Ep 15: Cultivating food and drink innovation in the West Country

Been brewing an idea for something yummy, but not known how to take it forth into the world? Learn about food and drink innovation centre Food WorksSW and how it's helping companies and start-ups take their business to the next level.

Cultivating food and drink innovation in the West Country

Introduction to our interviewees

In episode 15 of the We are Super Weston podcast, we chat to Becky Hale, who works in the marketing and facilities management of The Food WorksSW, a state-of-the-art food and drink innovation centre located within the Weston-super-Mare Enterprise Area in North Somerset, 10 minutes from the M5 motorway. The multi-million pound centre opened in April 2020 and is operated by food industry specialists, The Food and Drink Forum, on behalf of North Somerset Council.  It’s the only centre of its kind in the South West.

From nurturing food and drink manufacturers at the very start of their journey, to providing more established businesses with the technical know-how to innovate and grow, the facility provides the food and drink sector with all the right ingredients to succeed.

The Food WorksSW was developed by North Somerset Council following feedback from food and drink businesses on the type of facilities and support that previously wasn’t available or easily accessible to them anywhere in the region. The centre helps food and drink producers to grow their business, create jobs and promotes the area for excellence in the food and drink sector.

Businesses can get support from an on-site technical team to assist with product development, reformulation, processing, SALSA and advice. Five product development kitchens are kitted out with some of the latest dairy, bakery, drinks and commercial scale equipment so producers can try out new product ideas or test what it would be like to scale-up their production.

As well as offering food-grade business units and development kitchens, plus hands-on food technical and specialist business support, sector-based training and networking, the centre also has conference and meeting rooms available to hire, a free-to-use business lounge area for co-working and a coffee shop with free secure wifi. Drop-in and work from your laptop or use for informal meetings. 

We also speak to Alli Briaris, the producer and owner of non-alcoholic drinks brand, Drinks Kitchen, which she launched in June 2021, thanks to the help and facilities available at Food WorksSW. Rather than rent a permanent unit, Alli uses the development kitchens and hires them by the day.

Alli Briaris

Tell us about Food WorksSW

Becky Hale: Food WorksSW aims to support creativity – whether that be start-ups that are creating a new product, or established companies that are growing their business and being innovative with the products they already have. 

We’re innovative because of our onsite facilities – we have five development kitchens that we can hire out on a short-term basis for food and drink businesses. Businesses can come in and make their product and all the different kitchens have different purposes and different equipment, so whatever your product, you should fit into one of the kitchens somewhere.

Food WorksSW Weston-super-Mare
Food Works SW, Weston-super-Mare BS24 8EF

Alli Briaris: Food WorksSW has a dairy/drinks kitchen that has a huge tank where you can pasteurise products, that is absolutely perfect for my needs. If I was to buy that myself, it would cost hundreds, or thousands of pounds, which as a start-up, you’re not going to have.

Food WorksSW is an amazing place for people like me that have a great idea, but don’t have the facilities to be able to make the product in your kitchen in any kind of quantity. It’s great if you need to scale things up – I’m not talking major production lines – but for hundreds of litres or 1,000 litres, that’s something you need a proper facility for, and the Food WorksSW gives you that.

There’s a huge growing trend in people giving up alcohol and not knowing what else to drink. I have always worked in drinks, I started in the wine business, and I did that for 10 years. Before starting Drinks Kitchen, I was head of new product development and marketing for a big drinks company. Starting in the wine business probably meant that I developed what I thought was an unhealthy drinking habit. I kind of felt that opening wine every evening was fine, but actually, in the last few years, it wasn’t good for my mental or physical health. 

So I started Drinks Kitchen because of my need, but my background meant I also knew there were great ingredients out there that you could make great drinks with, that weren’t alcoholic. When I gave up alcohol, I felt that I wanted something that wasn’t too sweet, that was complex, that wasn’t like a soft drink. If you’ve been a drinker for a long time, you develop that taste, and you want something that feels like a really good alternative, but also isn’t trying to copy. 

