Kitchen Table Projects is a business incubator programme that supports up-and-coming food and drinks brands to bring their shelf-ready product to market. We spoke to the scheme’s founder, Tara Mei, and Marks & Spencer deli product developer Kirsty Grieve about the concept.
Tara, tell us about Kitchen Table Projects. What’s your aim and who have you worked with in the past?
Tara: I started Kitchen Table Projects in June 2015, when we launched a pop-up shop at Old Street Station in London and ran the first round of the Artisan Springboard, a 12-week incubator for food start-ups. Having had my own business in the past, I knew that turning a start-up into a success is so much more than simply having a good idea. I wanted to give producers access to the tools and opportunities that were tailored just to them, with support that really understood what they were all about.
The businesses we’ve worked with have been quite varied, from risottos and sauces to drinks. One particular favourite is Stoffell’s Ltd, maker of no-added-sugar ketchups and sauces. The founder, Tony Peck, is a diabetic and started making his own ketchup when he couldn’t find any decent alternatives to the sugar-laden versions in the supermarkets. It really tapped into a trend and in the last year he’s seen his products on the shelves of a number of London delis, bakeries and independent shops. The popular gluten-free bakery in Islington only has Stoffell’s on the tables in their cafe. He’s also been shortlisted for the Free From Food Awards and received accreditation from Sugarwise, a campaign promoting low-sugar and no-sugar products for consumers.
Tell us about your new partnership with Marks & Spencer. What events have you got coming up and what do you hope to achieve?
T: It was one of those opportunities that really came along by chance. I was at the Grub Club, a fantastic networking event run by Vhari Russell, the food marketing expert, last year, and struck up a conversation with Tussie Collier of design agency, Hurricane Design. She loved the idea behind Kitchen Table Projects and introduced me to Kirsty. Kirsty also loved the concept and it all moved pretty quickly from there.
We have three events planned. The first is a speed mentoring evening on 24 March where 30 experts including M&S representatives, will be on hand to advise start-ups on various different areas of business. It’s a great platform! The second event is the Food Business Bootcamp on May 5th – a whole day dedicated to gathering the tools and tips needed to boost your business. Start-ups can attend sessions with experts and get a well-rounded view of where they are headed. The final event is called Artisan Afterhours. This is our regular night that brings together our foodie community for an evening of networking and sampling the newest artisan food products. It’s a chance to get your product tried and tested by your peers. We are also running the Small Producers Spotlight competition where five shortlisted producers will get the chance to pitch to a panel of M&S buyers and one lucky producer will receive a one-of-a-kind M&S reward, ranging from mentoring and advice to an opportunity to be listed in their stores.
Why did you partner with Marks and Spencer and how do you think this partnership will benefit the food industry?
T: Our partnership with M&S gives emerging food producers a chance to really understand what it would be like to have their product on their shelves. It’s real “behind the scenes” access to people and insights that would otherwise take months to uncover. There are thousands of emerging artisan food producers across the UK who have little experience of the food industry. Many make their products at the kitchen table, or in shared facilities, before selling them in local delis and grocers. Our partnership with M&S gives these producers a rare opportunity to be guided by the experts from one the UK’s biggest and best known retailers. Their knowledge is second to none, and who knows – one of them might even make it on to the coveted shelves of M&S.
Kirsty, why did you want to get involved in an incubator programme for food start-ups?
Kirsty: It is important for successful organisations such as M&S to support and nurture new food companies. I met Tara and really liked the sound of what Kitchen Table Projects was doing and the three events really complement each other. It’s so important to nurture start-ups and help build their confidence. Breaking into the food industry isn’t easy, but these food and drink businesses might one day be the products we are all putting in our shopping baskets.
What are you particularly looking for at this year’s events?
K: It’s hard to be specific as we aren’t sure who is going to be coming, but we are always on the lookout for interesting products and love to meet exciting new producers. The main thrust of our involvement, however, is to provide mentoring for the start-ups to give them the skills take their businesses further. Some might not be at the right point for that now, but hopefully by attending these events and networking with the right people, they can learn how to take it to the next level.
How do these events help you as a business?
K: It allows us to support up-and-coming food businesses from a mentoring and learning perspective – we know that so many great businesses come from the grassroots areas such as local markets and independent cafés or delis. To be able to help a viable business blossom, and perhaps bring some great new food and drink products to the public, will be a great achievement.
What challenges do start-ups face in particular and how do you plan to help them during the sessions?
T: Growing a food business isn’t like growing any business. They face really specific issues to do with their shelf life, packaging, pleasing fickle consumers and time-pressed retailers, distribution, production… the list goes on! I plan to help them by giving them access to experts that really understand the industry, the perspective of a producer and their problems so that they can get the advice they need to grow. Building a strong, industry-specific network is key to food business growth, building on the knowledge and experience of people who have done it all before. Being creative, persistent and passionate will certainly stand you in good stead.
What experts will be attending the event and helping the start-ups this year?
T: There are some great mentors coming along. We have Clare Downes of Monkhouse Food & Drink, a PR and marketing expert with over 15 years’ experience in the food and drink industry. She knows all the tips and tricks needed to capture the press attention needed to boost your business profile. Alison Battisby, founder of Avocado Social, is a mine of information on all aspects of social marketing and has experience training top UK brands including BBC, Etsy and Debenhams. Marcus Carter of Artisan Food Club, a distribution company focused on helping producers who are just starting out break into the industry, will be there. Martyn Garrod and Kelly Mackenzie of White Bear Studio, a fantastic branding agency based in London Fields, are two other brilliant mentors. Alicia Grimshaw, deputy editor of About Time Magazine is attending, as is Jayne Lilly from The Seed Fund and The Collaborators. We have business author Tessa Stewart, who wrote two bestselling Food Entrepreneur’s Guides, and Hugh Thomas, founder of Ugly Drinks. There are plenty of others too – they are all listed on the website.
What advice can you give to food entrepreneurs on how to make the most of the event?
T: Come prepared! It’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity for a food entrepreneur to access the insights of industry experts who have had years of experience in the fine food industry. All of them have such incredible backgrounds in making small businesses a success. Read up on who everyone is and what they’re good at, so you can tap into the things that can make a real difference to your business.
K: Like Tara says, a good knowledge of your own specific market, understanding where you might fit in and doing your research is a great way to ensure you are confident and make a good first impression.”
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2023