We sat down to speak with Paul Rostand, owner of the Great British Biscotti Company, at their bakery in Dorset - and ended up speaking for so long that we both lost our voices. Covering everything from the history of this incredible artisan business, to the state of the high street, to the vital importance of quality – this interview has it all.
Just before we get on to the Great British Biscotti Company, could you tell us a little about yourself?
First and foremost, I love cooking, I love travel, and I’m an out-and-out foodie. I’m half French, a quarter Norwegian, and a quarter English so I guess it’s in my blood. I’m also very much a product person, so throughout my whole life I’ve basically looked at what supermarkets do in terms of product and thought about how it could be improved. I love travelling to the Far East amongst other areas, and when you actually look at the products the supermarkets do there – like Singapore noodles or samosas or bhajis – you see that the quality you get here is pitiful compared to what you get out there. So, my philosophy for my whole life has been about looking at what they do and trying to bring the best of it to as many people as possible.
Before this I had a sales and marketing company, and I’d go to supermarkets and food fairs around the world and look at how we can improve things. Then I’d find a manufacturer of the highest quality somewhere, and then basically import it and sell it to supermarkets over here under their own label. So, I basically helped set up two factories in India producing bhajis, spring rolls, samosas - that sort of thing – and supplied the food service. They were absolutely amazing products. I also set up a farm in Spain, doing mini vegetables – mini cauliflowers, courgettes, that sort of thing. I just love creating things. I love to say “Right, how can we do something better? Let's go and do it.”
"Right, how can we do something better?
Let's go and do it."
What do you think it is about you that drives you to set up so many ventures?
I think it’s just my style – I always go product first. I look at a product and I think “I like that, let’s see if we can do something with it.” And of course, I am obsessed with quality – I’ve always been motivated by giving people the best product I possibly can.
My biggest influence has always been travel. Seeing the quality of flavours and flavour combinations of different countries, and trying to bring those together somehow. Europe to a certain extent has influenced me, but it’s very traditional. The Far East and North America have been much bigger influences. I’ve been inspired by some great flavour combinations, but also textures. Textures are such an important thing. It's very easy to do a flavour, but to incorporate a good texture that balances with that flavour as well – that’s when you get something really special.
"I’ve always been motivated by giving people the best product I possibly can."
So how did the Great British Biscotti Company come about?
This came about when I was introduced to a local person here who was baking biscotti at home and selling it on the market. I saw it had potential and, while the owner wanted to do more with the business, it wasn’t the right time for her to put in the hours required in scaling a start-up. So I bought her out and set up the first bakery. At the time it was called the New Forest Biscotti Company – which was lovely and local and artisan, but lacked the impact necessary to successfully grow and make it profitable. So I rebranded it, which gave us two things: it meant we could make it much less localised to the New Forest and sell it all over the country; and it would also appeal to the export market - to the Far East, Middle East, North America - who love anything British and who also love biscotti.
We started the Great British Biscotti Company in a kitchen about the size of this office [note: it is a modest-sized office] - that was in March 2016. In June 2016, we moved to our first proper industrial unit that we made into a simple bakery. We thought that would last us a year, but in fact that only lasted us to November that year before we had to move again. That’s when we moved to here - simply because we've been growing so rapidly. Even here we've had to expand - we’ve built the mezzanine floor – just to try and get more space and squeeze as much as we can out of it.
It sounds like you have grown very quickly – how did you know that biscotti would be such a good opportunity?
It was by looking at what the Italians had done. The Italians invented biscotti 2,000 years ago - they did an almond biscotti. Apparently, history says it was for the Roman legionnaires that needed dry biscuits that had a shelf life, that was light enough to carry in their backpacks, and that would provide a sweet treat once in a while. These legionnaires were going off around Europe, and that's where the biscotti came from.
The thing is, though, that the Italians only ever did almond biscotti. This holds for a lot of products today – if it’s a traditional product in a country, it will never be changed. That's the way it's done and that's the way it should always be done. So I said – right, let's take the almond biscotti and let's do lots of sweet flavours, and then let’s also introduce the world’s first ever savoury biscotti range, which no one's ever done before. The savoury biscotti actually have so many brilliant usages. Our focus groups said that they would love to eat them with drinks instead of crisps or peanuts, which is why we have called them ‘Nibbles’, but people have found a really wide range of uses for them: canape bases, cheese biscuits, brilliant with charcuterie and platters, croutons for soups and salads – they’re incredibly versatile.
