A Sheffield family whose firm made the famous Sutherland’s potted meat paste are back with a new upmarket product that has its colourful founder at its roots. Catherine Scott reports.
Mary Sutherland started making potted meat in the candlelit cellar of her Sheffield home in the 1920s as a sandwich filling for her travelling salesman husband Eddie.
Little could she have imagined that such a humble product made of nothing but beef, salt, butter and her secret spice recipe could become a household staple included in millions of packed lunches.
And now the grandson and great-grandson of ‘Granny Mary’ as she was dubbed, are back in the food business, but this time making up pates and terrines for chefs and the hospitality industry.
It might be a modern product for a modern market but Alistair and William Sutherland, Eddie and Mary’s grandson and great-grandson, say it would have got Granny Mary’s seal of approval.
“It’s homemade but just on a bigger scale,” says Alistair. “Everything in our terrines is natural and quality comes before price, it is the ethos Mary had all those years ago.”
Alistair is in the process of writing a book about his family’s history and he recalls the moment when the company was born when Eddie was working as a salesman for Lyon’s Tea in Yorkshire.
“Eddie and his horse Froggy pulling the cart were a familiar sight around Sheffield in the early 1920s,” explains Alistair.
“One day he reluctantly gave one of his sandwiches to a customer who loved it so much he said he could sell the potted meat in his shop.”
Other customers followed suit and so Eddie would sell Mary’s potted meat as he did his Lyons Tea rounds.
But when he was finally caught out by a supervisor and lost his job with Lyon’s Eddie, who was a talented artist, swapped a painting for a motorbike and sidecar that he used for deliveries until he could afford a van.
Initially Mary continued to make the potted beef in the cellar of their home every day for three years, getting up at 4.30am to fill the orders before getting their three young children, Keith Peter and Joan (little sister Josie followed later), ready for school.
She used home-minced beef, her secret blend of spices and a pinch of salt, with clarified butter on the top to seal in the spread.
“Realising the product’s sales potential, Eddie set up his own business in 1927 to produce and distribute potted meats and went on to establish a multi-million-pound brand that was eventually sold to a European food giant,” says Alistair.
A true Yorkshireman, Eddie did tamper with Mary’s recipe by adding cereal to it which was a golden colour and gave Alistair the name for his book, Yorkshire Gold.
“I’m not sure Mary would have approved but she was a quiet woman who came from a strict background and probably wouldn’t have said anything. Eddie was an early entrepreneur and could see a market for the product and adding the cereal meant it would go further and he could make more money.”
Mary Sutherland (nee Bullas) was from a large Sheffield family and her grandfather Joseph Dyson was a well-known lay preacher who spoke out against alcohol.
“He urged hard work, self-sacrifice and perseverance to keep families together. His parents always taught their children that “family matters”, says Alistair who worked for a while with his grandfather who worked well into his nineties.
The firm’s first slogan was ‘Sutherland’s makes better sandwiches’, painted on to shop windows.
Eddie found his first salesman, John Parkinson, when he sold him the tyres for his first Model T Ford delivery van.
Alistair describes his grandfather as a driven and no-nonsense, a bit of a maverick but a fair man with his growing workforce at the first factory in Huntsman Road, Darnall.
The firm did so well that the family moved out to Hathersage Hall in the summer of 1935, which Alistair said that Mary was reluctant to do at first as ‘she preferred to keep her feet on the ground.’ She recognised how far this new life was from her tiny cellar in Darnall.
By this time she was no longer working for the company, and so could devote herself to the house and family. Eddie, known by this time as Mr ET, thought that horse riding was good for everyone’s health and joined the High Peak hunt. His sons, especially Peter, shared his love of riding.
In 1954, Peter Sutherland, Eddie Sutherland’s son started to produce a range of excellent spreads in glass jars. This was a separate company called Sutherland Foods Ltd. By 1963 this company was producing over a million jars a week, and was acquired by Quaker oats in November 1963. Finally Sutherland’s foods was acquired by Shippams in 2003 and was closed.
Gradually the family became established in the Peak District social scene.They also enjoyed trips abroad, fast cars and sea cruises in the good years that followed.
After the firm was sold off in the 1980s, Alistair still produced what he calls “the straight stuff” to Mary’s original recipe as gifts for family and friends, while carrying on his grandfather’s love of cars by pursuing his ‘hobby’ of being a rally driver.
“It started as a hobby but it became more serious than that when the business was sold,” says Alistair who went on to become a professional rally driver. With co-driver Peter Watts he won the 1986 Marlboro National Rally Championships. He wrote a book aboutit called Chance of A Lifetime.
But when Alistair was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease it put and end to his rally driving career. “It is a dangerous enough sport without having Parkinson’s,” says Alistair who also inherited his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I first mentioned making sandwiches to my elder brother Nick in 1986, when I wanted to buy a small business in Chesterfield, making sandwiches. I was informed ‘who would buy a sandwich when it was so easy to make your own’.”
E.T Sutherland plc is now owned by Greencore PLC, and is one of the largest sandwich producers in the world, making over 15 million sandwiches and ready meals a week.
Four years ago Alistair’s son William came up with the idea of reviving the family brand.
They couldn’t use the family name as the rights have been sold so instead they named the potted meat after its founder – Granny Mary’s Original Recipes with a picture of her on the label.
“When I left the business when we sold it I took a bowl cutter with me so that I could still make potted beef for family and friends.
“William grew up eating potted beef,” recalls Alistair.
“He wanted to be a chartered surveyor and the next minute he says he wants to make potted beef.”
Then last year the father and son team decided to develop a Pro Chef range of terrines for the catering industry. Prochef, which took off immediately, is designed for chefs in busy pubs and restaurants: the recipes are of exceptional quality and sold in modern bespoke moulds that make life easier in a hectic professional kitchen.
With this new approach and by investing heavily in new high quality premises at the Storforth Lane trading estate in Chesterfield with support from Sheffield City Region Growth Hub, the business is now winning national orders and being stocked in five wholesalers across Britain.
“We may be growing the business again but the ethos is the same as it was all those years ago when Granny Mary was making potted meat in her cellar. Great quality with nothing artificial added.” The influence of the past is clear in the new factory where state-of-the art machinery is adjacent to photographs of Granny Mary and the Sutherland brand through the years. The business’s website even has video footage of Mary and Eddie.
“My grandfather had one of the first cine-cameras and my dad put them onto video,” says Alistair. “She was an amazing woman Granny Mary would definitely have approved of what we are doing.”