When Cordon Bleu trained chef Alison Dodd couldn’t find the herbs she wanted, she decided to grow her own.
Now her company, Herbs Unlimited, has a £4m turnover and supplies some of the top restaurants in the country, including the Savoy in London.
But as the company celebrated its 25th anniversary at a special chefs’ open day last week, Alison announced that she is taking a step back from the company that has been her life for a quarter of a century.
“Last year I was seriously ill and my family insisted that I take things a bit easier,” explains the 66-year-old.
“I am fine now but it did get me thinking and so I am planning to take a step back although I won’t be leaving altogether.”
Alison says she intends to work three days a week at Herbs Unlimited which will allow her a bit of time to follow other interests.
“My husband joked that he didn’t want me at home all the time but I won’t have time, there are so many things I want to do from working in the Thirsk community centre to doing an Open University degree.”
Alison is handing over the running of Herbs Unlimited to her son Philip, who has worked with her for the last ten years and business partner Trevor Bosomworth.
“It wasn’t an easy decision as it has been my life for 25 years but my family insisted that I take things a bit easier.”
After attending the Cordon Bleu cookery school Alison worked in a top restaurant in Henley before coming back to the north to run the George & Dragon in Wath that had been in her family since her great grandfather’s time
She met her husband David through running the restaurant and she left to have her family. The couple have three children. The eldest Lucy works in social housing, Sally is a specialist nurse, it was just Philip who showed an interest in agriculture.
“I think herbs had been such a massive part of the girls’ lives that they didn’t want anything to do with them,” says Alison.
“I was looking for something else to do in 1992 when it struck me that we couldn’t get fresh herbs for the restaurant, so I took a garden fork, turned over a bit of land on what I thought would make a suitable place to grow them and asked my father, who was a farmer, if I could have a corner of the field in Wath to get started.”
The first herb she grew was coriander, with sage, rosemary and thyme following.
Herbs Unlimited now has more than 45 herbs and a range of edible flowers and employs 43 full-time staff.
Initially, she approached some of Yorkshire’s top restaurants who agree to take her herbs, but her big break came when food processors Cranswick were looking to market a premium sausage with fresh herbs.
“Cranswick Plc became one of our first big customers and I’m delighted that we have grown with them and they remain a customer to this day.”
She soon outgrew her two-acre plot in Wath and took on a seven-acre prison garden site in Northallerton. But after five years they decided to sell the land for housing, leaving Alison looking for a new home for her business.
“The move to Northallerton really shifted the business upwards but suddenly I was faced with packing up or finding a way I could carry on,” recalls Alison.
“Trevor and Robin Bosomworth had lost their pig and dairy herds as a result of foot and mouth regulations and were looking to diversify.”
Originally they took just ten acres but now have 120 acres of field crops plus poly tunnels, and a chilling and bagging facility in Sandhutton near Thirsk.
They rotate their herbs with Trevor’s potatoes and wheat crops.
Although some of the biggest sellers are still mint (they have eight flavours), basil, parsley and thyme, there is a growing demand for more unusual varieties such as the fine-dining chefs’ favourite, Lemon Verbena.
“The growth in artisan gin making has also seen demand for our specialist herbs grow as people look for different botanicals for their gins,” says Phil .
Phil, who used to love driving the tractor around as a young lad, said he never planned to end up working in the family business.
“After university I spent three years working in Kent growing lettuce,” says Phil, who also spent time working abroad.
But ten years ago he returned home. He is now taking over the reins of Herbs Unlimited at a tricky time.
The majority of the workforce is Eastern European and Brexit has caused a lot of uncertainty.
“Suddenly people who had lived and worked here for years felt they weren’t welcome in the UK,” says Phil, who has been lobbying his MP.
“We rely on people from Eastern Europe as do a lot of industries.”
Phil sees the new growth area in edible flowers.
“The trend for tasting menus and for food to look good as well as taste good has led to an increase in demand for our edible flowers.”
Herbs Unlimited mainly supplies to wholesalers who supply restaurants and hotels across the country,
“You really need two years before a crop is really ready to be harvested, explains Phil.
“Which can be a headache but that’s mother nature for you.”
■ Fresh herbs and edible flowers can now be ordered on line at herbsandflowers.co.uk