We’ve even got a biscotti that we developed specifically for dunking in tea – which has been traditionally neglected. I realised early on that while there’s something like 72 million cups of coffee drunk every day in the UK, there are about 140 million cups of tea drunk. So, if you can expand in to the tea market then you instantly treble your potential customer base.
The opportunities seemed large to me, but I also didn’t think there was any competition in the market. You should never say you don't have competition, but in terms of directly competing products I really don't we have any at the moment. There are traditional Italian biscotti products but we're so different from them with our range of flavours, and with our savoury version. No-one is driving innovation in this area in the way that we are. Our closest competitors are obviously the premium biscuit market, but I was confident that our product would stand on its own in that segment.
Did you know that there was a market for this range of biscotti before you started out?
As I said earlier, my style is to look at a product and – if I like it - think that I can make it work. It’s a gut instinct as to what I think will work. It’s probably not that I knew it would work, but more that I was confident that I could make it work.
It's probably true that in 90% of cases that you should never try to educate the consumer or give them something new. I've always given them something new, always tried to educate them - and most of the time it's worked. It takes time, it's hard work, but why carry on doing the same thing and have nothing change? It would be so boring.
In a way, it's what's happening to the high street. If you look at the shops, they haven't changed. They’re doing the same thing over and over again, and they go bust. If you look at specialist retailers who do something different - who look and understand and listen to their consumers - they survive, and they have a good business.
The Trade Association in the village that I live in asked me to come in and help, so I said I’d happily do a couple of meetings. I had to tell them that they seem to be sitting back and moaning that they're not busy, and they're blaming their customers for not coming into their shops. When you look at it, though, it’s actually because they're not giving them what they want to make them come into their shops. It's crazy. Look at farm shops. Growth in farm shops has been phenomenal, because they're giving local produce, low food miles, and fresh products that people want - so people go to farm shops.
I remember going to one of the top 3 retailers, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and saying look at this new product. The retailer said “No, my consumer doesn't want that”. I said, what do you mean your consumer doesn't want it when he hasn't even seen it? What you're saying is, you won't put it in front of your consumers to see if they want it. Your consumers don't drive the market, you drive the market by what you put on your shelves. And that's the way it was, and so many companies have stayed in that mindset. And now, they’re paying the price.
So the answer to your question is, if you believe in your product then you have the power to drive the market and create the opportunity for yourself.
"If you believe in your product then you have the power to drive the market and create the opportunity for yourself."
Who are your main customers, and how have they evolved since you started?
We started the Great British Biscotti Company as an artisan brand, and sold our hand-made products through farm shops and delis in the appropriate packaging.
Then when we moved into the second bakery, we got an order from a company in Germany called Foodist. They said they loved our product, saw we had Great Taste awards, and wanted 6,000 packets for Christmas. We thought “Fantastic – 6,000 packets. Absolutely brilliant”. So we bought in bags and we were hand-weighing biscuits in to them, sealing them, and putting in to the box. We didn’t have the volume to be able to pre-print packaging, so we had to put labels on. So I had about 10 people for probably about eight weeks, putting together this order continuously - just doing this one flavour. Meanwhile we're letting other people down who wanted different flavours, but we just couldn't stop and we were getting behind because it was such a slow process. So, that's when I decided to buy a packing machine, which could now do 6,000 in about a day. It paid for itself within four months, considering I previously had 10 people doing it. It's a no-brainer.
It can be terrifying when you’re starting out, making a decision like that. You need to decide early on whether you are going to be a small local producer who grows organically, or if you are going to grow much more quickly. It’s about making the decision between which route you want to go down and then committing to it.
Once we had made the investment, then we had to make sure we were maximising the return – and that meant addressing the seasonality of our demand. We sell a lot more in the last 5 months of the year than the first 7, as our product is quite popular for gifting. So we thought we need to move in to more mainstream supermarkets to balance it out, but we didn’t want to upset the farm shops and delis who love our brand. We did some focus groups and consumer research and we came up with the Artful Baker brand which launched in Asda in July this year. We’re hoping to launch in to other major supermarkets next.
"You need to decide early on whether you are going to be a small local producer who grows organically, or if you are going to grow much more quickly."
How do you balance this need for efficiency with your obvious commitment to quality?
