Mum likes it hot

Mum likes it hot

When she was made redundant from her bank job, Susan McCann decided to set up her own condiment business in her kitchen. Karen Peattie reports on hew remarkable success since.

Susan McCann answers the front door of her mews home in the south side of Glasgow with a broad smile and confirmation that the kettle’s on. It’s a Friday morning and she’s been working flat out, packing jars of her unique “chillibased dip-come-cooking condiment” into little canvas carrier bags to sell at a Christmas fair in the city’s Royal Concert Hall the next day.

“Welcome to the global headquarters of Lochbroom Fine Foods,” she laughs. The fruits of her labour are now piled up in the hall waiting to be transferred to the car. “This is pretty much a normal scene in the McCann household,” she laughs.

“It’s all go, it can be exhausting and, at times, all I want to do is sit down with my feet up and steal half an hour for myself watching rubbish on daytime TV. But then I think….no, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sitting at her large kitchen table with tea and biscuits, former bank worker McCann takes a deep breath: “This is where it all started.” She is, of course, referring to her company Lochbroom Fine Foods and SIMPLYaddCHILLI, her creation born out of a lifelong passion for cooking and her son’s love of chillies.

Apart from a huge cupboard full of jars of the latest batch of products, there are no signs that this homely kitchen is at the heart of a cottage industry that is fast becoming one of Scotland’s most exciting food and drink businesses.

“I had the pans on yesterday,” she explains, “and you would have found the house just by following the smell. “And before you ask, it doesn’t bother the neighbours. I’m not cooking every day and I’m very careful not to disturb or obstruct anyone when I’m loading up the car – there are no HGVs parked outside.” Perhaps not outside McCann’s home.

But in Carluke, where she is in the process of outsourcing production to long-established jam maker R&W Scott to meet growing demand for her Mild, Wild and Extreme SIMPLYaddCHILLI products, there will be.

McCann has recently entered into a partnership with the well-known Lanarkshire company to ensure a seamless move from batch to mass production, and is ready to step up distribution.

Now listed in all Waitrose stores in Scotland and the much-lauded Whole Foods Markets in Glasgow, SIMPLYaddCHILLI – a moreish combination of chillies and strawberries that is fat-free with no added salt, colours, preservatives or artificial flavours – started life at farmers’ markets, giving McCann an introduction to selling and the confidence to aim higher.

“It created a real buzz at the first market I attended and having people tell me how much they liked it gave me a real sense of achievement – I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling that first day,” she says. “People were asking questions, asking where else they could buy it – it was a pivotal moment for me and confirmation that I was doing the right thing.”

She may be on the verge of introducing SIMPLYaddCHILLI to a much larger audience but it hasn’t been plain sailing to reach this stage. And as McCann points out, “just because I worked in banking doesn’t mean I know how to run a business”.

She was determined to make it work, however, and did her research, discovering Campden BRI (the UK’s largest independent membershipbased organisation carrying out research and development for the food and drink industry) on Google.

“They gave me some excellent product advice which helped me refine my product and, after a bit of trial and error, it all came together. I then worked with Glasgow Caledonian University who tested it and gave it a five-star rating for appearance, colour, texture and flavour. I was also able to get a 36-week shelf-life for the product.”

From these humble beginnings, SIMPLYaddCHILLI extended its reach via independent food specialists, delis, farm shops and a number of restaurants before graduating into the top grade. Now listed by Whole Foods in its flagship store in London’s Piccadilly, the brand could be on even more supermarket shelves in 2013.

As UK listings gain pace – McCann is in talks with another major multiple retailer – the brand is also making small but steady inroads into lucrative overseas markets. She attended SIAL, one of world’s biggest food exhibitions, in Paris in October, as part of a Scottish Development International (SDI) learning journey to explore opportunities in the French market.

In November, her company was one of just 15 leading Scottish food and drink producers selected to showcase their produce in two of Bahrain’s premium supermarkets during a special ‘Scotland Week’. Again, this was an initiative brokered by SDI. McCann also exports to Denmark and, in March 2013, will travel to Canada to hold discussions with major retailers. The outsourcing of production, then, has come at just the right time.

“I’ve got to outsource if I want to expand the business,” she says. “In my own kitchen I can produce 100 jars in a batch while the factory can produce up to 1000. It’s a big investment for me but if I want to compete as a national brand it’s the most sensible option for me at the moment.” Does McCann fear that her brand’s taste and artisan appeal might be lost in a massproduction facility?

“Absolutely not,” she states. “I’ve worked with Scott’s to ensure the product they make matches my exact specification – what is produced in large quantities in Carluke is exactly the same as what comes out of my own kitchen. I suppose this means I’m no longer a cottage industry but it’s all about progress and growth and the brand’s longer term future and capabilities.”

Back in 2010, when she was made redundant after 23 years in banking, McCann had no inkling that the lip-smacking chilli condiment she enjoyed making for family and friends would open this new chapter in her life.

“I wasn’t a high flier – I was a clerical worker – but I enjoyed banking, particularly the job I was doing latterly which involved international transfers and moving funds around the world,” she reflects.

“I worked with great people, though, some of them for a very long time, so when we were all made redundant it was an incredibly sad time,” says McCann.

“I’d always taken my homemade jams and chutneys into work and everyone would rave about them, saying I should start selling them and even open my own deli! I never took them seriously because not once did it occur to me that I might be able to do that. I didn’t think I had the confidence.

