Ten years ago Scotland's foodie sector was in its infancy.
Today, more and more people care about local produce, food miles and the provenance of their produce. Even with the economy in the deep freeze, the Scottish food scene is poised for growth. Here’s why.
THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
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Scotland has never seen anything like it and although it may be born in the USA you can’t get more local than Whole Foods Market (WFM). The pioneering natural and organic food store opens the doors of its first UK shop outside London in Giffnock, East Renfrewshire, on Wednesday.
Over the past 18 months, the buying teams of the Texas chain, which has five stores in London, have been sourcing artisan food from small and medium-sized Scottish producers.
The resulting list of 400 (and counting) Scottish suppliers is enough to make you feel you’re embarking on a foodie tour of the country.
There will be up to 40 Scottish artisan cheeses in the supermarket-sized store; four specially grown Scottish heritage potato varieties, and seasonal root vegetables sold loose rather than packaged; locally made ice creams from Thorntonhall; all-Scottish eggs, beef, lamb and chicken; handmade butter from Strathaven; a wet fish counter selling razor clams and monkfish from Ayrshire, blueshell mussels from Shetland, oysters from Cumbrae and hand-dived scallops from Mull; and even a bespoke Giffnock blend of coffee, flame-roasted the traditional way by the long-established company Thomsons of Giffnock. All bread and ready-made take-home dishes will be made daily from scratch in the in-store kitchens.
While not exclusively organic, everything stocked will have passed WFM’s stringent criterion of “clean”, that is, produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics, artificial colourings or flavourings, hydrogenated fats and msg. Smoked products don’t contain nitrates. It won’t stock foie gras, or tins that are soldered with lead.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SCOTS SUPPLIERS?
David Doctorow, the evangelistic WFM vice president, and his colleagues possess an impressive knowledge of the Scottish food scene. All speak of the importance of sourcing locally, supporting artisan producers and keeping traditional production methods alive. Native Angus, Galloway and shorthorn cattle, for example, are the best eating breeds there are. Doctorow enthuses about how their beef range will run from ribeye to chuck, shin, skirt, flank, onglet and bavette. There will be a dry-ageing cabinet in store.
Pigs will all be reared outdoors, with heirloom breeds possibly introduced at a later date.
“We aim to be a showcase for brilliant Scottish farming,” says Doctorow.
Ed Belschner, fresh produce co-ordinator, is equally enthusiastic. He commissioned Scottish potato merchant Albert Bartlett to grow Red Duke of York, Arran Victory, Belle de Fontenay and La Ratte exclusively for WFM. Scottish-grown kale, cavolo nero, turnips and onions – surprisingly rare – are in the pipeline.
Belschner says he gets “goosebumps” just thinking about Scottish mushrooms: “We celebrate fresh food, and we have the greatest number of artisan quality specialists all together in one store. We’ve done a lot of learning about the Scottish market and will learn from the Scottish market.”
The market for healthy food and drink products is estimated to be worth £20 billion in the UK and more than £300bn globally, so the rewards for Scottish suppliers getting it right are high.
Around 80% of Scottish food and drink companies employ less than 10 people, and James Withers, the new CEO of Scotland Food and Drink, says this means the country has plenty of potential for growth: “Food is the business to be in. As we strive towards carbon-neutral food production, Scotland is ahead of the pack. Even with the current economic climate and EU policy on farming and fisheries, it’s not a matter of whether Scotland grows, but how fast.”
IS SCOTLAND READY?
The arrival of WFM will have the dual effect of consolidating and challenging the Scottish food scene, even if eyebrows have been raised in some quarters by its decision to come to Glasgow for its first non-London store. Doctorow is certain they’ve chosen the right city: “The reception we’ve had in Scotland has been amazing. It’s like we have been pre-embraced. We’re doing something nobody else is doing.”
He hopes people will travel from across the central belt to the store which calls itself a “food destination” rather than a supermarket. It could transform the way we think about food – in terms of sourcing it is probably closest to Borough Market, the upmarket artisan outlet in London.
IS THE PRICE TOO HIGH FOR QUALITY FOOD?
In the current economic downturn, price remains one of the most pressing issues for many when it comes to buying food. At WFM, a litre of Scottish organic milk will cost 99p, and a fresh, free-range Norfolk chicken £5.09 per kilo (similar to M&S, and around £4.58 at Tesco). Prices do go higher. Doctorow says that, while WFM will offer regular “deep discounts” of up to 60% on various items, supermarkets’ cost-cutting is creating unrealistic expectations and economic imbalances.