Well, you could fully automate this process, but it’s absolutely key to me to maintain the handmade element of it – the artisan ethos. If you had all machines, you would lose that - and you would lose quality along with it – because the machines do not replicate the same handling of the dough.
There are, however, elements of the process where machines can do it better than humans – like cutting or packaging as I mentioned earlier. For those elements, which have no impact on the quality of the product itself, it makes perfect sense to aim for as much efficiency as possible – and that means automating to speed things up. It’s about using machines only where appropriate.
This is something we continually work on. In order to ensure product quality, we recruit chefs in to our bakery, but we’re taking these chefs from the kitchen to a big factory environment which is totally different for them. So we work a lot on getting them to think of the bigger picture, of continuous improvement. Production is down to how many kilos you get through in a day in order to spread your fixed overhead and reduce the unit cost. It's about realising that you're not catering for an order in a restaurant which may be 10 covers, it’s saying you've got your 10 covers but let's do another 10 and put them up in the warehouse.
As I said before, I want to deliver a quality product to as many people as possible – so that means finding a balance of reducing the unit cost as far as possible but maintaining the quality. Not enough focus on efficiency and people won’t be able to afford your product, but if you impact the quality then that leads to a downward spiral that you can’t get out of. You will quickly lose customers as they won’t want your product.
The question shouldn’t be “Can we make it cheaper?”, the question should always be “Why are we making this cheaper?”. Surely we should all be trying to push the boundaries, to be able to give people the best product we possibly can.
If you look at the places that do well, it's because they've maintained quality - they're giving people what they want. All the brands succeeding at the moment are all about quality.
It’s not all about quality of product either, but also quality of customer service. In fact, we have just been recognised at the Baking Industry Awards in the Customer Focus category which really helps to reinforce everything I have been talking about. Customer service is so important.
"The question shouldn’t be: Can we make it cheaper?
The question should always be: Why are we making this cheaper?"
Has finding this balance been your biggest challenge to date?
I think the biggest challenge has been fundraising. Obviously, you've got two ways to go with a business: you can start and grow organically, or you can get outside investment and drive it quickly. We have done the second option - we've doubled our turnover every year since starting, and next year we should probably treble our turnover.
We’ve gone down the private equity route, which is good but the challenge is about finding the right private equity partner. So, as I said, I've probably spent three to four months a year going through budgets, spreadsheets, projections - basically selling the company to investors. And when that’s on you, it can be really hard. You’ve got a lot of people depending on you to get it right, and all the time you just want to get on with the business.
We’ve had very different experiences in finding investors. The first fund we went through were very happy to invest but didn’t even want to come and see the bakery or look at what they were investing in. To them, we were just a tax efficient investment on their books – which is fair enough, but I look for more in an investor.
The second ones that we're working with now are basically interested in the business, so they come down once every three to six months to see how things are going and we have regular meetings. The important thing is actually finding somebody who: A) buys into what we're trying to sell, buys into product; and B) who's actually interested in the company. At the end of the day, it’s a lonely life having your own business because it is all on your shoulders - so it's just great to have people from the outside to talk to who probably don't have much input, but might have a sensible suggestion. It's just good to be able to talk about the ins and outs of the business, the nitty gritty of the problems, because they want to be kept informed anyway - so you can actually really open up.
"It’s a lonely life having your own business, so it's great to have people from the outside to talk to."
That is great advice. Is there any other advice you would give to business owners at the start of their journey?
I think the thing is - if you're a manufacturer - you've got to always look where you're going to be in one to two years’ time at least. You need to invest now for two years’ time. We've got lots of nice shiny kit down there, but we had to make those investment decisions at the end of 2017. So I had to say, right, this is what we're going to need, we're going to do this budget 12 months down the line - we're going to get Asda on board - so we've got to have these bits of machinery. And then you've got to go out there and find the funding for that, so you've always got to plan in advance of what you're doing.
When we first started, we had a glorified kitchen and we thought “This is fantastic - I’m going to start making biscotti.” But that lasted two months before we had to move somewhere else. The second bakery – our first industrial unit – was 1,500 square feet. We looked at that and thought “Wow, this is big. It should last us at least a year”. But we hadn’t actually sat down and done the numbers to understand “What is big? How much space do you need to be able to produce 80,000 biscuits a day?”.
