The English Provender Company (EPC) has an established reputation as a quality, niche supplier, leaning to the speciality and fine food end of the grocery market. Its groundbreaking Very Lazy range of ingredients and dessert sauces has revolutionised life in the kitchen for busy consumers, with two products featured in the recently announced ‘Delia’s Cheats’ ingredients. Owned by Edward Billington & Son Ltd, EPC has a heritage as a manufacturer of traditionally made, premium condiments, chutneys, dressings and sweet and savoury sauces, both own-label and branded, but now, in its own words, it is moving up several gears and taking a new direction, following Billington’s recent acquisition of Chester-based pickle, mayo, sauces and dressings manufacturer Alembic Products Limited, which opens the door for further exciting developments. The Grocery Trader spoke to Mark Bosworth, Marketing Controller at The English Provender Company.
The Grocery Trader – First of all, Mark, when was English Provender founded, and who by? When did Billington buy it?
John Curwin, a former egg farmer, founded English Provender in the mid 1980s. It began as an artisanal business serving small high-end delis, with preserves and condiments presented with decorative hand-finished lids. In the mid 1990s EPC got into the major multiples: John Curwin was looking to expand, and agreed to sell the company to Billington as a means of developing the business.
The Grocery Trader – What happened after that?
The late 1990’s saw the rise of ‘hero’ own label, such as Tesco’s Finest and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. This transformed the business, with EPC providing both quality own label and EPC-branded products to the major multiples. Changes in the EU sugar market led to Billington selling its sugar business in 2005, and EPC now became its central food interest, which was strengthened in 2004 with EPC’s acquisition of Suffolk Foods, a mayonnaise and sauces maker which purely served the food manufacturing and foodservice sectors. So whereas EPC’s market had been purely retail, and its methods had been based on hot fill bottling, after being amalgamated with Suffolk Foods, EPC had a much broader client base and a wider array of production technologies to match. So although the retail side was still artisanal in approach, the company overall was working on a much bigger scale. We hung on to the notion of making condiments and so on much as people do at home, reducing them by evaporation, and not using modified starches.
GT – How does EPC fit into Billington’s strategy?
EPC is central to it. The Group’s strategy is to have strong food interests and EPC is a large part of it. Roughly half EPC’s turnover is retailer facing, and the balance is making mayonnaise and sauces for food manufacturing and major sandwich makers. It means we have a well-balanced business, although ultimately of course we always have to have the end consumer in mind.
GT – What does your (Mark) role as EPC Marketing Controller involve? What were you doing before?
I’m responsible for marketing the total entity. We have a brand manager for EPC, Rachel Talintyre, who concentrates on the retail brand. I’ve been with Billington for 20 years, starting in sugar, which was also strong in both retail and own label, perhaps explaining why we have proven successful in having own-label co-habiting with branded business.
GT – How do you report to Billington on marketing and general strategy?
Gary Blake, our MD, answers to Billington’s main board: EPC’s Divisional Chairman Mark Cashin is Billington’s Chief Executive, so there’s a strong thread. Edward Billington & Son Ltd is a private company, combining the best elements of family ownership with modern business methods and a fast moving, modern outlook. Hence we guarantee that English Provender keeps a strong sense of identity.
GT – When did Billington buy Alembic? What was the rationale?
Billington bought Alembic in November 2007. Alembic is a similar business to Suffolk Foods, making mayos and sauces for the food manufacturing and foodservice sector, and so the main benefit for Billington is the opportunity to increase scale However, the big difference is that Alembic also had a significant business in pouches and pots, which EPC didn’t previously offer. Alembic brings the Group a new array of packaging options, which will also be important for EPC, offering plenty of potential for developments under the EPC brand and own label.
GT – What does this acquisition mean to EPC and Alembic’s customers and consumers?
Alembic’s customers won’t have noticed any difference – the two companies had mutually exclusive customer bases. From an account management and production point of view, it’s business as usual, but those customers previously with Alembic will have wider access to EPC products. EPC will be able to look at packaging-led innovation, which we are really excited about as a means of developing our own ranges. We have done some integration such as coordinating the Commercial functions under our Commercial Director David Garland, and of course we are able to combine our raw materials needs in key areas such as oil, egg and vinegar.
