Moo-ving ahead

Moo-ving ahead

The cream always rises to the top, a fact that Peter Baber is reminded of as he examines the Yorkshire ice-cream sector where production is booming.

Anyone who did geography or economics as a GCSE or A-level subject at school may well remember Hotelling’s theory about ice-cream salesmen on a beach. The theory, first dreamed up by the eponymous economist in 1929, has gone on to inform much of current theory about how businesses (and by implications towns) position themselves. Roughly speaking, it first suggests two scenarios concerning the two ice-cream salesmen.

In the first, the beach is evenly divided in two and each salesman is at the mid-point of each half. In the second, one of the salesmen has moved more to the centre, and as a result is taking some of the other seller’s market share (assuming sunbathers are spread evenly across the beach). Hotelling extrapolated from this that in an ideal scenario, both salesmen would be positioned next to each other in the middle of the beach, because each would try to take as much of the other’s market share as possible, and as a result could only end up there. They would also, by implication, be selling remarkably similar products. It is worth keeping this theory in the back of your mind when you come to consider ice-cream production in Yorkshire. And not just on the fine sandy beaches of Scarborough and Filey, but all over the region. This is worth considering, partly because Europe’s biggest ice-cream manufacturer is currently located in the region.

R&R Ice Cream, based at Leeming Bar in Northallerton, is the result of a 2006 merger between two fast-growing enterprises – Roncadin, based in Germany but founded by an Italian family, and Richmond Foods, based in Northallerton. In fact, the £182m deal was a canny move by Richmond’s chief executive, because by 2006 Roncadin had already been taken over by US-based Oaktree Capital Management. He persuaded Oaktree to buy out his operation as well, retaining him as executive chairman of the enlarged company.

Since the merger the company has added to its pan-European credentials by acquiring Rolland, France’s third biggest ice-cream manufacturer. The company now produces some of the biggest ice-cream brands in Europe, including Fab lollies and Rowntree’s Fruit Pastille lollies.

It has also brought out its own Skinny Cow range, aimed at the more health-conscious icecream aficionado- if such a person exists. So it has certainly got the mass market sewn up – but then it is a national brand. Its other makes include Kelly’s Cornish ice-cream. It’s not just the cream of Yorkshire. So what about other producers? In particular, in these days of increasing concern about local provenance of food, what about the artisan producers who can supposedly boast amore direct link with the originating farm – and perhaps more authentic flavours? Deliciouslyorkshire, a trade body set up initially with Yorkshire Forward funding to promote all that’s best in local Yorkshire produce, has 15 ice-cream businesses among its members.

And one of them, ice cream producer Yummy Yorkshire, carried off the Supreme Product of the Year award at the much-coveted Deliciouslyorkshire Awards in 2009-10.

The product in question was Lou’s Liquorice Ice Cream. The company operates out of husband-and wife team Louise and Jeremy Holmes’ 250- acre dairy farm just outside Denby Dale. Alongside milking 120 of the farm’s 200 cows to produce an ever-expanding range of ice creams, the couple also run an ice-cream parlour which seemed particularly well patronised when we visited – on a bright but breezy Friday afternoon outside half-term in early March. The company’s story is a fairly common one of a farmer wanting to diversify. The Holmes family have been milking cows on this site for three generations. “My granddad George came over here in the 1960s,” says Jeremy. “Both he and my dad always milked the cows and processed and retailed their own milk, and the milk operation is still the core business of the farm.” But the farm had been going through the same kind of transitions that have faced a lot of small to medium sized farmers in the wake of restructuring in the dairy industry. And in particular they had a surplus of cream.

So Jeremy, always a fan, decided ice-cream production might be something to try. Wife Louise, meanwhile, was not so sure. With a strong corporate background, having worked for Capita and A4e, and now with children, she was not so sure this was a good idea.

“I was first a bit anti the idea,” she says. “I thought the farm was tiring enough. But Jeremy pointed out that we were tired anyway. And I realised he couldn’t carry on by himself.” With just £5,000 from Growing Roots, a Yorkshire Agricultural Society programme aimed at helping farmers diversify, and just short of £50,000 of their own money, they started producing in April 2007, although they had been experimenting with milkshakes beforehand. And they have been expanding. Having started with a chest freezer and a pasteuriser that could only handle 10 litres at a time, the company now produces 120 litres a day, in an ever-increasing range of flavours. Louise admits she likes experimenting – but that’s one of the advantages of having a shop on site.

“I can make a wacky flavour, put it in the shop and see what happens,” she says. Beetroot is currently on trial – a subtly sweet alternative to the sickly sweet varieties the mass market might be used to. But there have been other experiments too.

“We did a Yorkshire pudding flavour for Yorkshire Day with gravy and raspberry vinegar,” she says. “But we have also done beef and horseradish, so the cream was horseradish, which was great because you got the flavour without the kick.” Other trials have included green pea, and English mustard and honey.

