Home: May - June 2007 › Cover Story › First love
30/06/2007 | Channel:
Manufacturer, Retail, Ingredients
Bob Farrand's love for fine foods began at an early age. Now the director of the Guild of Fine Food, his passion for quality food is stronger than ever
The founder of the Guild of Fine Food, the man behind the World Cheese Awards and the Great Taste Awards; and the creator of the Specialty Fine Food Fairs, Bob Farrand is one the UK’s food champions, helping to drive the current changing attitude to food and drink in the UK.
He fervently believes in supporting local delis and farm shops, speaks out against the power of the supermarkets and encourages everyone to look at the food they eat with a fresh eye. “Food is the one luxury we are allowed to have every day of our lives, three times a day, and so to me it should be very enjoyable,” he began. “To reduce it to the lowest common denominator, as supermarkets do, and take the fun out of food is criminal, I think,” he said.
Bob explained how Britain ended up with its ‘pile it high, sell it cheap attitude’ to food, a mind-set he has been delighted to see changing over the last decade or so. “The situation came about by accident, after rationing,” he explained. “In the late 50s the Government was encouraging food producers and farmers to go into mass production because they had to feed an almost starving population. This way of thinking continued until the mid 1990s when food producers started to make mistakes and we saw listeria in cheese, BSE in beef, salmonella in eggs, the tragedy of foot and mouth and then the recent Bernard Matthews turkey debacle. The press started to look into our food supply chains and they found that meat was being transported round the country, or even shipped overseas for processing. They started asking questions and the public started looking for alternatives.”
It was in 1993 that Bob founded the Guild of Fine Food, although his love for this kind of product had been borne decades earlier in his first after school job in a local fine food provisioners. However, a degree in marketing took him into magazine publishing, and it was only when his publishing company acquired the magazine Fine Food Digest that he realised how to combine his first love and his business. Soon his company was running the World Cheese Awards and organising training programmes in cheese, charcuterie and general provisions (the latter in partnership with Fortnum and Masons.)
Bob explained: “At the time I was conscious that there was no trade association looking after the interests of delis and fine food purveyors. In 1993 we were already seeing the power of the larger supermarkets and more mass-produced food and something was needed to co-ordinate the voice of independent suppliers and retailers. Our magazines and training programmes gave us sufficient credibility to go and ask some people in the business to collectively fund a new association and I made the commitment to make sure it was self-supporting inside two years. We started with eight investors, and now we have 1242 members. Of course, the timing was right; if I had tried to start the Guild in 1984 it would never have happened, as there wasn't that level of interest in artisan or local foods at that time.”
Training courses were one of the first areas developed by Bob and his team, and the difference in attitude towards training between independent retailers and supermarkets is another area that Bob feels passionately about and the Guild offers a range of courses designed to train shopfloor staff in the art of selling fine foods. “Probably the most frustrating part of what I do is face the lack of importance that the supermarkets place on product knowledge at shopfloor level. Most supermarkets pay a higher rate to checkout staff than they do the person behind the cheese or meat counter - what does that tell you about how they view this part of their business? The vast majority of supermarkets would love to get rid of service counters - Tesco has a ‘grab and go’ option where everything is pre-packed. I think it’s dreadful that the poor soul on the shopfloor is the most underrated member of staff, and doesn’t get proper training.”
Bob also identified another issue this raises. “Four or five generations of shoppers mare used to going to a shop, grabbing a trolley and never having to speak to anyone to get what they want. So the process of going to a proper deli or proper farm shop is quite inhibiting, as they don’t know how to pronounce the names of different products and they don’t know what 100gms looks like as they always buy pre-packed. The deli owner has to move those customers onto familiar territory and the easiest way to do that is by selling coffee, or create a great sandwich, or cake. Speciality food shops in the first instance need to be accessible to the nervous shopper and that is the core of getting the balance right and why training everybody is so important.”
A year after the Guild was founded Bob started another new venture - the Great Taste Awards. “I had been invited to judge at some food awards run by a trade magazine, and I found that all the judges were being influenced by product packaging. It occurred to me that fine food is quite often produced by small businesses that don’t have access to clever designers for packaging; so to really be a fair judgement products should be blind tasted and rated on taste alone.
