In the best possible taste -the Guild of Fine Food
Joël Lacey visits Gillingham’s Guild of Fine Food
Published in February ’14
Gillingham is perhaps not at first glance the most obvious candidate for the location of an organisation dedicated to fine food, and the home of internationally renowned food awards. There are, though, good reasons why the headquarters of the Guild of Fine Food is on an otherwise unassuming industrial estate on the Shaftesbury road.
Firstly there is the town’s rail link to London, the relatively low cost (in national terms) to site a building and for staff to live and work there, and then there is the fact that the organisation’s chairman, Bob Farrand, is a North Dorset native. ‘I grew up in Shaftesbury and discovered food in general – and cheese in particular, while working weekends and holidays in a high-class provisioners on the High Street,’ Bob recalls.
‘Mr Perrott ran the shop and treated me a little like a son, teaching me about good cheddar and proper ham which at the age of fourteen converted me. But as the eldest of five siblings my parents were not too keen on me building a career in Shaftesbury as a grocer and they persuaded me to go to London to earn a living. So, in 1966 – on the Monday after England had won the World Cup – I started my career in magazine publishing… with a world-class hangover.’
Bob’s interest in food was often reflected in the magazines on which he worked: ‘I spent time on Food Manufacture and on Catering magazine, but the turning point was the day a chap walked into my office with a copy of the magazine Fine Food Digest: “I’m going broke,” he told me, “the printers are after my bits so if you want the magazine, it’s yours if you pay off the printer.” I relaunched the magazine in 1987 and we still publish it today, although for the first ten years, it was a struggle as there really wasn’t much interest in fine food in those days.’
The World Cheese Awards followed in 1988. An exhibition organiser Bob knew was launching a speciality food exhibition at Wembley and asked him to create a feature for the show. ‘I’d been to the Nantwich Cheese Show,’ Bob remembers, ‘which was cheese heaven, but I couldn’t understand why visitors were not allowed to taste the cheese on show…, so the World Cheese Awards was born and, to this day, visitors can taste cheeses from all over the world once the judging has finished.’
More substantial organisation was yet to come, though: ‘1994 was probably our watershed year,’ Bob recalls. ‘I conducted some research, which compared the number of independent delis in the UK with the total from a previous survey conducted in 1988. It showed that if shop closures continued at the 1988-1994 rate, the last independent deli in Britain would close in the year 2000. If the delis closed, farmers and producers would have no outlets for their food. The supermarkets would have won.’
Bob contacted top retailers and specialist food producers. ‘I pleaded for funding sufficient to set up the Guild of Fine Food, in order to protect deli owners and fine food producers. Eight believed in me enough to stump up three grand apiece and I made the commitment that within 18 months the Guild would be financially self-supporting. It has been ever since.
‘I moved back to Dorset in 1995. I looked at a house in Buckhorn Weston which was nothing like what we’d set our heart on buying but,’ Bob recalls, ‘I took one look through the sitting room window across the Blackmore Vale and my mind was made up. We’ve lived there ever since.
‘Linda [Bob’s wife] and I ran the business from our spare bedroom at home and it just somehow took off. We soon needed staff so we rented a tiny cottage in Buckhorn Weston as offices. Linda had previously been a teacher so together we developed retail cheese and charcuterie training courses and applied for NVQ accreditation. Linda sailed through the assessment day, but the assessors were not entirely sure about my more relaxed delivery style. In the last 20 years,’ he states proudly, ‘we’ve trained over 20,000 people’.
‘It would be lovely to claim we had a vision of how it was all going to develop, but we didn’t; it just happened. We bought our first offices in Gillingham in 2000, a converted cottage tucked around the back of the old Royal Hotel and we thought: “That’ll do us until we retire,” but we soon outgrew it. We bought much larger offices in Wincanton, thought: “Well, that’ll see us through to retirement…,” yet here we are, in even newer, larger offices, back in Gillingham.’
Two tragic events, which were completely outside Bob’s control, unwittingly helped the business grow: the BSE crisis in 1995 created greater awareness that the growth of mass-produced food since the end of World War 2 had not necessarily been a good thing and, less than a decade later, Foot & Mouth struck and millions more consumers suddenly wanted to know where their food came from and how it was produced.
Bob believes DEFRA’s Foot and Mouth Recovery programme was a key turning point: ‘it funded almost 2000 new farm shops which offered a genuine life-line to small food producers. The Guild’s success has mirrored this growing interest in good food.
‘Many people believe that small food producers live in the lap of luxury, eating smoked salmon and caviar every day,’ says Bob, ‘but most are in it as a lifestyle choice; they don’t make much money. Most wake up one morning to the realisation they are sick and tired of life as a health-worker or an accountant; they undergo a life change and open a deli. Sadly many fail within two years, which is why the Guild developed its retail training programmes alongside the Great Taste Awards. Training helps retailers compete against supermarkets and Great Taste helps producers compete against big brands sold in the supermarkets.’
Bob’s son, John, has now taken over as MD of the Guild of Fine Food. He and his wife Tortie joined the business ten years ago after the small business John was working with was bought out by a large multinational and it’s clear his philosophy and enthusiasm match Bob’s: ‘Everything we do,’ John says, ‘is concerned with fine food, independent retailers and producers; our publications are about food, our training is about food, our exhibitions and awards are about food.’
The company’s biggest growth area is the Great Taste Awards and, as John reveals, ‘is the reason why we moved back to Gillingham. Judging 10,000 foods each year is a monster task. Last year it took fifty days of judging and 450 judges and the logistics of receiving, storing and cooking and serving all the entries was too much for the previous building.’
John is also keen to point out that despite the huge event Great Taste has become: ‘The day job is more about publishing magazines, staging food exhibitions and delivering training, so it became a major distraction when Great Taste grew so big. One of the new building’s benefits,’ says John, ‘is that we can fit eight judging tables in per session – in our last building we could manage only four, five at a pinch.‘
When not used for judging, the downstairs conference room, large communal room and service kitchen are used for training: ‘In early spring and autumn we run our cheese and charcuterie product-knowledge training days along with “Retail Ready” – a course for new deli owners. To my mind,’ John explains, ‘a deli or a farm shop needs a foodie halo; customers mostly go into a deli because they expect the staff to know what they’re talking about. We give our course delegates the knowledge and confidence to return to their shop and deliver a shopping experience customers never find in supermarkets.’
The Guild’s membership has held steady through the recession (which is in marked contrast to the retail sector generally), so John is confident about the future: ‘I believe the number of consumers concerned about where food comes from and who makes it grows every day. Food scares like last year’s horsemeat scandal are good news for delis, farmshops and proper butchers. Anecdotally, the weekend after the scandal broke, farm shops and butchers reported up to a forty per cent increase in sales.’
John and Bob know that the small delis, farm shops and producers can never seriously challenge the giant supermarkets, but they’re convinced that their training courses, magazines, exhibitions and awards made sure that last deli didn’t close in the year 2000. ◗