Two decades ago, no-one would have dreamed of sitting at the dining table with a phone by the plate. We certainly wouldn’t have been snapping away with a camera at our own creations, or those of a chef.
How does a food brand evolve at the pace with which the consumer’s approach to eating has in the last 20 years? Here’s an invaluable insight from the female founder of award-winning brand The Bay Tree.
Never let it be said that the earliest career aspirations of a tiny school child, can’t be that which shape her into the woman she becomes.
Take Emma Macdonald.
At the age of five, six, and seven, she was muscling her way into the kitchen to help bake cakes, eagerly taking cookie creations to her classroom friends, and her mind was very firmly on wanting a career in food, and a restaurant business of her own.
Now roll the clock forward to 2018.
At the age of 48, with a string of product awards under her belt, a nationwide food business and phenomenal reputation, Emma is the woman talking with authority and passion about the changing face of food service, daily dining – and the likely impact of Brexit on the manufacture of edible goods.
“You can’t stand still in the food business,” says Emma, emphatically.
“That’s always been the case, but perhaps more obvious than ever right now.
“The way people are choosing to consume food, how and where they dine, what variety they want in their meal choices – it all means that those of us in food businesses have to be adaptable and knowledgeable about where the market is going.
“Then, yes, there’s Brexit.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to have some form of impact on lots of people in food production and retail.
“Everyone feels uncertain, and this period is certainly unhelpful, but you can’t dwell on it. For a business like mine it’s about saying, yes, there may be issues around some of the raw materials we import from Europe, but at the same time, there’s probably some great opportunity in exporting more to countries like Canada, where their market is very ‘anglophile’.”
Emma is indeed a hugely authoritative foodie, so her perspective matters greatly.
She’s been running The Bay Tree for more than two decades, and has brought to the market everything from ranges of chutneys to Christmas puddings, and pasta sauces to pickles.
Based in Devon, and a married mother of three boys, she initially started her foray into the world of food as a chef.
It was the obvious step from her childhood days of obsessively cake-making, and it saw her experience the food-service life not only within Britain, but overseas too.
“Perhaps I wouldn’t have found my way into a food manufacture business if I hadn’t initially become a little despondent about the world of a chef’s life,” she recalls.
“I had a number of roles after leaving catering college – some here in the UK, and then abroad.
“It didn’t take long before I grew quite disillusioned and decided that the hours and the ridiculous environment was just not good for me long term.
“Eventually I moved back to the UK, and it was then that I met up with a friend and quite quickly moved toward creating a small business of producing relishes and chutneys.”
It’s a humble description of that early ‘seed’ of a spawning company, but, it masks the enormity of what Emma had in fact begun.
This was the Autumn of 1994, and with their eyes on the prize of Christmas, the foodie founders started working hard at creating preserves and products which in no time were catching the attention not only of Christmas gift markets and fairs, but retailers like Fortnum and Mason.
Securing such a high profile stockist name, gave the pairing confidence to embrace new product lines – however varied they may have seemed.
“To some extent, that’s where we got a bit carried away with the amount of things we tried to do, but we were happy to explore all options and see which of our ideas people liked,” Emma recollects.
“We were probably the first to be doing things like pouched pasta sauces, but it was something we knew would work in a post-recession market where people were really looking for some quality products which would make them feel good about their mealtimes.
“With the likes of Waitrose then interested in us, we started developing things like Christmas cakes and puddings, and more and more preserves and sauces.
“At one stage we had something like 100 product lines, which was incredibly complicated, and to be honest, really pretty inefficient.”
Much evolution has taken place in the decades since.
Today, the business is purely Emma’s focus (her initial business partner is no longer involved), and the concept is more streamlined, unashamedly premium, very much national, and has a marketplace of 1500 retailers into which its products are placed.
But however established, Emma knows Bay Tree has to be nimble if it wants to maintain its place in the fickle foodie world today.
She’s the first to acknowledge how massively different the arena is from where it was 20 years ago.
“If there’s one thing I’m really proud of in the story of the brand, it’s that we are always innovative, and always an inventor,” she says.
“We’ve never sat back and thought we’d got it right and done enough with one particular product or other, so we’re always assessing the marketplace and looking at other ways and opportunities.
“Today, that’s invaluable.”
She continues: “Today, people eat out more, they’re less loyal, they’re grabbing food on the fly, and yet they’re also more savvy about what they eat, more conscious of what’s in it, where it comes from – and wanting to share pictures of it too.
“We have to take all that into account as we continually develop what our business does and how it does it.”
It’s little wonder then, that the brand has part of its 74-person pool of staff observing social media channels on a daily basis.
What it knows it needs to understand is ‘what does our customer want from us?’, what do they like, what do they want more of?
“We are always asking questions of ourselves in relation to what the customer wants,” Emma says.
“It’s the only way you can be sure you’ve got a relevant business which is right for today, but is also right for the next chapter, regardless of what that brings in terms of politics.”
And what of that ‘next chapter’ for Emma herself?
She’s worked tirelessly since launching the brand, managed to get married, raise three children, evolve a business into a phenomenal award-winning success, but can she keep up the pace like this for the foreseeable, and does she have a vision for stepping back?
“I’m still very much full-time and hands-on in the business,” she admits.
“It’s something which never really sleeps, and nor would I want it to.
“I’m not that way inclined, and I’m someone who likes that I’m always thinking of new opportunities and ideas – but yes, I do also want time with my family and to be known as Emma outside of the hat I wear for work.
“With everything that’s going on politically on the global stage, and with the way the food sphere is changing at such a pace, it feels to me that I’m very much taking the business through a period of ‘preparing for a new stage’.
“I’m ensuring the brand is fit for what’s required of it, and that we’re focusing where we should.
“Yes, that takes lots of energy and focus, but it’s also exciting, and it’s something which needs to happen to enable me to feel confident about where it goes to in the future.”
There’s something about Emma’s passion, energy, and incredible insight, which makes it hugely apparent that, even if you were to chat to her again in just six weeks (let alone six months) time, there would most likely be a new innovation or concept on the drawing board for Bay Tree.
This is the kind of woman who, were you to throw a dinner party and have a spare seat, you would absolutely want to have holding court at your dining table.
Indeed, it’s a wonder how much quicker matters around the Brexit boardroom table might get resolved if they called upon the experienced, opinionated and seemingly unstoppable Mrs Macdonald.
For more information about Emma and The Bay Tree, please visit www.thebaytree.co.uk
For a limited time only, Emma is kindly offering all Eloquently Her readers a special discount on first orders. This offer grants readers a15% discount when using the code HERBAYTREE15