“In 1994 we posted the fact we were going to run this competition in Fine Food Digest and we got some entries, and it has developed from there - this year we had over 4000 entries. The judges are a combination of food writers, chefs, buyers for food halls and deli owners and blind tasting is the key to our awards. The way we work is in reverse, so every food starts as a gold medal award winner with 25 points and judges have to tell the producer that either they are making a food that is absolutely superb and therefore is one, two or three star gold, or alternatively explain why points have been deducted for faults, so the producer gets some feedback.
“The Awards have become enormously important to small food producers as we regard a gold award as ‘proven fine food’. Of course that means that the supermarkets are now trying to buy into it,” Bob continued. “We won’t allow them to enter, as they are not producers, but if their suppliers enter then their products are judged on merit, and one or two of these companies have won gold. This has led to another battle as part of our regulations state that winners can use the logo on their product but the name of the producer has to be included. Otherwise a supermarket could easily switch supplier without anybody knowing and still keep the gold award on the packaging. Our current battle is with M&S because its tea blender Ringden Teas took two golds last year but they haven't put their name on the packet, only on a shelf talker. I think M&S are being very silly, as all they need to say is ‘this product was specially blended for M&S by Ringden Teas’ - why not give the maker a bit of credit and acknowledgement? We could argue the company is still breaking the rules and continue the battle, but really, life’s too short.”
Two years after the Great Taste Awards were launched saw another innovation from the Guild - the Speciality and Fine Food Fair. “We launched them in 1996 as the market was beginning to wake up to the whole concept of fine foods and speciality food. Each Fair was more successful and it became clear that the concept had touched a vein and was the right thing at the right time. But I had no real wish to be an exhibition company and to develop it the way it should be developed, so when FreshRM made us an offer, we agreed a price and sold it to them. Because we believed small local shows were also important we carried on running the Harrogate and Edinburgh shows and maybe I am biased but I still think these are the best trade shows ever - I love them!”
The past decade has seen some amazing developments in the fine food arena, and Bob is glad that now other people seem to be more in tune with his way of thinking. “The last seven years in particular have been fabulous - it’s nothing to do with me, it’s what is happening around me, but at least I get the feeling that my views are shared by many people, and I’m not a lone voice. I have confidence more people will become concerned about food miles, authenticity, and the importance of sustaining local businesses and I think that will continue, as long as we don’t have any major financial crises. That is something that I fear, because this type of trend can only continue as long as people have got a reasonable amount of disposable income. Food is the first thing that people cut back on if times get hard, but I think there is enough in the press to keep it a hot topic,” he said.
I ended the interview with a final question - whether Bob had a favourite meal - and his answer came back to his first love, cheese. “In my youth I was taught to grade cheddar even to the point where I could tell you what month or day the cheddar had been made, and cheese is something that I have always loved, and written about,” he said. In fact, Bob’s love for cheese inspired the creation of the World Cheese Awards. Over the course of their evolution, they have become the largest international cheese awards in the world. “The UK is the most cosmopolitan cheese eating nation in the world, we don’t mind eating French, Italian, Spanish - we will try anything and I think that is why the World Cheese Awards has become so attractive,” he said. “And what is very exciting is that we are currently examining the possibility of taking the show to other countries. I would love the opportunity to take 700 British cheeses onto the continent - what a shop window for Britain that would be.”
This leads me onto Bob’s favourite meal, or actually, part of a meal. “This has to be the cheeseboard as it combines so many different factors,” he explained. “A properly considered cheeseboard will give you a wider range of flavours and textures than any other course, as you can have sweet, sharp or bitter, plus you can have hard, semi-hard, soft and so on. In addition to the cheeses is the ambience as a cheeseboard is a shared experience, where there’s wine and a discussion of the cheeses, which I find hugely enjoyable. I think all of this adds up to make cheese is my ultimate food.” And why Bob’s cricketing colleagues called him ‘Cheesy Bob’!