“The value-for-money push [pursued by the multiples] goes in place of traditional small artisan food production,” he says. Such sentiments echo the original ethos of farmers markets, where prices for fresh local produce were higher than they were at most supermarkets for the simple reason that they reflected the true cost of producing it.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ANIMAL WELFARE?
WFM has a five-step animal welfare rating standard. All animals must be allowed to express ‘instinctual behaviour’ without, for instance, the use of pens or tail docking. Even a rating of one is better than any established scheme and more worthwhile than “farm assured”. No meat on sale at the company’s upscale flagship store in High Street Kensington has yet won a five rating, and Hugh Grierson’s Perthshire free-range chicken could yet become WFM’s first five rating in the entire meat section. The store is also in the process of having Scottish fisheries rated. This focus on animal welfare can only help put pressure on suppliers and shops to take it more seriously.
WHAT’S THE FUTURE FOR FARMERS MARKETS?
A survey of 12 products on sale at 12 Scottish farmers markets, conducted last year by the Scottish Agricultural College, revealed that half the items (free-range eggs, individual cup-cakes, pork sausages, lamb mince, Highland sirloin steak and chutney) were more expensive at farmers markets than elsewhere. But while most shoppers surveyed acknowledged that produce bought from farmers markets is generally more expensive, they felt the quality was better, and they are the opposite of the sterile, impersonal ambience of the supermarket.
The rise of farmers markets in Scotland has now levelled out to around 80, run by a core of 50 producers. While there’s no doubt the sector remains extremely strong, with demand and support still growing, the focus has now switched to constraints on the supply side. Research, backed by the Scottish Government, is under way to help expand farmers markets. “Consumers are looking for more choice,” says Douglas Watson, development officer of the Scottish Farmers Markets Partnership. “At the same time, there are constraints. Fewer farmers are coming forward because they are getting better wholesale prices for livestock than they were 13 years ago, so the financial imperative has gone.”
Farmers getting better margins by selling their animals wholesale means more meat is going to supermarkets and restaurants than to local markets.
A new wave of smallholders is running the stalls, which are a convenient way of selling their pigs, chickens and eggs. Meanwhile, regional food grouping is gaining momentum. Producers in areas with distinctive food identities – Perth and Kinross, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife – are finding it more economical to sell to farmers markets, farm shops and local delis.
Watson says Scotland has more small food producers than ever before and, if they are being courted by the multiples, it’s thanks to the farmers market movement. “Farmers markets have played a significant development role in new business start-ups and have allowed lots of businesses to grow,” he says. “Tony Stone of Stoats Porridge Bars started out this way, and now has a staff of seven and a huge business. Farmers markets gave him a window of opportunity. If you create a demand someone will fill it – like Waitrose or WFM. We have to find a way to hang on to our customers. That’s why we’re looking at how to improve the market experience for them – better choice, more access.”
HOW SHOPPING IS CHANGING
The economic freeze has spawned a new style of food shopping, says Pauline Bell, researcher in consumer behaviour at Glasgow Caledonian University, and co-author of a study of the habits of Scottish farmers markets’ consumers. It’s called “rocketing” and means that even wealthy consumers are choosing the cheaper options at one end of the scale, and the more expensive items at the other. “It’s quite common for shoppers to say Aldi and Waitrose in the same sentence now,” she says. “We use both very expensive and very cheap brands simultaneously. The two are difficult to disentangle.”
Bell also speaks of the “silent” boycotting of conventional supermarkets by those who can afford to spend their money elsewhere. “The top three reasons for attending a farmers market are quality of produce, to support the local economy and provenance,” she says. “There’s evidence that people are changing in their attitude towards food shopping.”
Scotland Food and Drink chief Withers says: “While spending power is being reduced in the current economic gloom, support for local producers is growing.
“Eating in is very much the new eating out. The start of the recession in 2009 was a really tough year, yet food manufacturing was up 9% and turnover up 6%. Food and drink are standing out. By the end of 2009 growth had reached £11.9bn, and now we can predict that our £12.5bn target will be reached well before 2017.”
And it’s not all export. “Domestic food retail sales have increased by 30%, which is fantastic. While there’s always room for improvement, there’s been a real explosion in the food and drink industry.”