It’s all about planning in advance. Historical perspective can be very misleading – our second bakery looked huge compared to out first, but it was still nowhere near big enough – which is why you need to work hard at planning what the next few years will really look like.
My second piece of advice would be to believe in yourself and your convictions. It's coming back to that focus again. There are things you can influence and things that you can't, so don't try and fight the things that you can't influence. Make sure you stick with what you can influence - so if you've got your strategy to go forward, you’ve got to stick with it. Understand that you can't control the other things. It’s one of the things I was always taught when I was younger – that a problem is always an opportunity in disguise.
It goes back to the need to educate the consumer in a new product – it’s undoubtedly a challenge but it’s also a huge opportunity if you do it right. There are so many people who still say never try to educate the consumer, but they haven’t moved on and understood the role of social media and how you can have access to millions of people. You can get to the people, you can communicate, and you can educate – but so many people just go back to what is written in the text books. Yes, you need to research your market, but know that you can actually change that market with the power of social media. That’s your opportunity, and that’s something you can genuinely influence.
"Historical perspective can be very misleading, which is why you need to work hard at planning what the next few years will really look like."
Seeing people miss out on potential opportunities must be incredibly frustrating.
Yes – for me, the main frustration when you're selling something as unique as us is finding buyers who are receptive to something new. The big companies are not yet reacting to what's happening at ground level in terms of artisan new products and new thinking, because they just want to carry on doing the same thing. They’ll tender it out every two years and take the easy way out, and it’s lazy.
It’s frustrating how people just repeat what they have always done without moving things forward or taking a calculated risk. It would be easy for us to do, but I am forever questioning our product. “Is it good enough? Is the taste good enough?” We are continuously working on recipes. I’ll say to the chef “This product...how can we make it better?” - always looking and trying to continuously improve. Improving the quality of the product does add cost, but if we can make it a better texture or better flavour or better bite, let’s do it. It’s not saying “Right, we’ve developed that so let's sit back and go and sell it”, because that's not good enough - you've got to keep progressing it. I think my frustration comes when other people don’t share that same belief.
"It’s not saying “Right, we’ve developed that so let's sit back and go and sell it”.
That's not good enough.
You've got to keep progressing it."
You mention people not reacting to what’s happening at ground level – what trends are you seeing emerging?
To me, the fundamental emerging trend is basically localism - giving your customers what they want - whether it's biscotti, cheese, customer service, or anything. It’s actually looking at the consumer, asking what they really want, and giving it to them. The companies that do that will succeed. As long as you have the quality, it doesn't matter the specific characteristics of your product because everyone can carve out a niche. I can carve out a niche in a fully-leaded high carbohydrate product because it's indulgent and people will have it, and someone else could specialise in gluten-free biscotti for that 2% of the market. It's just giving your consumer what they want.
"Look at the consumer, ask what they really want, and give it to them."
Do you think this trend is being enabled more by social media?
Absolutely – the ability to know your consumer nowadays is fantastic. We do social media very badly because we don't have the capacity to invest the time in it that you need to. We're going to get a salesperson on board in the next few months, and then the next person after that will be somebody totally on social media to communicate with our consumer. Our product is fantastic and we want to give people the opportunity to discover it.
"The ability to know your consumer nowadays is fantastic."
What else does the future hold for the Great British Biscotti Company?
As I’ve said before, I want to educate people in biscotti and in our indulgent, artisan product. I want people to realise that it's not hard, dull, Italian Biscotti. There's so much more to do with it, particularly with the savoury product because it's so new. Take cheese biscuits. At the moment you’ve got crackers, crackers and crackers and they’re largely tasteless. Our biscotti are brilliant because they're like a cracker, but they've got texture and they've got flavour.
What's just as important to me, though, are the people that work here. I love the people. At my last company I employed 15 people, and most of them worked for me for over 20 years. To me, it's the team, it’s the environment - that's what the heart of the business is. You manage to support people and families locally, and also develop a good business. It's a big responsibility for me to make sure that the business becomes profitable and we grow, to be able to continue to support as many people as possible.
"It's a big responsibility for me to make sure that the business grows, to be able to continue to support as many people as possible."
And how about for your personally – do you think you’ll ever be able to take a step back?
Yes, definitely. I think you have to. I will always be completely involved of course, but you can’t continue to do everything yourself as a business grows. We're very close to it, in fact. We'll get the salesperson on board which will be a great help on that side, and we're very close to getting a production manager to look after the bakery side – that will allow me to get on with doing my bit of having the overview and running the business.