GT – What impact will Billington buying Alembic have on this category?
Billington buying Alembic won’t impact immediately on the retail grocery offer – it’s primarily about building the critical mass of Billington’s food interests. The main attraction from the retail point of view is the new packaging opportunity. Most retail packs we do are glass; Alembic gives EPC the opportunity to offer products in plastic bottles, jars and sachets. We believe, for example, that there would be strong interest in our ability to offer dressings sachets to the prepared salads sector. But at the same time our products are all developed to work in glass – we don’t underestimate the challenge of ensuring they are also right for flexible packaging formats.
GT – How are the markets you’re in performing – condiments, chutneys, pickle, mayo, dressings and sweet and savoury sauces?
The dynamics vary: the condiments market is static, with a high proportion of own label; other areas, for example dressings, are growing 5% per annum, but sales are largely weather dependent. Our retail-facing ingredients are ‘Very Lazy’ – Garlic, Chillies, Ginger and Caramelised Red Onions, which are growing 9% in volume and value. EPC’s share as a supplier is quite substantial but difficult to calculate because of the complex combination of ‘best tier’ own label and branded. Typically we could be supplying 20-25% of a category, but only 1%-3% might be EPC-branded.
GT – How big is EPC in turnover? How fast is it growing?
EPC has a £30m turnover, up from £3m ten years ago. Before the Suffolk Foods acquisition in 2004, it was £12m, and from there it grew to £27-28m. We’re now £30m, and Alembic adds another £30m turnover to the Group’s food interests.
GT – How big is the English Provender brand?
The EPC brand is worth about £4m. People sometimes regard us as having two brands, with ‘Very Lazy’ effectively a separate brand. EPC’s demographics vary by product, with the consumers for the classic products of condiments and chutneys being predominantly ABC1s, aged 40+, while ‘Very Lazy’ appeals to a younger demographic, less skilled at cooking and less inclined to cook from scratch.
GT – I’m intrigued by the ‘Very Lazy’ proposition. Can you talk us through it?
The ‘Very Lazy’ range offers convenience without compromise. The core ingredients are Garlic, Ginger, Red Chillies and Caramelised Red Onions. These are all ‘short cut’ ingredients for savoury cooking. We also have a range of dessert sauces, Belgian Chocolate and Raspberry Coulis, plus two recently launched Fairtrade products, Chocolate Sauce and Coffee Sauce.
GT – Which of these are the Delia’s Cheats, and how are they doing?
Our ‘Very Lazy’ ‘Delia Cheats’ products are the Ginger, which is shredded in white wine vinegar, and Caramelised Red Onions. From our online sales the indications are that there is a huge spike in interest from featuring in the scheme.
GT – What sales uplift have you seen from the Delia Cheats?
Our EPOS data shows an increase of 5-10% in sales. If we were asked to take part in Cheat – the Sequel, we’d certainly be interested! For me, the fascinating thing is to see whether Delia succeeds in getting the ‘microwave meal re-heaters’ of this world to think differently about convenience. I think she’s been very astute as to how to pitch it, and it will help people to reassess their food values.
GT – Where are EPC’s products made?
All EPC products are made in Newbury, except our Hot Horseradish, which is packed local to the grower. EPC’s manufacturing moved from the original smallish scale to a large, 30,000 sq ft purpose-built facility in 2004.
GT – For this consumer at least, EPC’s charm was that in our mass-market era it came across as a smaller company using traditional techniques, with all the virtues that implied, and its products stood apart from the mass market. Is that still an accurate picture? Yes, it’s accurate – we’re keen for people to understand we are what we say we are! We’re unusual in using open pan preserving and not putting in modified starches and so on: in comparative tastes, you can tell the difference. In its previous incarnation the English Provender brand was fragmented across the categories: in 2005 we consolidated the range back to the essence of EPC and rationalised the range, with no ill effects. What’s made us successful is that we make our products differently, so it would be foolish to change it! For every person who wants cheaper food, there’s someone who wants traditional quality, which is what we’re committed to. If you tamper with a great product, people find out and walk away.