So the kind of drinks I make, I call them an aperitif. They’re basically a concentrate made from botanical distillers and extracts, but you can just add some sparkling water and you’re having a spritz. 

The one I love best is really bitter, so probably more similar to a Campari or something like that. For me, it means that when I have it in the evening, I don’t feel like I’m missing out and I think that’s really important. 

All of my range have different flavours – one is fresher, one is a bit sweeter, one is kind of spicy. Hopefully it gives people a really good alternative, that is still a treat – the idea of ‘it’s time for me to relax, it’s time to chill out, I deserve something’. That’s what I’ve tried to fill a hole for.

Kitchens at Food WorksSW Weston-super-Mare
Kitchens at Food WorksSW

If Food WorksSW didn’t exist, what would you have done?

I wouldn’t have launched. 2020 became a bit of a year of reflection and change for me. I left my job, because I was living away from home in Nottingham. I gave up alcohol because I knew that I had to make a change. The Food WorksSW opened and I just happened to see it pop into my Instagram feed. I went to see it in September 2020, and thought I could make my own drinks here. 

If you’re starting your own business, and you’ve not done something like that before, and not worked in a start-up before, it does feel like an enormous task. Where do you start when you’re doing everything on your own? When you haven’t got a function? It feels impossible and too hard, but it kind of didn’t feel like that and I’m really thankful for everything that they have given me. Two years on, I am still here.

Alli Briaris, Drinks Kitchen bottles, Food WorksSW
Alli Briaris, Drinks Kitchen bottles, Food WorksSW

Becky, have you heard this kind of story before?

Yes, absolutely. as Alli said, we only opened in April 2020, so we’re new as well. We’re seeing new businesses coming to our centre, and we’re growing while they’re growing. It’s nice to work with these businesses, and if they have their product, and we haven’t got quite the right piece of kit, or they need something else, we’re happy to work with them and try and get the piece of equipment, or hire it for a short period of time. We just want to make it work for these businesses. 

We’ve had some great businesses come through, some lovely success stories. A local lady called Denise, who runs Taylor’s of North Somerset, makes lovely jams and preserves. similar to Alli, she wasn’t working in the industry, she didn’t have a business to start with. She came in and said, “I’ve been making these jams in lockdown, people really love them and I think I want to make something of it. I’m a bit fed up with my job at the moment, I want to do something new”. And that’s exactly what she did.

She came here to use one of our kitchens, and she grew it from there. She started exploring and approaching small farm shops around here and just grew and grew, so she used our kitchens permanently for about three or four months while she was in the process of building her own kitchen, which is based at Uncle Paul’s Chilli Farm – a charity just outside of Weston, and now she does that full time and she’s absolutely loving it. 

It’s been really nice to see her journey, we still see her when she needs a bit of advice, and help her where she needs it. 

I think there’s a great network in Weston – we’re surrounded by such good quality produce in the South West, we are in the best part of the country for produce. So you’re never far away from amazing experts, and amazing companies that you could go and just talk to and ask for advice. 

The Food Works SW
Food WorksSW Business Lounge

Alli: When I launched, I knew that I wanted to have a website – you’ve got to have people find you. I knew I wanted to sell to the trade, but again, you’ve got to get to the trade. I heard about eat: Festivals, and that was one of the first things that I did in the first month of launching. I was totally green and had not ever done that kind of thing before – I had to buy a gazebo and build a counter, but I do think I can make things look really nice and those guys do a fabulous job of putting on incredible festivals in and around the South West. I sell my products at pretty much all of them and it’s given me the opportunity to engage with local customers, let them try my drinks and buy. 

It’s also helped me make friends with loads of other makers. You connect with people, you connect with experts, you can ask questions of other people.

There’s so many questions when you start your own business. Yesterday, I went to a free event organised in Bristol by Josh Egerton, who runs The Pony Chew Valley and restaurants in Bristol. For people like me to show local restaurants what we make, I think the South West is an incredible community. There’s some amazing people out there doing some great stuff in our area. I feel so lucky that I’ve started a business where there’s such great facilities and such great people.

