IN this week’s SME Focus we hear from an artisan producer who tapped into the expertise offered by a Scottish university to help him put a new twist on a traditional product.

Name: Graham Stoddart.

What is your business called?

Cuddybridge Apple Juice.

Where is it based?

Beautiful Kailzie Gardens close to Peebles.

What does it produce?

Varieties of fresh, hand pressed 100 per cent apple juice, using Braeburn and Granny Smith apples, and two apple juice mixes. The mixes are Apple and Scottish Sea Buckthorn and Apple and Sweet Cicely. We squash every Monday and Tuesday and deliver every Thursday 52 weeks a year. It’s very straightforward, and very healthy. Because we are small, we are able to control very tightly all that we do.

Scotland is not known as a commercial apple producing country, hence we use global apples for our year round production, but we do use UK fruit when in season. We will take up to 2500-3000 kilograms of fruit per week during our busy time. We only use electricity to heat the boilers for the pasteurisation process. Everything else, including bottling and labelling, is done by hand.

Whom does it sell to?

We supply over 100 regular customers including Harvey Nichols, The Three Chimneys restaurant in Skye, Balmoral Hotel and Scottish Parliament café.

What is its turnover?

This year it will nudging £70,000.

How many employees?

There are three casual part-timers and myself.

When was it formed?

April 2007.

Why did you take the plunge?

I initially I tried to make cider and was delighted when my first batch was very good! The subsequent fermentations have all fallen short, but I did realise that the pure juice tasted excellent and that spurred me to make varietal apple juice and leave the cider making to those that do it so well. Once we had labels, the bottles and the design, I took the juice to Villeneuve Wines in Peebles who were very encouraging and that was the start of the venture.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

Not a great scholar, but not bad at sport, I decided to quit school when I was 16 and to follow my eldest brother into agriculture. After working in the Surrey Horticultural Branch of the National Farmers Union then in public relations I moved to south Scotland where my wife Julia grew up. I then developed my own PR business, The Fourth Agency, which had Borders-based Ballantynes Cashmere as a client during that firm’s heyday. After Ballantynes went through a major upheaval and I stopped doing its PR I needed to earn some money and went back to my 'roots' and started to prune fruit trees and to do some general gardening work. I also applied to join the Royal Mail so as to get some regular income and got a job as a postie. I spent time learning about caring for apple trees at my eldest brother’s company 'Apple and Pears' in Surrey and decided to start up on my own in Scotland in 2000.

I was asked to prune an old walled garden, and the owner also wanted me to plant 50 apple trees in the vacant area in the centre of the walled garden. I did all that and he was very happy, and it was then that I thought about making cider to help clear the fallen apples in the autumn.

In those days Posties started at 5.00am and finished mid-morning, so for the rest of time I was able to squash and bottle in the afternoons.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

We didn't. We started with a very small overdraft that we still have, and all the growth has been 'organic'. Now that we have grown we may need to look at outside funding to move to the next stage. Crowd Funding appeals to me because it only works with subscribers who like the product, but I need to do some more research.

What was your biggest break?

Edinburgh restaurateurs Victor and Carina Contini were the first to seriously stock our products and they still do to this day. Neil Forbes at the city’s Cafe St Honore and Tom Lewis at Monachyle Mhor and MHOR84 in Perthshire were early supporters, and we were delighted when Sodexo gave us a Nominated Supplier listing. Winning Scottish Food and Drink Excellence Awards in 2012 and 2014 was a notable achievement.

We are fortunate to have Queen Margaret University almost on our doorstep and have access to their food and drink expertise and business support. We worked with QMU on the development of a new seasonal healthy drink using apple and sea buckthorn berries which grow wild along the East Lothian coastline. This was made possible by an innovation voucher via Interface – the organisation that connects business with academic expertise in universities.

What was your worst moment?

We have had some nightmares. The press breaking down during the early summer of 2008 wasn't too good, but so far we have managed to get round our problems. We have the space, access to water and a great range of good tradesmen and women who we can call on very quickly where we are. Without them, we might have had a lot more problems!

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

I enjoy selling, marketing, meeting customers, looking for, and gaining, new business and there is something special when strangers come and say something on the lines of 'your apple juice is super'.

What do you least enjoy?

I passionately hate anything to do with Accounting.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

As an artisan producer, to maintain the standards that we have set ourselves in everything that we do. As a business we aim to keep growing and finding new customers.

What are your top priorities?

To continue to make the best apple juice we can; to keep the product honest; to ensure that we don't forget that pressing apples is good fun, smiling is acceptable.

What would most help your business?

At our stage of growth, I suppose that funding is the one single area that would help. A reasonable, fixed, global price for apples would also be helpful. I can but dream!

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

It is important that the governments try and create a stable platform that allows us to work without unfair impositions. Cuddybridge fights above its weight and I'm very happy with that, but too much interference with petty rules and regulations don't help. All in all I'm very happy with my 'lot'. All we have to do is squash apples.

What was the most valuable lesson that you have learned?

Keep your product simple. Keep the design simple. Deliver when you said you would, join-in and talk to your customers. There is also power in collaboration. Through my links with Queen Margaret University, I’m part of the Sea Buckthorn Common Interest Group which involves a variety of different people who have an interest in developing new products.

How do you relax?

All the usual ones-reading, gardening, making things, shouting at the TV, driving, laughing, family get-togethers....eating apples!