 

“The savoury flavours mess with the customer’s heads a little bit,” says Louise. “But they like it in the end.” Preparation can be back-breaking work, however. The Lou’s Liquorice that won the award, for example, involves Louise and another employee personally cutting up pieces of Pontefract cake to put in the ice-cream. The couple are, however, very keen to ensure they source products within the Yorkshire region, partly to keep in with the Deliciouslyorkshire mindset. “We knew we wanted to keep something in Yorkshire,” says Jeremy. “We are very proud of where we live. Yorkshire really is the capital of food.” Aside from the Pontefract cake, they buy all their strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries from a grower in Garforth; buy their chilli jam from another Yorkshire supplier, and their rhubarb from Oldroyds, a production facility so central to Yorkshire that since February 2010 the EU has even granted it Protected Designation of Origin status, similar to Parma ham. The company have been expanding their brand too. Following work with FDB Design in Boston Spa, a character cow has been created, which they have christened Camilla. And a full size mascot of Camilla is being hired out for children’s parties.

But what about distribution? Following their success at the Deliciouslyorkshire awards, the brand was picked up by Asda, although only in three of its West Yorkshire branches. Jeremy says he is not particularly pleased with the way this contract has gone, and he would not necessarily be looking to continue it, although he would love to see Yummy Yorkshire in more upmarket supermarkets such as Booths or Waitrose. They have, however, been expanding distribution through channels such as local cinemas, delicatessens and tourist attractions. In fact, the long cold winter has helped here.

“We’ve driven a bit more over winter period,” says Louise, “and now we have won the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as well. The head chef there says he is sick of people telling him he needs us.” Local restaurants have been quick to take some orders too, although Jeremy says this has got tougher in the current economic climate. For the time being, however, it has been just him doing the selling.

“I have always said you have to sell your own product, not anyone else, because you know how to sell it,” he says. “But that could change. Is this a realistic business model? After all, as we said, there are at least 15 ice-cream businesses in Yorkshire alone. One of them is Just Jenny’s, with a similar history to Yummy Yorkshire and based only a few miles away in Barkisland. Jeremy has already been competing against them for some accounts. Gary Rogers, owner of Yorkshire Dales ice-cream in Bolton Abbey, says this is why local producers will eventually find their future is limited.

He says they end up only competing against each other. Yorkshire Dales is of course another rival to Yummy Yorkshire, although it has been going longer, since 1990. Although it is sited on a former dairy farm, the company buys in all its milk from a mini processor in Grassington that acts for 15 local farms. Rogers has noticed a difference from10 years ago, when even the local agricultural shows were dominated by Italian producers.

“We have at least persuaded them that they ought to stock a product that is based on the local agriculture,” he says. But beyond that, he says, because of the limitations of shelf space, national retailers like Asda and Tesco will only stock local brands in the regions they come from, and usually only in very basic flavours. Yorkshire Dales is currently sold in Tesco and Asda, but only across the North of England.

“South of Sheffield they start wanting to have a Midlands producer,” he says. He adds that looking for tourist attractions and restaurants is also all very well, but there is only a limited number of those to go around, and with so many products all boasting the same provenance, the only factor you can compete on is price – something he doesn’t want to countenance.

You might wonder, then, why someone with a relatively jaded opinion of local production has kept at it for 20 years. Rogers says its partly because it is still “better than farming”, but also because he has invested money in a fleet of vans that can carry the Yorkshire Dales brand further, at least in the summer.

The vans visit 300 events a year. The higher margins they generate mean there’s less worry in the winter months – and more chance to invest. He is currently updating his main Bolton Abbey site with a New England themed ice cream parlour complete with authentic Amish playground.

“If you were to sell ice-cream into Castle Howard, say, and get £10 for it; with the same amount of ice-cream in cones you could probably get £100 for it,” he says. The Holmes have also seen the advantages of expanding the retail operation.

“Someone said, ‘You will never get rich unless you are selling it on a cone’,” says Louise. “That is where you make your best margin.” But what aspirations do such producers have? Would they not welcome outside investment? Rogers says he certainly doesn’t have the capacity or resources to make Yorkshire Dales a national brand, and he doesn’t think it would work particularly well, anyway. “I don’t think we have the right name for that,” he says. The Holmes, however, would be more interested in outside investment – as long, as they could retain an interest in the company.

They claim that is what has happened with Ben & Jerry’s – although in fact since they sold out to Unilever, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield no longer have a seat on Ben & Jerry’s board. But there are always possibilities. After all, way back in 1985 Jonathan Ropner, another Yorkshire farmer, bought local ice cream producer Cardosi. That grew into Richmond Foods, or R&R, as we know it today.