Kitchens at Food WorksSW Weston-super-Mare
Kitchens at Food WorksSW Weston-super-Mare

I imagine you get bars and restaurants interested, and then you suddenly get snapped up by Sainsbury’s and Waitrose or something. Is that the dream? 

That’s the dream. I do a free NatWest Accelerator that’s in Bristol – another free thing, and it’s to help you scale your business. I was talking with my coach Jason, and he was asking me about my purpose. Because of my own issues – I felt I drank too much ,and had a friend that was the same, and sadly, she lost her life – I think there’s a lot of problems with people drinking too much alcohol. I think the purpose for my brand is to help make it really cool to not drink socially, and with friends, and to relax. I feel that’s a really important purpose. However I can engage people in the UK and around the world with that idea, with making those changes gradually, I want to do it. I want to do some good.

I am not anti-alcohol at all, but I do think that it is too ingrained in our culture and our way of doing things. I do believe that it would be really encouraging, that if you go into a pub, there are at least 30%, non-alcoholic drinks that are interesting and exciting. 

You can have a premium product, and a lovely tasting product. If you’re only going to put some water, orange juice or Coca Cola on your menu, then that’s what people are going to choose. But if you make it super exciting, then hopefully they’ll choose that too. 

Drinks Kitchen non-alcoholic aperitif
Drinks Kitchen selection

If someone’s reading or listening to this and thinking they could turn something into a product, and wanted to come along and have a chat with you, what would be your inspiring words for people who wanted to get involved?

Just come and have a chat, you can walk in, you can phone up, we’re a really small team. There’s only five of us here at the moment, we all know exactly what’s going on onsite. 

We have a business lounge onsite, so it’s not just for food and drink businesses – if you work from home at the moment and you want to get out of your house, or need to meet colleagues, you can come and use the lounge. We’ve got the business lounge and the meeting rooms, so it’s a nice open space for everyone to to use and just feel comfortable.

Business Lounge at Food Works SW
Food WorksSW Business Lounge

Let’s talk about Weston-super-Mare. Any interesting facts about Weston that people may or may not know?

Apparently, President Eisenhower stayed the night in a caravan in Western Woods – my favourite place. That’s a pretty big thing – a US president staying here, and I love the fact that it was in a caravan in 1944!

There is actually a plaque for this, on the wall by the water tower. 

Favourite places to eat in Weston?

Becky: I really like Bare Grills Smokehouse. I’ve always enjoyed going there. I think it’s always a nice atmosphere in there and they play nice country music so you really feel like you’re getting the full package. 

Alli: I love Papa’s, fish and chips. I live along the road from Papa’s and I just think they are great people there. I love sitting in there as well – I love a classic fish and chip shop. I love Michelangelo’s – they do really great Italian food. If you sit outside on a lovely day, the sunset view is just tremendous. I also think The Thatched Cottage, since they created that outside space with the little burners. It’s a really lovely place to people watch. It’s such an old building.

The Old Thatched Cottage, Weston
Bare Grills, Weston-super-Mare

Favourite place for coffee in Weston?

Becky: I will always pick an independent over a Costa or Starbucks. I like Dr Fox’s Tearoom because you can look straight over the beach and it’s lovely on Knightstone Island. You feel it’s a bit of a secret unless you know it’s right down the end there. Or Uphill Wharf – the cafe down at Uphill is really lovely. You can take a nice walk along there. 

Alli: I like The Green House – that’s just along the road from me, and they do really good coffee and amazing brunch. So if you haven’t tried that, I recommend it.

Knightstone island
Knightstone Island

Where do you like to go and shop in Weston?

Becky: So bit of a different one for me – Somerset Wood Recycling. We had our dining table made there and they’re so friendly in there. To go into that workshop and see what wonderful things have been created… they’ve always got something different in there. What they do there is really good.

Alli: I like Christopher’s House of Chocolates, on Meadow Street. I’m a bit of a chocolate fiend. They are super-friendly and a great place to go to get gifts. I also like Waitrose, I know that’s a chain, but you’ll find me there a lot shopping for food.

Christopher's House of Chocolates
Christopher's House of Chocolates

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