It will be an interesting time because I'm a hands-on type person, so it takes a while to get the confidence in somebody before I can delegate something. At the same time, though, we don't have the resources to mollycoddle – so we have to have people come in and hit the ground running.
"When you don't have huge resources, you have to have people come in and hit the ground running."
Could you share a couple of other insights in to your management style: how do you deal with uncertainty, for example?
As an individual, you have uncertain moments but you have just got to quickly park it. To drive and build a business you've just got to be straightforward, so you’ve just got to constantly push the uncertainty back.
As for uncertainty in the business – you’ve got to have your vision and do what it is that you think you should be doing. The danger is that you can start bringing uncertainties in to the business, and things that you have no influence over. You can plan to a certain extent, and you can maybe look to hedge some of your risks, but it's about keeping an eye on what's going on out there but really focusing on your business. Maybe tweak bits here and there if you think something's going to happen, but don’t overreact. Have your eyes open, but find the balance. If you listen to everything that could possibly happen then you’d end up closing the business now – and you have to remember that not every trend becomes the future. There’s a lot going on around you and you've just got to keep focused and believe in what you started. Obviously, if you notice a very strong influence then divert course or make the adjustment, but I think the fundamental thing is you’ve got to keep focused. It helps if you really believe in your product. If you've got something relatively unique, then it can really help to shelter you to a certain extent.
"You have to remember that not every trend becomes the future."
And how do you go about making business decisions?
Gut instinct. When I was younger, I think I used to spend a lot more time evaluating pros and cons and thinking “If I did this, what would happen?”, “If I did that, what would happen?”. I think with years of experience you get to that process far quicker. I think the food industry typically goes in cycles and once you’ve been up and down one or two of those cycles you know what they are and it gives you that ammunition to actually understand what's happening in the market.
In my previous business, we worked in spans - so we basically reinvented our business every three to five years to fit in with the cycles of change within supermarkets. We also, because of my nature, jumped from one product to another that wasn't necessarily in the same category. It was really a case of reinventing a new business to say “We've done that, what can we do for the next cycle?”.
I’m very much a gut instinct person, and it usually comes out in the results fairly quickly whether the decision you made was it the right one. You are continually reviewing what is and is not working as you need to have the humility to be able to backtrack if you got it wrong. To be able to say “I tried it that way but it hasn’t worked out”. You owe it to the people who work here to review and get it right.
"You need to have the humility to be able to backtrack if you get it wrong."
And finally, what do you think makes a good plan for a business?
First and foremost, you need to ask yourself who the plan is for. When we originally went for funding, we obviously had our business plan and our budgets and I was told that I had been too pessimistic. My attitude was – and still is - that I'm taking somebody else's money, and I don't want to be over optimistic. I never want to be one of those companies you see on crowd funding platforms that they haven't sold a product, and yet that have a valuation in the millions. For me it’s about being honest and open and realistic with your investors.
A three-year business plan, to me, is a very long time. I mean, three months is a long time. Don’t overthink it. For a start-up you have to adapt continually. Have a broad outline, which - if you’re a business owner - I would surprised if you don’t have in your head already anyway. It’s good to put it down in writing so you can share it with other people, but make the level of detail appropriate and make sure you are constantly reviewing it.
A financial plan is different. It’s very important, as you have to be looking at your cashflow and your big investment decisions and you need that level of detail. The overarching business plan, though, will continuously be changing.
In my opinion, it’s always better to be pessimistic. Not only does it effectively mean you are planning on a worst-case basis, it also means you don’t lose credibility with an over-ambitious plan.
"A financial plan is very important. You have to be looking at your cashflow and your big investment decisions. You need that level of detail."
Quick Fire Questions
Instinct or facts? Instinct
Cost or quality? Quality
Plan or improvise? Both. It’s sensible to plan, but you need to improvise when things don’t go to plan
Tea or coffee? Coffee
Artificial intelligence: good or bad? Bad
Sweet or savoury? Sweet
Start early or finish late? Both
Carrot or stick? Carrot
Risk lover or risk averse? Risk averse
Compete or collaborate? Collaborate
Summer or Winter? Winter. It’s the Norwegian in me
Do it on paper or do it on screen? Screen
Cat or dog? Dog