GT – In some quarters of the food industry, hand made products from small suppliers, delicatessens, farm shops and farmer’s markets are hailed as the good guys, while big brands and supermarkets are slated. What do you feel about that, and where does EPC as it is now fit in? If you’re a smaller brand, you can find all sorts of reasons for not doing business with the major multiples, but whether you like it or not, most people shop in them, so for us we simply have to go where the people are. All the big food retailers have worked hard to offer an array of choice and provide a combination of value; everyday; and ‘something special.’ No-one’s perfect, but the retailers are very serious about their own label products and pull us along, and in return we learn a lot from them in areas like technical standards, where we are always encouraged to go for the highest certifiable standards like BRC ‘A’ grade, plus vital additional consumer insight and so on.
GT – What are your biggest selling products?
Our biggest seller is Very Lazy Garlic, but the dressings are catching up fast.
GT – What new products are you looking at?
We’re at a crossroads in terms of our options – the success of the Delia Cheat products has alerted us to the possibility of rolling out broader-based products that go beyond our current range. The problem we had before the Delia Cheat phenomenon was to see how these products could be a shortcut: now people understand them, we’re looking at a number of products that go a stage further, and are nearer to a ready meal, but something that allows you to put something of yourself into.
GT – What organic and Fair Trade EPC-branded products do you offer? How important are organic and Fair Trade in your strategy?
We have organic lines in condiments, four organic chutneys and two recently launched dressings. I don’t want English Provender to become an exclusively organic brand but offering it certainly resonates with consumers. We have two dessert sauces, Coffee and Chocolate, which are Fairtrade, and it’s a different type of consumer benefit easily understood by shoppers. Fairtrade is an interesting area that we are watching carefully.
GT – Have you won any awards for product quality?
We’ve done very well in the Great Taste Awards, winning Gold in 2007 with Organic Wild Cranberry and in 2006 with Hot Horseradish and Hot Chilli Relish. Our Luxury Lemon Curd has also won numerous awards over the years.
GT – What quality accreditations do you have? What industry standards do you work to?
Our Newbury factory is accredited to BRC Grade ‘A’, our organic lines have Soil Association approval and our Fairtrade products are certified with the Fair Trade labelling Organisation International (FLO).
GT – What advertising and sampling are you carrying out?
Historically we were not of the size to do much above the line activity, with the exception of some consumer PR, but since 2005 we have invested significantly in advertising, where we deliver ‘summer’ campaigns around the dressings and ‘winter’ campaigns around condiments and chutneys focusing on food and women’s consumer titles, and we’re running consumer PR in the food magazines and national media. We’ve sampled – and sold – very effectively in the past at the BBC Good Food Show, but the Alembic packaging will open the door for EPC sachet sampling on a wider scale.
GT – If we do face an economic downturn, how do you see your products faring?
A lot of our products are ‘side of plate’ accompaniments to what are sometimes fairly bland foods, where people are reluctant to compromise on quality. They’re reasonably recession proof, and some are outstandingly good value. Our Organic Honey and Mustard salad dressing came top in a recent Sunday Times survey, beating much more expensive products.
GT – Where do you see English Provender and Alembic Products going from here? Are you planning any more acquisitions?
We’re always on the lookout – as part of Billington, we are financially secure but we’re conscious that, in a climate of consolidation, we must build critical mass. We’ve bought two strong operations with business-to-business propositions, but now I’d like to see us focus on our consumer branded business.
GT – Finally, where do you see English Provender going from here?
We have to keep pushing hard – the food world’s getting smaller, and as I say, we need to continue to build. We’ve got the fundamentals in place plus the backing and a strong sense of purpose, and we’re clear about where we can go. We’re already turning over £30m now on EPC, which could well double in the next three years.
The English Provender Company
Tel: 01635 528800