Yorkshire food and drink entrepreneurs to inspire ‘next big things’ at York conference

From Wensleydale Cheese to Yorkshire Tea, the Broad Acres has an international reputation as purveyors of some of the finest food and drink in the world.

Karl Mason, director and co-founder of Masons Gin, pictured at the distillery in Bedale. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Karl Mason, director and co-founder of Masons Gin, pictured at the distillery in Bedale. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

As well as established brands, Yorkshire is a hotbed for smaller independent family-run producers, from farmers and growers through to alcohol distillers and brewers.

Together, these businesses and their products reflect Yorkshire’s diverse geography and entrepreneurial spirit, and they play an important economic role too.

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Government figures show that the region’s food and drink manufacturing sector generates £7.1bn in turnover annually, accounting for 12 per cent of the sector’s turnover nationally. In Yorkshire, the sector employs an estimated 52,700 people across more than 1,300 workplaces.

Andrew Keeble, founder of Heck Food at Kirklington, North Yorkshire. Picture by James Hardisty.

The secrets of what it takes to build a successful food and drink company in the region will be the focus of the York Food and Drink conference at the Principal hotel in York on Friday next week (March 8).

One of the speakers will be Karl Mason, who, with his wife Cathy, has built up Masons Gin in Bedale from scratch. Devoid of any prior industry experience and in less than six years, they have established Masons as a premium artisan gin producer with a £3m-plus turnover and a team of 40 staff. They produced 250,000 bottles of gin last year.

Mr Dixon said: “It takes enthusiasm and an absolute love of the product you have created to be a success. Without that you are just another person with a label on a product.

“If you have a good product, enthusiasm and a passion for it, you will get a level of success.”

Grzegorz Zmudzki watching bottles of Yorlife Kefir come off the production line at Yorvale at Acaster Malbis near York.

Mr Dixon worked in publishing and Mrs Dixon in education before they pursued their love of gin. It took “constant perseverance” and “an overwhelming desire” to make their own product to propel them to success, Mr Dixon said, explaining: “When we came to sell, we didn’t have a clue but we had created Yorkshire’s first gin. We’d done it properly through our passion, despite having no money or contacts.

“Our only connection was with a manageress in one small delicatessen. We marketed ourselves on Twitter, had coverage in the press, including The Yorkshire Post, and stockists started to ring us.”

Other success stories will be shared at the event in York, including by Andrew Keeble, founder of Heck Food in Kirklington, near Bedale, and Lesley Buxton, of Yorvale Ice Cream, who with husband Ian diversified their small dairy farm on the outskirts of York 30 years ago.

Heck is a more recent venture. Since 2013 it has become a leading sausage brand with a turnover of £30m.

Mr Keeble believes there is plenty of evidence to show that Yorkshire is the place to be for any aspiring food and drink businesses.

“Food manufacturing has never been stronger particularly in Yorkshire which has more food businesses than any other county,” he said, despite a tough 12 months for the industry.

Nationally, since the start of 2018, net confidence in food and drink manufacturing has fallen by 32 per cent, with rising packaging and ingredient costs cited as major concerns.

Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, who will also speak at next week’s conference, said: “Right now, Brexit uncertainty is not helping. Some companies are stockpiling goods and ingredients but in general, conditions are still very good.

“Yorkshire is one of the capitals of food and drink and this is one of the few industries that has a limitless market. Everybody has to eat and drink!”

Other confirmed speakers at the event include Stephen Noblett, trade advisor at the Department for International Trade, Liam Spivey, business manager at Castle Howard Farm Shop and Darren Seward, a food and drink manufacturing specialist at insurance firm and conference sponsors, NFU Mutual.

See Country Week in The Yorkshire Post this weekend for the full inside story of Yorvale Ice Cream’s success at Acaster Malbis on the edge of York.