HOW CAN SCOTLAND’S HEALTH RECORD BE IMPROVED?
The great irony is that, while Scotland has one of the world’s most healthy and nutritious natural larders on its doorstep, it also has one of Europe’s worst health records. A recent British Heart Foundation study found that death rates for heart disease, stroke and cancer are significantly higher in Scotland than England and that thousands of fatal illnesses could be avoided if Scots adopted the diet of their English neighbours. Heart disease, stroke and cancer are associated with a poor diet high in saturated fats and salt, and low in fibre, fruits and vegetables, and the Scottish Government has spent £40 million in the past three years targeting obesity, poor diet and promoting physical exercise.
In addition, the Food & Health Innovation Service has helped almost 30 Scottish companies develop food products with reduced fat, sugar and salt, and exploit naturally healthy food and drink products.
Withers says: “The trick is to create a balance between food and lifestyle. We’ve missed a generation in terms of education but now, having started again, we can catch the next generation of consumers. This week it was announced that strawberries and raspberries, grown in vast quantities in Scotland, have now overtaken apples and bananas as the UK’s best-selling fruit.
“There is an unbelievable level of innovation in the Scottish food industry. Thomas Thomson of Blairgowrie has developed a healthy Red Bull packed with berries, the first time I’ve seen that level of innovation in a lifetime. There’s been a complete renaissance of people’s interest in food.”
WHERE DO THE MAJOR SUPERMARKETS FIT IN?
The big chains have swooped on the growing interest in local produce, even if that means sugar-laden pastries. Asda, with 51 stores in Scotland, has become the first to launch a dedicated Scottish-own label range, Chosen By You, produced after feedback from customers. It includes a plain white loaf, pineapple tarts, empire biscuits, iced ginger squares and strawberry tarts, all by Mathiesons Foods of Larbert, and Scotch pies, macaroni pies, mince rounds and steak pies by Swords of Cumbernauld. These items were chosen following a series of customer blind-tasting panels.
“The Scottish market is incredibly important because it’s the fastest-growing category,” says CJ Antal-Smith, head of local buying at Asda. “In Scotland, local is very regional. Scottish people want Scottish produce. We used to send something very English like toad in the hole right across the entire group instead of localising it. Scottish people don’t like their steak pies to have pastry around them – they prefer puff pastry on top, the same with mince pies.”
Asda in Scotland has seen 18% growth year on year in Scottish products. It now sells 6000 plain loaves and 40,000 empire biscuits every week.
Antal-Smith says: “We started with the bakery goods because it’s the most distinctively Scottish, but we are planning to introduce new lines every two months. Coming up are haggis, shepherd’s pie, Lorne sausage, black pudding, Scotch broth, lentil and cockaleekie soups.” Its supplier of rapeseed oil, Mackintosh of Glendaveny, is to produce a range of oatcakes using the oil.
“We’ve got the best local range. Local is more and more important in this economic climate, not just in Scotland. People want to know they’re helping local producers.”
ARE DELIS FINISHED?
So where does this leave the beleaguered small independent deli, the recent champion of the local producer? With competition from the supermarkets, the big Waitrose stores in Glasgow and Edinburgh (the chain plans another 16 across the country in the next five years), farm shops and farmers markets, how do they stay one step ahead? When I asked Diane Brown, owner of the Provender Brown deli in Perth, that question four years ago, after Perth overtook Inverness as the British town most dominated by Tesco, she said she was “terrified” and “constantly living under a cloud”. Earlier this week, we spoke again.
“Turnover took a significant dip last September when the Westminster Government announced its austerity measures,” she said. “Since then we’ve been slightly down each month but, given the economic climate, we’re actually doing OK.
“Prices for cheese and wine have shot up as transport and production costs have risen. As a deli, I have no control over that. I have to pass it on to my customers.
“At the same time, supermarkets are moving in on what delis have traditionally done: sell local produce. The local honey I stock from a small producer in Perth is now being sold at Tesco across the road.”
She has noticed a decline in browsers to her shop. Even so, she retains a loyal core of customers. “I hear more and more people saying they’d never shop at a supermarket. I get a definite sense of people wanting to support local businesses, even if they’re not able to spend as much as they once did.
“We haven’t been pushed out completely. People come in for the chat and the atmosphere as much as they do for the food.”
And that is something that, so far, remains an exclusive line.