. It's labour intensive, but the flavour and texture of our butters are unlike anything you can find on the supermarket shelves.
We have a small retail space near the front for passing trade, and everyone from neighbours to international tourists can pop by to visit us. The rest of the workspace is divided into stores: a production kitchen that houses our roasting ovens and processing machinery, a packing room, and an office. The view from the office and production kitchen is a meadow on the banks of the River Severn, so I get a daily dose of eco-therapy that I never take for granted!
‘It’s that old saying: get up and show up. That kind of mentality. And that is what you have to do, it really does not come easily.’
Final advice for those planning to enter the food industry? Nurture your relationships. Retailers work with hundreds of small suppliers so they don’t have the time or resources to individually check up on your business. You must put the work in with them, ring them, ask them if they need anything, even pop in. What I’m finding at the moment is that a lot of the the newer delis and farmshops are going through a wholesaler now because it allows them to put one order in, to receive one invoice, and to get everything delivered at once. But, for smaller producers and manufacturers like us, our products are naturally more expensive because they are handmade and labour-intensive. It’s really tough, especially with Brexit hanging over us because people are spending less anyway, so we have to convince stockists to order directly from us — try to make it as easy as possible for them. Or, if you plan to work with wholesaler-distributors, you must factor this into your prices right from the offset because they are going to take a 30-40% margin, and the shop is already taking their 30-40% margin, so you must produce at-scale to make it work.
Also, be brave and be courteous. What I mean is, first, have an idea of where you want to be. When you launch a food business, there are two very different paths you can take: the first is to manufacture it yourself, the second is to outsource the manufacturing. The second option often results in a larger company, but I personally knew I didn’t want to go about my business in that way. Now, I often get asked, ‘Are you in Waitrose yet? Are you in Tesco yet?’ People always expect you to be chasing the big retailers. But, I know that I am where I want to be, growing at the pace that feels right for me, and I’m enjoying what we are doing everyday. And secondly, truly respect the ‘smaller pond’ nature of rural industries. It is scary and really hurtful when someone attempts to copy and sell your products to local retailers, when you have worked so hard to build up your business and market. If we were in London it would be fine, but the challenge of offering a niche product in a small town is that there isn’t a lot of room; if someone copies your products, either you both can do o.k. or one of you can do really well. So, I would say be respectful towards one another’s small businesses and know that many people are pedalling just to keep their head above water.
Lastly, I’m noticing that big food festivals have become saturated, while the cost to exhibit has become disproportionately high. Normally if you are exhibiting at an event, to make it truly profitable, you would want to take 10x the pitch fee; if you are being charged £400, you want to be able to make £4,000. That isn’t happening for a lot of people now. These food festivals are getting bigger, they are packing more stalls in, so people are spending less at each stall. If you read the emails going out to customers, they are selling the events as a ‘sampling event’ — bring a bag and fill it with all these free samples. It’s becoming a big issue in the food industry, and small businesses are starting to look for other ways to reach their customers directly.
Favourite way to start the day: Strong coffee!
Nature continually inspires me. My goal has always been to create amazing and complex flavours with as few ingredients as possible. We don’t like to mess with things too much. I want the ingredients to speak for themselves.
Greatest extravagance: Good food. It sounds a bit contrived but it really is. We don’t have much time off or go travelling unless it’s for work, but we enjoy spending a little bit more on good food — although we don’t really see this as an ‘extravagance’ because we don’t waste money on (I don’t want to stay ‘crap’, but you know…). To have a product that has been carefully sought out or grown, or handmade by somebody, has really opened my eyes; every single market I do, I have somebody there whom I buy from because I discovered their product and now I can’t use the one I was using before because I have tasted what it should taste like.
Zoe’s CARAMELISED PEACHES with ALMOND BUTTER
- Serves 2 -
2 ripe peaches
1 tbsp plant-based butter
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp Butterbelle Almond Butter
2 tbsp crushed pistachio nuts
Prepare the peaches by cutting each one in half and removing the stones.
Heat a heavy griddle or frying pan (I recommend Netherton Foundry pans, they are the best you can buy and are handmade here in Shropshire).
Melt the butter and sugar gently in the pan and add the peaches when it starts to bubble.
Cook for a few minutes on each side until caramelised, they will turn a lovely golden brown colour when they are ready. At this stage you can experiment with adding a few chopped fresh herbs, I have tried this with basil and it was lovely.
Transfer to serving bowls and top with the almond butter, crushed nuts, and a drizzle of agave nectar.
I like to serve this with an oat-based crème fraîche alternative.
“We love to eat this on summer days when we're camping. I think I've only ever eaten it outside. It just sings summer to me.”
Published on: 28 May 2019. Edited by Fields in Fields. All images courtesy of Zoe Harrison of Butterbelle; photography by Barry Phillips of The Artisan’s Storyteller. ▪ For handmade nut and seed butters, recipes, and workshops, visit butterbelle.co.uk.