When my wife Anna and I bought Blackden Hall, a historic Grade II listed building in Goostrey, in the heart of the beautiful Cheshire countryside, in the spring of 2010, we intended to live the “good life”, grow our own vegetables and raise one or two of our own livestock to eat.
Following an unexpected heart attack in September 2010, howver, Anna and I reassessed our priorities and decided that, along with our 19 year old son Richard, we’d like to breed and raise free range, rare breed pigs and then create a business that produced delicious, authentic food from the pigs. Good food has always been a passion for us and so have animals: our business, Pig & Co. is the fulfilment of this dream.
Admittedly, it was rather a dramatic change of career for me at the age of fifty. I previously owned an advertising agency and Anna is still a management consultant. So many of our family and friends thought we had gone completely mad. Actually, we thought we were doing the first sane thing we’d done for a long time.
With our backgrounds the marketing and sales side of the business wasn’t something new, but the breeding of pigs, the animal husbandry and the butchery certainly was.
On the pig front, we started by visiting a few county shows and talked to the people showing pigs. We decided on Large Blacks to start, as they are very docile and a good first pig. Also, they are the rarest of rare breeds, so we felt as though we were doing something to help a breed in need.
We started small and now are building our herd of rare breed, free range pigs. Because it is difficult to create a commercially viable herd of just Large Blacks quickly, as there is a very limited genetic pool and therefore blood line, we now also have other rare breeds including Large White, Saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot.
Animal welfare was, and is, vitally important to us. All our pigs do what pigs are supposed to. They are bred outside, born outside and live outside all their life: they are properly free range. We pride ourselves on having very happy pigs.
We’ve been very lucky to have the advice and help of several people in the pig community, all of whom are very helpful. But despite loving our pigs, we decided from that start that Pig & Co. was, at its heart, a top quality food business.
To ensure we delivered the taste and flavour we wanted, we decided to butcher all our own meat and make all of our own products. To help with this, we retained the services of a semi-retired master butcher who has been training our son Richard to be the Pig & Co butcher. We have spent a lot of time researching and testing recipes for our sausages and so far have over 15 gourmet sausages in the Pig & Co range.
All our sausages contain at least 90% pork (and not just the cheap cuts as we sausage the whole pig), natural skins and natural ingredients and they are all hand made. Our sausage range includes Blackden Moles (chilli, chocolate and lime), Lucanians (almonds and cumin) and Blackden Blacksticks (Blacksticks blue cheese).
To finance the business initially, we organised a 3 year loan from our bank, HSBC. It may be the fashion to knock bankers, but they have been very helpful so far. We also invested a significant amount of our own money: the set up costs for all the animal feeding, fencing and housing, plus the costs of setting up the butchery in-house was well over £50,000.
Some of the more challenging initial issues were around the bureaucracy and regulations of an animal and food business. On the whole, I have no problem at all with the regulations and, as with animal welfare, we far exceed the hygiene and environmental health requirements. Twenty years of marketing have taught me it generally isn’t good business to make your customers ill, so we see good food hygiene as good business. It’s just the sheer volume of registrations, regulations and red tape which took us a long time to get through.
Our business has three main routes to market – farmers’ markets, the internet and trade sales to high end restaurants, hotels and gastro pubs.
Getting onto high quality farmers’ markets has proven very difficult. Many operate what feels close to a “closed shop”, taking the attitude “we already have a sausage company” so we can’t get on. Even though our products are completely different from what we have seen at these markets, this “exclusivity approach” seems to be completely contrary to the attitude of free trade and competition which you would find in fresh food markets on the continent. At their huge and fantastic local food markets, every supplier is welcome and it’s left to the customer to decide which products are best. And if yours aren’t the best quality and value, then you won’t be coming back, because you aren’t taking any money.
But we are now approaching the show season and we have quite a few bookings at county shows and farmers’ markets. The revenue has not been great so far as it is still very early days but it is a fantastic opportunity to meet people, get our name out there and get our product sampled. Over 90% of people who try our product at a farmers’ market buy it.
Selling over the internet has presented a different set of challenges. Firstly, you can’t sample the product. Secondly, there are the logistics of getting the product to our customers still chilled and fresh. And finally, there is the investment in time and money required to get a good website up and running.
We also use social medial heavily, as we believe there is no better advertising than “word of mouth”. We are on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These channels really offer us the opportunity to let the customer experience what Pig & Co is all about and instead of relying on some arbitrary “quality standard”, actually see for themselves how we treat our pigs and how we produce our products. There is a lot of misleading marketing in the food industry, not least in pork, with “British” meaning it might have come from anywhere in the EU and “outdoor reared” meaning the pig may have spent a few weeks outside at some point before it is fattened in a shed and slaughtered early. By engaging with customers and telling the story of how we rear our pigs we are able to showcase out strengths. It means a much lower profit, but a clear conscience and good night’s sleep.
Our strategy for the business is to live up to the name Pig & Co. On the “Pig” side, we are growing our pork product range all the time and will soon be offering home smoked products along with cured and air dried products such as salami and chorizo. On the “& Co” side of the business, we are planning to expand our online shop to sell “all things piggy” – including food that goes with pork such as the homemade jellies and chutneys we already sell, piggy pottery, linen, toys, books and anything else pig related.
We now have ten breeding sows and up to 100 live pigs at any one time. Our farmers’ market business is growing nicely and our internet business is beginning to grow. We haven’t really pushed or advertised it so far as we wanted to get the background logistics working. It’s pointless (and costly) to drive customers to a web site that doesn’t work properly or a business which can’t deliver. A career in advertising has taught me to under promise and over deliver. Our trade business of high quality pork cuts to high end restaurants is also starting to pick up as chefs realise that free range, rare breed pork has a very special taste.
It’s been a hard and rocky road, and a very costly one so far. But the pigs and the feedback from customers are making it all worthwhile. I’m not really sure I’m in a position yet to give advice to anyone thinking of doing something similar – but all I would say is:
The only person who can really stop you doing what you want is you.
If you don’t know something, then ask someone who does.
And get pigs. They’re great.
Pig and Co: www.pigandco.com
Follow Julian on Twitter: @pigandco