“It was only when other friends and my family, particularly my son, James, started encouraging me that I thought, ‘actually, maybe I should explore this in more detail’. The bank gave me six months’ notice so I had some breathing space to think about what a woman who was over 50 could possibly do after redundancy.

The deli idea was one that swirled around for a while but when I researched the Glasgow market it became apparent that it was saturated.”

McCann’s “lightbulb” moment eventually came a couple of months before she finished up at the bank. Encouraged by James, whom she describes as a “connoisseur of all things chilli”, she started experimenting with assorted chilli-based condiments. “I was never out of the kitchen,” she recalls.

“I’d throw all sorts of ingredients into the pot but when I stumbled upon the combination of chillies and strawberries, it all came together. I’d found the perfect premium product – a dip, a marinade and a healthy cooking ingredient all in one.” It became a real family affair with James, 24, now an executive with global technology company Accenture, daughter Lisa, 31, a TV producer with Channel 4 and her husband, James, a plumber, all pitching in.

“James [son] was very much involved in the early stages. He’s really interested in cooking and his love of chilli was a big inspiration for me,” McCann says.

“He also helped design the logo.” Daughter Lisa, meanwhile, has played a key role on the marketing side and, through her TV connections, introduced Channel 4’s Kirstie Allsopp to SIMPLYaddCHILLI.

Since then, the presenter of Location Location Location and Kirstie’s Handmade Britain has regularly extolled the virtues of the product via Twitter to her 265,000-plus followers. Social media, says McCann, will become an increasing important marketing tool along with in-store product sampling and tastings at high-profile consumer events such as the BBC Good Food Scotland.

“It’s a unique product and there’s nothing else quite like it on the market,” she goes on. “That obviously has its advantages because it makes you stand out but retail buyers don’t have anything similar to benchmark it against so that can sometimes act as a barrier.

“Getting the consumer to taste your product is vital, really, because word of mouth then kicks in and people start to seek it out, so I’ll continue doing as many farmers’ markets as possible although with just family and very kind friends helping out, I’m limited to how many events we can attend. My husband’s fantastic, though – he thoroughly enjoys sampling in Waitrose and Whole Foods, and has a fantastic rapport with customers.

“The marketing of the brand has reached a crucial point but with a small team and limited finances it does represent a major challenge for me going forward.”

Earlier this year, McCann linked up with a business mentor, the industry veteran David Kilshaw. Vice-chairman of industry body Scotland Food & Drink, Kilshaw has almost 30 years’ experience in senior management roles in food manufacturing within both the retail and food service sectors in the UK and North America.

He was awarded the OBE in 2006 for his services to the Scottish food industry. Working with Kilshaw, McCann believes she can become more focused on marketing and other areas of the business that until now she has been able to give her full attending. “David has already had a major impact on the business and, more importantly, on the way I think about the business,” she suggests.

“I’m a member of Scotland Food & Drink and the advice I’ve had from people there has been invaluable. I’ve also met other producers at networking events – you start chatting to someone and discover they’ve found a solution to one of your current problems, then you speak to someone else and you’re able to give them some advice. It’s great to know that you’re not alone.

“But it’s only when you sit down properly with someone like David who really knows his way around the industry that you realise you’re only scratching the surface. There are many more opportunities if you know where to look and pitfalls you can avoid if you know how. “It’s knowing how the system works – I was lacking a lot of that knowledge and David is filling that gap.”

Interestingly, McCann met Kilshaw – who has agreed to become non-executive chairman of Lochbroom Fine Foods – through a mutual friend, not at a trade networking event or through a food industry contact although she wishes they had made contact much sooner.

“I know to my cost how important it is to seek out sound advice,” she says, alluding to a run-in with the intellectual property regulators over the use of JUSTaddCHILLI, her brand’s original name. Despite going through all the proper procedures, McCann found herself at the centre of a bitter IP battle after one of the multinationals laid claim to the JUSTaddCHILLI name.

“It was both distressing and costly,” she says. “The whole thing took me by surprise because I thought I’d done everything by the book. I don’t want to dwell on it because it’s in the past and I’ve moved on but it was a harsh lesson and one I hope others take on board.”

Fortunately for McCann, she was able to change her brand’s name to SIMPLYaddCHILLI, minimising consumer confusion and replacing labels on existing stock quickly and without incurring further major costs. With the experience behind her, she is firmly focused on the future at a time when the Scottish food and drink industry is enjoying arguably its highest-ever profile.

Her product ticks all the right boxes, boasting strong credentials when it comes to health, provenance and premium – the three key drivers identified by Scotland Food & Drink as crucial to its future growth.

In fact, our small nation’s food and drink ambitions are bold – to become a £12.5bn industry with a global reputation by 2017. “It’s an amazing time to be involved in this industry,” McCann points out. “The next couple of years have the potential to be very lucrative for producers who seek out the opportunities surrounding the big events we have coming up.”

She is, of course, referring to the Commonwealth Games (Glasgow 2014), the Ryder Cup and Homecoming Scotland in 2014 and, in 2013, the Year of Natural Scotland. From a provenance perspective, only Scottish strawberries are used during the Scottish season with Dutch or Spanish berries filling the void during the winter to enable manufacturing to continue and also to ensure the same flavour and consistency of the product.

Chillies come mainly from Holland with a small amount from Egypt, all sourced through Glasgow Fruit Market.

“If I could source the quantities I need in Scotland, I certainly would!” says McCann. Her journey from cottage industry to major food brand may still be in its infancy but as McCann gears up for her busiest and arguably most important year yet, expect to find SIMPLYaddCHILLI on a supermarket shelf near you soon.